Backstage Character Pass My Writing

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 My Writing

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:

My Writing

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: