Backstage Character Pass — William Cartwright

Every writer has their favourites.

We love all our characters equally, of course, and all differently. Some (Chris) have deeply personal roots in our own souls. Some (Rachel) are such a labour of love to get right that every word is precious. And some (Olivia) are just damn fun to write. But deep down in our hearts, I think we all have one that we knew we’d save from a fire if we had to choose.

For me, that’s William Cartwright.

Will’s origin story is definitely the oddest of my main cast.

Part of constructing the world of Darrington City was embedding fun mystery-solving avenues into the world. The gift of timeseeing let me roll a lot of modern detective tech into one. Namely: video surveillance, DNA testing, and fingerprinting. The ability to get a glimpse into the crime scene at the time the crime happened.Timeseeing itself was fully fleshed out very early on.

But the timeseer was kind of an amorphous blob. I knew she (yes, she!) had to be a major character in the grand scheme, an integral part of the core cast. Otherwise, her abilities would seem too convenient whenever they were wheeled out. Beyond that, I just decided I’d get to her when she arrived. My original outline for The Deathsniffer’s Assistant even has a line for the scene in which Will first appears – “meet timeseer character (flesh her out later.)”

I’m a predictable beast.When I give myself permission to do something “later,” it always ends the same way. I get to the scene in question and still haven’t decided what to do. So it happened with my timeseer. Olivia and Chris entered the room, looked my amorphous blob in the eyes, and right then and there my blob needed a name, a face, a history, and a personality.

I’d kind of haphazardly assigned a few traits to my blob in the back of my head. She was going to be soft, beautiful, spiritual, and gentle. A little bit fey. Not quite connected to what was going on around her, always living in the pasts that she could see. I’d kind of stuck a name to her, too, scribbled on a post-it note and stuck to the blob. Hannah.

Tire screeches right about now. Doesn’t this sound a lot like Will’s handler, the soft-spoken and gorgeous Officer Hannah Burke?

Why, yes! Yes it does.

As Olivia and Chris looked the blob in the eyes, it occurred to me that Chris was the only major male character in the core cast. And I didn’t really like my spiritual, listless timeseer. I didn’t have a sense of who she really was beyond a list of traits I thought would be interesting to write. There was nothing to pull them together. I had no sense of her as a person at all.

So I rolled everything way back. Square one. I looked at what a timeseer was. Someone with the rarest, most valuable categorization. Someone whose magic was almost mythical in a world where magic is nothing. The one gift that’s still “special.” What would someone with that ability be like?

art of the ponce by

Uh, well, they’d be kind of a ponce.

And then – bam. Fireworks in my brain, and like Athena out of Zeus’s forehead, William Cartwright appeared. A puff of smoke, a trill of fanfare, and an entire character was standing where the blob had been. I didn’t slowly discover Will, his history, his motivations, his personality, his backstory. In one moment he was not. And in the next, he was.

I think this is why he’s so special to me. I have to think very hard about my characters, about all the little pieces that make them who they are. I’ve only very recently finalized the last details of Olivia’s childhood! It takes time to assemble truly human characters. But it wasn’t like that with William. As soon as I discovered him, I discovered all of him. And, not content to just be a talking surveillance camera, he pushed himself into every last corner of the story.

It’s hard not to love a character with that much agency over his fate.

I kind of think of Will as a chihuahua. When you first meet him, you’re taken in by how tiny he is and how he looks so decorative. How cute! But just like the dog, Will’s territorial, cranky, peckish, and furiously loyal to a very small group – so loyal, in fact, that he’s willing to make anyone outside that group his enemy. Lots of bark and lots of bite in a package so small and adorable it’s hard to take seriously. But underestimating Will is a bad idea. He’ll mess you up, mate.

As you might be able to guess from the title, The Timeseer’s Gambit is Will’s book in a lot of ways. His appearances in The Deathsniffer’s Assistant are few, but I’ve been told quite a few times that he makes a really strong impression. I absolutely can’t wait until you get to know him better in the sequel. You’ll find out where he and Chris know one another from, and really get into some meat of his character. I hope you all love him as much as I do!

What did you think of Will? Are you looking forward to unpacking his mysteries and finding out where he knows Chris from and why Chris doesn’t remember him? And do you agree with what some readers have theorized – that there’s some attraction going on between the two young men?

Other Backstage Character Passes:


Backstage Character Pass — Rachel Albany

[This Backstage Character Pass contains some very minor SPOILERS for The Deathsniffer’s Assistant! Read at your own risk.]

No character deviated more from their original plan than Rachel Albany.

I’ve written about how The Deathsniffer’s Assistant originally started as a NaNoWriMo side project without an outline that I later realized had some potential. What I haven’t talked about is how much of the book changed between those mile markers. While I picked it back up and continued writing more or less where I left off, the very fabric and intent of the novel had changed.

The original novel didn’t have the Floating Castle.

Michael and Julia Buckley had been killed in a carriage accident. There was no larger plot, no political landscape, no depression, and no conspiracy. It was just the val Daren murder.

