On Tuesday, I blogged about characters and gave a few tips on how to fully round-out your own freeloaders…leeches…creations. I suppose it’s time to put my money where my mouth is and take you through the progression of one of my own: Harlequin.
Harlequin is the main protagonist of my urban fantasy series of the same name. I want to say that he came to me in a dream, fully-formed and eager to tell his story but I’d be lying. In reality, Harlequin was one of the most complicated characters I ever created and, even now, I still can’t resist the urge to tinker.
The original concept came from my research into the Italian Commedia dell’arte, its pantheon of stock characters, and their lives and loves. The light-hearted, astute character of Arlecchino (later Harlequin) grew to be one of my favourites and my first thought was to take this 17th Century trickster and see how he would survive in the modern, cynical world; a slave to the workplace, rather than a lord. I was keen to see how he would thwart his boss’s plans, and gain favour with his Columbina.
The whole thing failed to work and the idea was (temporarily) shelved. But the name and the trickster aspect stuck with me.
Sometime later, I was digging through old, dog-eared notebooks for some inspiration with an unrelated project and stumbled across a hastily scribbled note: Harlequin – trickster king of magic. In that instant, a flash of inspiration brought me a trickster mage. But, what to do about the “king”? Should it stay? Not such a good fit in a modern fantasy and I was already up to my eyebrows in fae characters. Maybe a bestowed title? A nickname?
The idea rattled around my brain for a while, distracting me from that other project. It eventually took permanent root when my (at the time) main character, Azriel, needed assistance from outside of the fae courts. Injured and dying, he played his last hand and called upon an old acquaintance; someone he knew would help because he owed the acquaintance a powerful favour and they were unlikely to let him die until it had been collected. This person was Harlequin.
Other than a nickname, a sketchy title and two lines of backstory, I knew nothing about him. He was a bit character, a throwaway, and so I didn’t much care. Harlequin had other plans.
Piece by piece, he started to develop on the page. His appearance started to form in my mind and on the page: tall, pale-skinned, messy brown hair, indication of a broken nose in his past, neatly trimmed facial hair, hardened eyes. Slowly, I was able to coax him into being. As the physical came, so did the questions: why is he pale-skinned? Why messy hair but a groomed moustache and beard? How was his nose broken? What event(s) hardened those eyes? More and more questions, more and more details.
It wasn’t long before Harlequin began to eclipse Azriel. His voice was louder and clearer than any other I’d written and he certainly wasn’t prepared to allow the fae to steal his limelight. I finished the original story and immediately set to work on the next. Harlequin was nowhere near fully-formed, remaining largely one-dimensional and in some way a stereotypical rogue.
I’d gleaned the basics already:
- Age – 31 years (when we first meet him);
- Gender – male;
- Nationality – never specified but he’s British;
- Occupation – purveyor of fine antiques;
- Physical appearance – as above; and
- Backstory – basics (work still, very much, required).
Beyond that, it was a mystery. I started to revisit the questions and realised that, because of his ‘extra-curricular’ activities, he operated mostly at night (lack of sun accounting for his pale skin). His messy hair was a personal style choice but the groomed facial hair was a habit he’d picked up from his father. The broken nose was the result of going up against creatures far beyond his weight class and those battles hardened him. Each answer raised more questions and added more meat to the bones.
Despite all of this, something was missing. Besides policing and battling with all manner of otherworldly terrors, there was no conflict, no goals or desires. All of these became apparent when I began to dig into his family and friends. I was surprised to learn that this rogue had a wife and daughter and even more surprised when I witnessed his unwavering devotion to them.
Harlequin suddenly matured from impish trickster to calculating and protective family man. He’d experienced the negative impact that magic had on his own family (lost his father as a result) and knew that his own power drew the same negativity. He didn’t want that for his wife and daughter and so he gave up magic, gave up his old life.
I know what you’re thinking: now there’s no conflict at all. I’m getting to that…
A chance encounter with someone from his past brings turmoil to Harlequin’s life and takes from him the two things he loves most. His new life now shattered, he blames himself for his inability to protect his family, harbours a desire for revenge against the agents of the chaos, and is conflicted by the necessity of returning to the old ways. All these helped deepen the character and make him more believable.
I want to say I feel horrible for giving him the life he wanted before cruelly snatching it away, but I don’t. If there was no conflict, there would be no story. Harlequin may have been a character with a voice but he needed a story and one was starting to form.
Again, each new piece of the puzzle brought with it new questions about his past, his future, his mannerisms. The answers even started to develop the magic systems and rules of the world he occupied, which in-turn led back to shaping the character. For example, the cost of using magic and the over-reliance on it by others, has convinced Harlequin to avoid it wherever possible, relying instead on planning and trickery to achieve the same outcome.
The whole process was (and continues to be) very organic and I am able to watch Harlequin grow as new things come to light. At the same time, I accepted that nothing was set in stone. If things didn’t fit the character, they would have to go. If the story evolved, the character had to as well.
I am happy with the way it’s all worked out but there are still questions that occur to me every day. Some are the what ifs and, by now, I know him well enough to see how he would deal with them. Others require a little more thought and planning. All this develops the character beyond the two-dimensional. And when I’m lost inside his fictional world, there are times when he is more real than I am.