When a Character Gels

Author photo of a Deutschmark from during the Great Inflation of the 1920s.

Sometimes, authors start the story knowing who the main character or characters are, and build the story around them. Other times, an idea leads to noodling around with world building and then characters sort of wander in. And a few times, world building comes first, and the author looks at her wonderful world, sighs a little, and starts auditioning characters so she can explore her world (and sell it to readers).

I tend to alternate between idea and character. In the case of the Powers books, the “what if” idea came first, followed by lots and lots of research. Specifically, since the world Joschka and Rada inhabit in the Cat Among Dragons series is slightly off-kilter from our history, I started working backwards to see what would have to happen to make it that way. And then hit WWI and really had to dig into the material, which took me back to the Austro-Prussian War, which led to… You get the idea. But I needed a protagonist. And not Joschka.

The protagonist would be male, because at that time and place, only a man could go places and do what needed to be done for the story. And a noble, for similar reasons. But from where? That took a bit more work, but I settled for Hungary. That way, he’d have one foot in Austria and the empire, and one foot in Hungarian politics and all that entailed. He’d be involved in the military, but with a definite bias and point-of-view. Building on that, I decided that he’d need to be a Half-Dragon, not fully human or True-dragon.

However, you can see a lot of holes and empty spaces.

In my case, what filled in about eighty percent of those holes, and provided material for the second and third books in the series, was going to the Czech Republic and Hungary.  I could probably have done something similar if I’d dug around and gotten books about the castles and palaces, and more biographies and autobiographies. However, I had an opportunity and took it.

István Eszterházy came to life, as it were, one morning in the hotel at Hluboka Castle in the Czech Republic. I was sitting at an antique-looking desk with the windows open, looking out across the Vltava River lowlands and ponds at the base of the castle and town’s hill as the sun rose (so around five AM). Mist began trickling up from the water, turning the valley silvery white with a faint green under-layer. Behind me were more antiques in a dark, heavy wooden-paneled room that might have been unchanged from a country-palace parlor in 1905. In the hour that followed I knew the milieu of my character, how he would look at the scene, and how he would see it.

Hungary gave the mountains, the Czech Republic gave me hunting lodges. They combined into Nagy Matra. Hungary gave me Saints István and Imre, the great battles for Eger fortress and other places, the lowlands south of Buda and Pest, and the town-palace on Buda Hill, as well as the lay-out of Pest and the parliament buildings. Professor S—, who watched the Hungarian Uprising as a child, and our local guide gave me history, first-hand accounts, and resources.

A later trip to Austria helped me correct the lay-out of the Eszterházy palace at Eisenstadt.

Most authors, especially when we write other planets and purely imaginary worlds, won’t be able to ground-truth as easily or at all. I was truly blessed to be able to go and do all that, and to absorb so much of it. I now had all the pieces to create István, and to watch him develop from the rather unpleasant young noble at the start of the first book to a truly decent man by the third book. I wouldn’t have wanted to spend much time with young István. He was an arrogant git, a casual anti-Semite, and too aware of his rank and station. Which means he was very, very much like the people I’d been reading about and hearing about, and true to the time and place.

I envy authors who don’t have to do as much research and digging as I do. My muse is still 2/3 Clio, and won’t work with me until I’ve done my homework. But in this case it was worth it. I didn’t like getting inside István’s mind, but I think I managed to catch things as best we can from a hundred years and an entire world away.

The character finally gelled. I had him, his world, his family, his attitudes and society. All I had to do was dump him into the fires and see what emerged.


Shameless promotion: The fourth book in the Shikari Series, Woman’s Work, is now available. Ah, married life. Wombeast stampedes, holy-terror birds, the Officers’ Wives Club… Life as an officer’s lady is not quite what Auriga ‘Rigi’ Bernardi-Prananda had expected. But on Shikhari, nothing is quite what it seems.


  1. “Other times, an idea leads to noodling around with world building and then characters sort of wander in.”

    Or they run in waving a blaster and yell “ALIENS!!!!!” Then they start shooting at something behind them.

    Or they see a red shoe lying in a alley, wonder why there’s a random shoe, look around some more and find a foot…

    1. Yes, there are those sorts of characters. Who generally burst into an otherwise tranquil setting and drive the author to drink.

      1. …especially when they wander in about 5 chapters in, clear their throat, and say “I’m sorry, you got my stand-in all wrong. This is how I will act in that situation, and you will have to rewrite the story to match.”

        1. Oh yes. That’s exactly what happened. Robot Miss Smith was supposed to be a -robot-. She informed me that simply wouldn’t do, and the story kept coming out stupid until I made her a person. Had to add a whole fricking chapter for her to wake up in. Turned out to be one of the best chapters in the whole thing.

          Every once in a while somebody comes along when I need a spear carrier or just a random person to react to something epic that’s happening, and they end up being the character that the whole solution to the Maguffin Du Jour.

              1. In progress. . .

                A lord dies in battle. So do all his men but one. The one brings the news back. The lord’s son finds it hard to forgive him for surviving, even after he dies a few months later defending the land.

    2. “…sighs a little, and starts auditioning characters so she can explore her world.”

      Said every Dungeon Master, ever… I think that’s how Monster Blood Tattoo got written. Not to mention Token: “I have these perfectly cromulent imaginary languages here…”

  2. I think my most common is have a character in a situation that last, at most, for a scene. A Diabolical Bargain and Madeleine and the Mists both started with scenes. Others, well, Winter’s Curse started with the idea for the cursed — The Witch Child and the Scarlet Fleet started with a notion from a discussion of Conan the Barbarian that noted that all his pirate strongholds were not on merchant routes — and The Princess Seeks Her Fortune of course with the notion it would be interesting to retell a number of fairy tales.

    1. Then, come to think of it, there are the two idea stories. I was pondering a work in progress and thought it was actually character inspired — then I remembered that there was ALSO a plot idea. It wasn’t a story until the two merged.

  3. Some of mine start with bit characters who just muscle in on the WIP enough to make me realize they’re going to demand a bigger part in the next book. Or maybe a whole series of their own.

    Outside of series books, the stand-alones tend to start with a scene that sets up the basic world and a character or two. Then I have to figure out the rest.

    1. Happened to me. Book one was focused on the main character. Secondary character strolled in, and now he’s the entire focus of book two and eventually book three. The impetuousness of youth it seems. Demanding more from their elders…

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