While I left the novel fallow, those ideas began to sprout and bloom. The murders themselves weren’t enough to hold up the book. I didn’t want to just tell murder mysteries in a fantasy setting. I wanted something bigger. Parents dying in a silly accident didn’t provide my narrator enough baggage or motivation, and with no overarching mystery for the main characters to solve, the series lacked a mission statement.

This is when the Floating Castle was born.

The details of that story are for another time. But the birth of the Floating Castle was also the birth of the Miss Albany who reached the presses.

I immediately knew that I needed a character representing the reformist point of view. An important part of making a conflict seem human is personifying it. I needed someone the audience respected and trusted to voice the views of the reformist camp – and more importantly, to trust the reformist leader, Dr. Livingstone. A major plot point hinged on the audience believing the doctor was a good man, and a character who could grandfather him into the story was necessary.

Even from the first draft, the Miss Albany character existed. But she was different, a pinched older woman, severe and intense with a completely different backstory. I didn’t want to create a new character, so I decided to have Miss Albany perform double duty.

And then I thought – well, since we’re already tinkering, why not triple duty?

See, I knew from moment one that I wanted Chris and Olivia to have an extremely intimate relationship that readers would see flourish over time. I also knew that I wanted absolutely no romantic connection between them. Their relationship would have to be completely platonic. The age difference, power difference, and fundamental personality conflicts between them was a part of that, but it was more. I wanted to explore how platonic relationships can be as meaningful and as important as romantic ones. I wanted to show a sexually compatible man and woman forming a deep connection without sex being an aspect of it. And, most importantly, I wanted Olivia to never become subservient – in any way – to Chris or Chris’s development.

I had to remove all risk of subtext, make it obvious to the reader that there was no romantic attraction between the Deathsniffer and her assistant. And the easiest way to do that is to show how they act around someone they are attracted to.

So: Rachel.

Three separate character ideas became one complete character: a governess for Rosemary, a romantic interest for Christopher, and a reformist sympathizer for the audience. She had to be someone Rosemary would initially resent, later respect, and eventually love. She had to be someone Chris would want, but also someone who would challenge his preconceptions. And she had to be implicitly trustworthy: forthright, stubborn and strong-willed.

Rachel became one of the most vital characters to the series as a result of this compound mission statement. She also became the most challenging to write. A single character pulling triple duty is economical writing, but it’s also tough. Rachel had to be playing all three roles in equal measure while still pursuing her own personal agenda. Finding the balance between her three roles in the story and her agency was tough, and no character has undergone more revisions in either book than Rachel.

MTWX’s gorgeous art shows the different faces of Rachel Albany.

The most important piece of advice I always want to give new writers is that they shouldn’t be so afraid of a first draft. I see so many writers struggle with fear of starting. And I want to tell them all that first draft is so mutable. (I talk about this a lot in my Getting Out of the Labyrinth series, especially Writing Part 1 and Writing Part 2.) Your book is going to change so much! And that’s not only fine, it’s awesome. Nothing is more inspiring than the knowledge that your work can still grow and adapt as you write. No word you write is written in stone. And I think Rachel is a great example of how much change can happen and how positive it can be!

I love all of my characters, and appreciation for any of them makes my day. But it’s curious. If I had to pick a favourite, it wouldn’t be Rachel. And yet, when someone tells me that she’s their favourite, nothing else makes me happier. Rachel is such a challenging character. Writing her is never effortless. I constantly have to work on juggling so many things while she’s onscreen. So when I hear that she really worked for someone, it’s crazy rewarding!

In The Timeseer’s Gambit, you’ll get to see Rachel more relaxed and comfortable in her position as Rosemary’s nanny. She and Chris have gotten to know one another better and their dynamic has subtly changed. You’re also going to learn quite a bit more about her infamous brother, the mysterious Garrett Albany you heard so much about in the first book. Look forward to it!

Have any comments, questions, or just something to say about Miss Rachel Albany? Let me know! I love hearing from my fans.

Other Backstage Character Passes:

Getting Out of the NaNoWriByrinth — Five Lesson I Learned While Writing a Novel in November

It’s that time of year.

Aspirational writers, hobby writers, published writers, and fanfiction writers all come together for the month of November. We descend like a horde of locusts upon the internet, taking over social media with our hashtags, word count widgets, and blog posts. ‘Tis the season for commiseration, advice and encouragement.

crest-05e1a637392425b4d5225780797e5a76November is National Novel Writing Month, when writers of all kinds and types try to write a novel in thirty days! Or… to write 50 000 words in thirty days. There’s some debate over which is the main goal. More on that later. But one thing is for certain: you want to write a lot in a short time.

I first tried NaNo in my early twenties. I only got ten thousand words – two chapters – into the book in question. I tried again off and on for years. Three unfinished manuscripts are lying about on old hard drives, the skeletal remains of NaNos both failed and succeeded.

There’s also one other. It’s called the Deathsniffer’s Assistant, and you might have read it.

To my knowledge, I’m the only published author in my circles who’s both finished and pubbed a NaNo project. And I learned a lot about NaNo that I want to share with those aspirational writers who really want to get a book out there.

To those working NaNo for the pure joy of if – this isn’t for you! Do whatever makes you happy! But for those who want to put words into something they can eventually show to an agent, here are some things that I learned.

1. Treat your NaNo prep like you’d treat prep for any other novel.

NaNoWriMo puts forward a “justgo” attitude. Don’t worry about if it’s good. Just blank out and write. And that’s NaNo’s strength. But if you’re trying to get something out there, I recommend checking out my Getting out of the Labyrinth series, especially the posts on planning and outlining. Have a plan! “Justgo” doesn’t mean swan diving gracefully to your inevitable failure. Writing is a journey, and any successful journey needs a some sort of map. I’ve gotten lost in too many NaNo projects that I thought I didn’t need one for.

2. Writing 50 000 words is good. Writing a novel is better.

I think a lot of people put too much emphasis on the magic number, and not enough on the key word. It’s national novel writing month. Not national dick around until you have 50 000 words month. Too many times, I just wrote a whole lot of words, padding my word count with fluff and avoiding contractions so that I could say I arrived at the finish line. I have 25 000 words of just two chapters in one NaNo grave. That’s appalling.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: measuring progress by word count is fine, but measuring progress by progress is better. Your goal in NaNo should be to either write a novel or writing a big chunk of a novel. If you’ve got a NaNo graveyard of your own, try to switch it up this year. Maybe just ignore that magic 50 altogether. Aim for ten of twenty outlined chapters, instead!

Shooting for actual progress instead of a numerical target encourages economical writing over padded writing, and you’ll end up with something much closer to real novel status when December hits.

3. NaNo rules suggest you start something new. I suggest you work on something old.

The Deathsniffer’s Assistant was a NaNo project twice, in fact. The first time I went in without an outline or real plans and ended up with three overlong chapters and no direction. Two years later, when I attempted the project again, I picked up where I left off (with an outline this time) instead of starting something new. NaNoWriMo official rules say you shouldn’t work on something already in progress, but I needed another unfinished manuscript like I needed a hole in the head. If you’ve got a bunch of stalled projects lying around that you want to keep working on, it might do you more good to put another 50k words into one of those than to just add something else to the pile.

4. Celebrate well-earned victory, but don’t let it be the end of the journey.

50 000 words is a little long for a novella, but quite short for a novel. If you’re working on something intended for publication, it’s very likely that you won’t be at the end of your outline when you reach the magic number. And the temptation when you hit it is to drink a bottle of wine and take a bubble bath… and leave the novel behind. Don’t give in! You succeeded at NaNo, but until you have a completed project under your belt, nothing is finished. I abandoned The Deathsniffer’s Assistant for eight months after reaching 50k on it during that second NaNo, and the longer I let it sit, the harder it was to get back to it. Let your November be a running start towards the discipline and momentum that’s really needed to be successful in writing.

5. Don’t forget about those all important revisions.

Even if you finish a novel in November, your novel is not done. NaNo encourages functional writing, focusing on quantity and speed. It’s a great way to marathon yourself into a lot of words – and a terrible, terrible way to get a finished product. Even an amazing first draft is a first draft. Many agents live in fear of their slush piles in December and January, wincing whenever the dreaded NaNoWriMo is mentioned in a cover letter. Cool your jets and take some time to workshop and revise your finished project before trying to introduce it to the world. Let that paper baby grow up – don’t just throw it into the world the moment it’s born.

For more writing tips, check out my Getting out of the Labyrinth series, where I take stalled writers step by step through the lessons I learned from planning to publication. For all of you doing NaNoWriMo this month, good luck! Don’t listen to anyone tell you that nothing good can ever come from November. It did for me! Just be smart and be realistic. This November might be the year your book dreams come true!

Backstage Character Pass — Rosemary Buckley

Ah, Rosemary.

All my characters seem to be polarizing except for her. Depending on who is talking, Olivia can be an empowering riot or an unreadable monster. Chris can be a well written beta male or a grating self-congratulatory dandy. Rosemary, though? There is a very clear consensus on Rosemary.

She’s a spoiled brat.

rosemary's aesthetic was inspired greatly by victorian porcelain dolls.
rosemary’s aesthetic was inspired greatly by victorian porcelain dolls.

Some hate Chris for being a terrible parental figure and letting her get to this point. Some skip right over Chris and get down to hating Rosie herself. In fact, there’s only one reader I can think of who really, really likes Rosemary – and I’ll get to him later.

First, I want to talk about the origin of the character. I said in my Maris backstage pass that except for Chris and Olivia, every major character in the book either joined the cast halfway through or deviated wildly from their original sketch. Rosemary is in the latter category. When I conceptualized the character, I had something a little more… delicate in mind. Initially named Rosaline, Chris’s gifted sister was of the ethereal waif archetype, an odd and spiritual eight-year-old girl, dreamy and fey and strange. She lived more on the elemental plane than in the real world and needed protecting from her own nature as much as from the outside forces closing in around her.

I tried to write that character. And there was really no moment when the dainty Rosaline became the precocious Rosemary. It was just that the character I was trying to write just refused to stick.

Rosaline would not go down on paper. She kept developing an attitude and getting older. Her wispy blonde curls wouldn’t become a solid image in my mind, and I kept having visions of an imperious little devil-child with jet black bouncing curls and a face like a porcelain doll.

There was also the issue of agency. Rosaline sat wrong with me. She had no real will of her own, and was so ghostly and sweet that no conflict would arise between her and Chris. Chris could handle Rosaline in a way that he can’t handle Rosemary, and it was just too easy. Becoming a parent when you’re only fifteen shouldn’t be easy. I wanted Chris to make mistake and I wanted his sister to be an entity who exerted her own will on the story – and on Chris himself.

So I started to write something more comfortable for me.

When my own younger sister was five years old, she demanded that the husky nine-year-old  boy who lived down the street get out of “her”chair. When he didn’t immediately obey, she grabbed him by his shirt, threw him onto the floor, and climbed up in his place, smiling happily. He ran all the way home crying.

They say to “write what you know,” don’t they?

I know what it’s like to have a little sister who’s a handful and a half. My own little Rosemary was my closest companion and the constant bane of my existence. We were the best of friends and she drove me crazy. To me, that’s what little sisters are. Strong-willed, stubborn little monsters who want everything, think they deserve even more, and make you love them so much it hurts even while you want to strangle them. I couldn’t conceptualize a little sister like Rosaline. So Rosaline became Rosemary.

Oh, and that one lone reader who adores little Rosie?

That would be our dad.

Rosemary isn’t just an expy of my sister, of course. They’re very different people. For instance: when people call Rosie a spoiled brat, they’re right. She is, from her head to her toes. She’s what Chris has made her into. Unlike my own sister, who I only had to take care for occasional nightmarish babysitting sessions, Rosemary was essentially raised by a teenage boy. Chris loves her so much it hurts, but he’s never had any how to handle her. He’s done the best he can, but she’d be a hard child for even two experienced and devoted adults to raise. Chris’s love for Rosie and his desire to keep her pliant led to him giving her everything she wanted. Never good parenting strategy. Fernand’s firmer hand only went so far when he was willing to cede to Chris himself.

Rosemary is a tough character to write – harder than Rosaline would have been. None of my characters are designed for likeability, but Rosie takes that to an extreme. And yet, for the story to work, I needed readers to buy Chris’s love for her. I needed them to see how much he loved her and how much she could be hurt by the factions lining up to use her. I needed them to see that Chris is a terrible parental figure while also respecting all he’s given up and how hard he’s tried. It’s really tough to evoke all these conflicting reactions, especially on a character carrying so much of the narrator’s motivations on her shoulders.

But I think Rosemary is a more rewarding character in the long run. It’s easy to make readers care about a cherubic, spiritual little waif. The reason that character is so overused in fantasy is because she’s easy. But I’ve always love young female characters like Malta Vestrit of Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings books, or Sansa Stark from George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire: girls who are too “difficult,” too spoiled, too spirited. Those characters go on to grow and change and make a reader think twice about dismissing them. I’m hoping Rosemary will succeed in the same way.

In The Timeseer’s Gambit, you’ll get to see Rosemary taking those first steps toward increased maturity. She’s got a long road ahead of her, but I hope in the end she’ll have been worth it.

Let me know what you think of Rosemary in the comments!

Other Backstage Character Passes:

Backstage Character Pass — Maris Dawson

Chris and Olivia are the only two characters who were both planned to be in the book and came out the way they were initially planned. Everyone else either joined the cast later on, or deviated wildly from their original concept.

Officer Maris Dawson is one of the former.

There’s exactly one reason that Maris broke into the book. While finishing up my outline and making sure it was going to work – this was once I already had over ten thousand words written! – I came to an unfortunate realization: The Deathsniffer’s Assistant didn’t pass the Bechdel test.

The test is a simple bit of feminist critical theory that started as a joke by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in the 1980s. It has three criteria. In order to pass, a piece of media has to have:

1. At least two female characters,
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something other than a man.

Passing Bechdel doesn’t mean that something is feminist. And failing doesn’t mean that something is bad. But it’s a very low bar to set and it’s shocking just how few movies, books, video games, and so forth actually pass it.

It didn’t seem possible that I could fail the test. I strongly identify as a feminist and work hard to ensure my female characters are diverse, interesting, and have their own agendas. Considerably more of my cast is female than male! But as I went through the list of characters in my first book and compared them against the outline, I came to a pretty startling realization.

Rosemary, Evelyn and Analaea val Daren, and Vanessa Caldwell all interacted at least once with Olivia. But each time, they were discussing a man. The murder victim in the first book is male, and Olivia’s interactions with these characters were either about him or Christopher. Rachel and Rosemary’s interaction all happens offscreen and is communicated to Chris by one or the other. Somehow, while I had passed the first two qualifiers with flying colours, I’d utterly failed the third. It became obvious that I was going to need to add another female character, someone with a more personal relationship to one of my leads, if I was going to pass the test.

tumblr_nudthe1rlL1urkoeko1_1280I identified a bit of world-building I’d glossed over. I’d decided early on that investigators were beholden to the police, who used them as independent contractors and outsourced their cases. The sudden permission to create another character let me explore that a bit, and I decided that Olivia needed a supervisor.

And then Maris kind of just… happened. The moment I realized that she should exist, she did exist. A stern, tough, handsome redhead, burly and indelicate and dry. Faux-Scottish with a rough brogue, contrasting Olivia’s sharp-tongued English way of speaking. Someone who would have no tolerance for Olivia’s bullshit, but who Olivia would be incredibly fond of. Someone to show the reader – and Chris – that Olivia did care about some things other than herself, that in her own way, she had formed attachments to the world she inhabited.

Everything about Maris snapped into focus in a split second, and she quickly wound herself in through all the empty spaces the book had. She became absolutely necessary to the story. She provided a little window into Olivia’s life pre-Chris, and provided the context for a major subplot in the first book, the minor mystery of Constance. She allowed me to have another likable, sympathetic character with traditionalist leanings, to make the deck seem less stacked in favour of the reformists. And, as I originally planned, she let me pass Bechdel.

Whenever I read sections where she and Olivia rib one another, ask about each other’s personal lives, or just complain about work, I smile to myself. It humanizes Olivia a bit, adds texture to her life, and makes her feel like she existed before Chris met her. All that aside, Maris has become a central part of the series as a whole and plays an increasingly major role in future books. Passing Bechdel actually did make my book stronger.

I see a sentiment online a lot. “Diversity shouldn’t be added for the sake of adding it.” And to them I say: why not? Maris is one of my most popular and favourite characters, and she wouldn’t exist if I wasn’t trying to check those boxes. If an element doesn’t work, by all means, massage or cut it. That’s just good writing. But fantastic characters and plotlines might be hiding behind that diversity barrier. You just need to be willing to look.

Maris is at her most professional in The Deathsniffer’s Assistant, but in The Timeseer’s Gambit, you’ll see her in a much more personal context and learn a bit about who she is when she isn’t Officer Dawson!

Other Backstage Character Passes:

Backstage Character Pass — Olivia Faraday

Beyond any doubt, my most polarizing character has been the eccentric Deathsniffer, Olivia Faraday. Some of my readers seem entirely focused on her to the exclusion of everything else. Some go so far as to say that she single-handedly ruined the book for them. All other reactions lay somewhere on that spectrum. The one thing I’ve heard absolutely nobody say is nothing at all. For better or for worse, Olivia Faraday gets a reaction.

I’m not the sort of person to dismiss reader feedback. I fully understand how and why Olivia could be a character so distasteful that someone couldn’t stand her. I hope those people come back for the sequel and beyond because Olivia has a lot of growing to do, and there’s a lot of story left to see.

But the little Olivia voice in my head that guides me when I write her? She smirks and proudly says “well, good.”

While I’m always disappointed when Olivia leaves a bad taste in someone’s mouth, it was something I not only expected, but anticipated going into the release of the book. She was never going to be a pleasant character, and I made sure as I wrote to make it clear that, in a lot of ways, she is a very bad person.

A lot of people have compared Olivia to the incomparable Sherlock Holmes, both favourably and unfavourably, but as I said in my Chris backstage pass, the characters of Olivia and Chris were either unconciously or not at all inspired from Holmes and Watson. The seed that grew into Olivia was the first one planted in my mind. Chris grew into her empty spaces, to be her foil and complement. Olivia grew all by herself.

And that seed was the idea of the Deathsniffer as a concept. The idea of a society where all detectives can choose or deny their own cases, and the realization that someone who chose to specialize in murder would be seen as ghoulish. With that weight of society’s judgement on your shoulders, what kind of person would you need to be? There were two answers: a brooding hero who is willing to shoulder the burden of ostracization to do the right thing and hunt down dangerous killers, or someone who just really liked murder mysteries and didn’t care about society’s judgement.

One character was infinitely more interesting to me than the other, and Olivia Faraday was born.

lil olivia fanart by MTWX
lil olivia fanart by MTWX

Right from that starting kernel of an idea, I had the image of this flambouyantly dressed, childishly excitable, and blissfully unnerving woman in my head. She’d whirl into crime scenes, tap people pertly on their noses while wearing a shit-eating grin, and then breeze past with hair and ribbons flying. She’d be a character who instantly filled every scene and made an impression, for better or worse. She’d be petite and short, a pint-sized ball of unsettling energy.

On the surface, that’s a pretty decent surface character sketch of Olivia. But that character lacks the most important ingredient: humanity. Olivia’s humanity developed and came to the forefront after I began to write. She’s a deeply private person who values her autonomy. She has a complicated relationship with her semi-estranged mother. She vascilates wildly between emotional extremes from one moment to the next; her manic glee can be shattered in a heartbeat, leaving behind churlishness or listlessness. Despite – because? – of her lack of interest in social mores, she doesn’t share any of society’s predjudices. And despite being occassionally monstrous, she doesn’t want to be a monster.

I know what personality disorders I’ve had in mind as I’ve written Olivia, though I’d prefer not to name them specifically. It’s never good to diagnose your characters when the society they’re being written in don’t have equivalent disorders. But I will say this: Olivia isn’t a sociopath. Not exactly. She’s more than capable of empathy, guilt, love, and the full range of human emotion. She just doesn’t default to that state. She has to manually turn it on and fight the urge to flip it back off – because the world is just easier and simpler without it.

I fully understand why she’s not universally loved. Olivia can be petty, cruel, and heartless when she’s not just oblivious. But that’s all a feature, not a bug. I prefer writing characters who are interesting to characters who are likeable or good.

In the sequel, tune in to see Chris drag Olivia, kicking and screaming, a little further into the world that people live in instead of the one Olivia lives in. And to see Olivia drag Chris, whining and dragging his feet, into the one where being polite isn’t the same thing as being nice.

Other Backstage Character Passes:

Backstage Character Pass — Christopher Buckley

Welcome to the first in my series exploring the characters of The Faraday Files! To start, here’s a little backstory and trivia about my narrator and arguable protagonist, Christopher Buckley.

The Deathsniffer’s Assistant has been compared a lot to Sherlock Holmes — both favourably and unfavourably. I’m a Holmes fan, myself. The books, the Guy Ritchie movies, the modern adaptation on BBC… it’s easy to think that the concept for the book came from those places. But in a case of truth being stranger than fiction. The Deathsniffer’s Assistant started its long journey quite a while before the current Holmes renaissance. And the extent of my exposure to Holmesian media was my childhood favourite Disney film: The Great Mouse Detective. Did I absorb the concept of the brilliant eccentric and the staid companion from literary culture? Or do Olivia and Chris somehow not share a common ancestor with their most obvious counterparts at all? It’s hard to say, but there’s one thing that’s certain: Chris didn’t start as a Watson to Olivia’s Holmes.

His origin was somewhere smaller and simpler. I knew that I wanted to write a detective style fantasy murder mystery. I’ve always loved the dynamic of a woman in a position of professional power over a male subordinate, so the idea of a lady detective and her male assistant came from that. And as the character of Olivia Faraday began to take shape, I realized that she could never function as a narrator. She’d be too strange and alienating.

So that’s what I started with Chris. His relationship to the reader would be as narrator, and his relationship to Olivia would be as foil. So he had to be reasonable,  nonthreatening, and unassuming. He had to be as invisible a person as Olivia was remarkable.

art of christopher by
art of christopher by

He grew from that seed. Where initially I wanted to make him more of an every-man, I found myself drawn to the concept of writing him as a more mannered, sensitive character. He didn’t interest me me in his initial skin, as a simple, unassuming audience surrogate. I like writing characters who are flawed and occasionally unpleasant, so Chris evolved his snobbery, his close-mindedness, his judgemental nature and his prickliness from my being bored with a more conventionally likable protagonist.

Chris’s relationships are really the cornerstone of the Faraday Files, especially his relationship with Olivia. I really enjoy writing him interacting with others. Because of my decision to have a single POV story, Chris is in every scene and his personal issues come to be the anchor the conspiracies, murders, and politics are tethered to. I knew I wanted him to be a character who could have interesting dynamics with everyone else, with all kinds of sparks and fireworks and potential for growth.

I’ve been really happy with the reader reaction to Chris so far. Some have pointed out that he feels like an actual orphan with grief and baggage — that’s something I worked hard at achieving. Some have also mentioned that he’s not your typical male fantasy protagonist, which I talked more about in this blog on the subject. Most have said that they felt for him, and pathos is really the minimum I ask for.

(Funnily, the negative feedback Chris has gotten has made me pretty happy, too. I see some saying that he’s overshadowed by Olivia or that his snobbishness makes him hard to relate to, which is all stuff that I intended while writing him! It’s not going to be for everyone, and that’s okay.)

Sadly, I have less to say about Chris than I wish I could. My second book, The Timeseer’s Gambit, delves a lot deeper into Chris’s psyche than The Deathsniffer’s Assistant does, and it’s hard to talk about him without risking letting spoilers drop loose. I hope those of you who are fans of his will be excited to see how he develops and changes in the sequel.

So, what do you all think about my accidental Watson analogue? Any questions asked about Chris here, I’ll try to answer in a Q&A later on!

Next week, Olivia Faraday!

Tentatively Calling This One a Success

With thirty ratings on Amazon and fifty on Goodreads, it looks like a consensus is officially emerging on the topic of my debut novel. And that consensus, to my enormous pleasure and glee and pride, is that it’s pretty damn good.

The Deathsniffer’s Assistant has a 4.22 average on the very specific Goodreads, and a 4.5 on the considerably less precise Amazon. I told myself if I could get into the 3.9-4.1 range, I’d consider the novel a resounding success, but it looks like I sold myself short. So far, even my most negative reviews — for which I’m grateful and learning from — haven’t fallen below the 3 star mark. It’s hard to argue with  numbers, and as it stands, my numbers are looking very encouraging indeed.

Of course, numbers are stale and simplistic and can only ever scratch the surface of impressions. A five star rating makes my toes curl in pure happiness, but some kind or even critical words make my day complete. From meeting new fans eager for me to sign their dog-eared copies to the most amazingly encouraging words on the internet, interacting with the people, reading their feelings, and seeing the passion they can feel for my characters has been the absolute best experience of my life, and everything I ever could have hoped for.

So many years of blood, sweat, and tears went into The Deathsniffer’s Assistant. And even one stranger’s positive opinion has made it all worth it.

Having officially reached this threshold, I’m going to start a new weekly series about the actual content of my book. I’ve tried to avoid talking much about it because I don’t want to spoil anything so soon after release. But I think the time has come to start unboxing some of this book that so many people have liked so much.

New Experiences

As a resident of the far east coast, I’ve seen a lot of things that most people haven’t. The wild, grey Atlantic ocean.  The Fundy Bay tides. Forests covering absolutely everything. The glory of that in the autumn.

Of course, there are a lot of things I haven’t seen. Like, for example, a mountain.

a whole new world

I spent my vacation this year on the southwest coast.  We touched down in Ontario, California and walked out into the world and I couldn’t believe my eyes. The horizon was completely dominated by mountains!  Scrub-lands! Palm trees! Wild cacti! Dry heat! I must have looked like a little kid stumbling through the area.

“Write what you know” is an incredibly overused and overrated statement. In the words of fellow fantasy author Mary Robinette Kowal, “Write what you know is what’s saddled us with so many novels about English professors fantasizing about having affairs with their coeds.” I’ve never seen a unicorn, a body, or an elemental. I’ve never solved a murder, ridden in a carriage, or taken notes with only my mind. But I think I did a pretty good job writing all those things. “Write what you know” should really be something more like “have enough knowledge about what you’re writing that you can fake it, and throw in some personal experiences to add flavour.” If people just wrote what they knew, we wouldn’t have any speculative fiction at all.

But with that said, gosh there sure is some value in new experiences from a writing perspective. For instance, having spent a week driving up and down mountains, I’m embarrassed at how I’ve written them in the past. They’re just so big that I imagined their size was a gradual thing. They look that big from far away, but up close, they must look completely different. It must take forever to drive up a mountain. Never did I imagine that we actually could drive up and down one of those San Bernadino mountains in a half hour, the car at a 70 degree angle all the while!

Despite being on vacation, I learned a lot on my trip to bring into my work. Mainly, to never discount the value of real world experiences. I’ve thought about writing a Gold Rush fantasy at some point, and I’m definitely realizing that I might need to spend more time in the scrub-lands before I can really tap into all those things. “Write what you know” might be oversaid and overrated, but there’s value in new experiences.

(And yes, I had fun. I had so much fun you guys. The Colorado river, SoCal, and Las Vegas… what a crazy trip! Happy thirtieth birthday to me and all my best friends. We celebrated in style.)

In Defense of the “Weak” Male Lead

There are certain traits that we, as a society, tend to value in a male lead. Stoicism. Wordliness. Confidence. Physicality. Adventurousness. Fortitude. Courage. There’s a certain image that is conjured to mind when you think of a “hero,” and he’s probably every single one of those. His flaws usually involve overconfidence, insensitivity, or inflexibility — when they’re even portrayed as flaws. He’s James T. Kirk, Indiana Jones, Nathan Drake, Commander Shepard, and Owen Grady. And he is absolutely everywhere.

He isn’t, as those who have read my first novel will know by now, in The Deathsniffer’s Assistant.

Christopher Buckley is an altogether different sort of male lead. He’s proper, stuffy, prudish, insecure, physically unimpressive, squeamish, and meticulously groomed. He cares about fashion, societal expectation, and his own personal comfort. He doesn’t like situations that put him into any kind of discomfort, and he’d really rather be discussing society gossip with a cup of tea than kicking any ass or taking any names.

While more masculine women are mostly accepted as characters, more feminine men absolutely are not. And the answer why is fairly obvious. Masculine is good, feminine is bad. A woman who can fight alongside the men is respected. A man who’d prefer to talk fashion with the women is not.

And yet, I’ve always loved this type of character. He’s rare and unique and that makes him special to me. I’m bored with tough, snarky white guys whose value is measured in their ability to grizzle their way through any situation. Chris is in rare company. Already, some of my reviews have negatively pointed out how much he cares about the opinions of others and his strict compliance to the rules of courtesy. Which is about what I expected. Chris isn’t the sort of character who gets showered with love from the masses. He’s always going to appeal only to a niche. I’m proud of him.

I’d like to draw attention to some of his compatriots. Male leads — and they have to be leads! — from fantasy novels who are defined primarily by uncertainty, insecurity, fragility, or propriety. Men who have strong character arcs that aren’t about overcoming their softer attributes, but about becoming more flexible, more empathetic, or more open-minded, while still embracing their “weak” personality traits. I love this characters and I have so much respect for them and the authors who choose to write about them.

1. Eldyn Garritt (The Wyrdwood Trilogy by Galen Beckett)
Eldyn is a the impoverished son of a once wealthy family, money that was drunk away by his abusive father after the loss of his mother. He works as a clerk and dreams of investing in a major venture to reclaim his family fortune and enter polite society once again. Eldyn falls in love with the theatre and the actors who perform there, but he’s torn between the impropriety and immortality of that life and his faith in God. Eldyn is sensitive, kind, soft-spoken, and extremely concerned about the appearance of respectability. His arc has him fall in love with a fellow actor, be forced to confront the ugly truths about the church, and learn to fight for a cause he believes in. But he ends the trilogy as sweet and kind and yielding as ever. Eldyn shares main character status with two others and his plot is intertwined with the other two.

2. Portier de Savin-Duplais (The Spirit Lens by Carol Berg)
From birth, Portier dreamed of becoming a great mage. But after years studying at the Collegia Magica, he was finally forced to admit that he had no talent for the art. His father, ashamed of his son’s failure, attempted to kill him, and Portier was turned patricide in self-defense. It’s hard to say which of these events contributed to Portier’s desperate self-loathing, insecurity, and skittishness, but it’s probably a combination. Portier badly wants people to like him and he still dreams of magic, which makes him a very internal character, constantly battling his own self-hate and lack of confidence as he acts as an undercover agent to solve the mystery of who is trying to assassinate the King. He grows to accept himself, at least in part, but he continues to be as proper and as careful and as studious as ever. Portier is the solo protagonist of The Spirit Lens and is a supporting character in the subsequent novels in the series.

3. Travis Wilder (The Last Rune by Mark Anthony)
Saloon keeper Travis Wilder is a skinny, shy, sweet, withdrawn lad with big, ill-fitting glasses, floppy hair, and a kind smile. He works his nine to five and tries to bury the trauma of his youth until he’s pulled into the fantasy word of Eldh, and something entirely shocking happens. He doesn’t learn to wield a sword. He doesn’t lead any armies. He doesn’t become brave and tough. Instead, he learns that he has a talent for runecasting — which is a challenge for him due to his severe dyslexia — and falls in love with handsome knight. Travis spends seven books becoming a hero, but he’s a hero who always has a soft smile, who’s shy and kind, who’s terrified of hurting people, who struggles with his own self-worth. Travis shares his main character status in all seven books with the emotionally distant and expertly confident doctor Grace Beckett, which provides a great gender reversal.

4. Sedric Meldar (The Rain Wilds Chronicles by Robin Hobb)
Sedric Meldar fell in love with the wrong person when he went head over heels for the confident, intelligent, sly Hest Finbok. It was easy to ignore all the ways Hest could be cruel when the good times were so good. So good, in fact, that Sedric convinced Hest to marry his friend Alise so that they could continue on in secret. When Sedric ends up on the wild and dangerous Rain Wilds River, with Alise and without Hest, he’s forced to realize and confront truths that he’s spent his entire life avoiding. Sedric is the jackpot for the “weak” male character. He’s delicate, sensitive, proper, fancy, and buckles under adversity. While he excels in the civilized world due to his extremely organized mind and his social aplomb, he’s a disaster in a typical fantasy plot. Sedric’s arc is brutal and epic. He struggles with depression and suicide, has to come to terms with his status both as a victim of Hest and an accomplice in helping Hest victimize others, and reaches the absolute lowest point of self-worth I’ve ever seen from a fantasy hero. But he rises again and rebuilds himself… and is just as proper and sensitive as ever, and would still vastly prefer an afternoon tea to a river adventure. Sedric shares his main character status with three other characters, including Alise herself.

5. Vanyel Ashkevron (The Last Herald-Mage by Mercedes Lackey)
And, of course, the original flavour. Like many other women my age and younger who are passionate about fantasy, Valdemar was a huge cornerstone of my growth, Vanyel especially. Vanyel’s books span thirty years of his life, and he starts as the quiet, soft, musically inclined nobleman and ends his life as the most famous hero of his nation. Vanyel is defined by his longing for love and his fear of loss and how hard those two traits are to coexist. He’s also shy and sweet, and is known for his love of fine things, his vanity for his looks, and his passion for music. Vanyel is the sole main character of his trilogy and the defining character of the entire 20+ book Valdemar series.

There’s something worth mentioning about this list, of course. All these characters except one are queer. I love seeing queer characters in fantasy, and there are a lot of them who are masculine and tough and some who even fit into that fellow we outlined up top. But insofar as I can tell, there’s only one heterosexual male in all fantasy with this archetype! In addition, these were the only five I could think of in the whole catalogue I’ve read that were protagonists and not secondary characters!

I want to see more characters like this in all media. Especially as protagonists! Not only does it buck gender stereotypes, it says that we do not fine stereotypically “feminine” qualities as being inherently inferior to stereotypically “masculine” ones! And the more characters we see like this, the more normal they’ll become.

And I just… like them! All of these characters instantly appealed to me and stood out to me. They’re different. They struggle with things I can identify with. They flout the concept of toxic masculinity hard. They grow and learn and becoming better people, but they don’t move out of their archetypes and into a more acceptable one. That’s something that should be valued.