Developing character

NaNoWriMo is bearing down on us, and I have an interesting idea for this year’s novel. I’m skipping over the epic space opera I’ve been tinkering with for two decades and telling stories on the other side of it. Here’s what you need to know if you’re going to follow my creative process through NaNoWriMo. The galaxy has just been through a devastating war against an ancient terror that returned after being driven away a thousand years ago. The war is over, the Nemesis has been destroyed once and for all, but in the process Sol went nova and the remains of humanity are scattered among the stars, without a homeworld or even a government. Even though humans were the glue that held the alliance together, the survivors are shunned because it turned out humanity was an offshoot of the Nemesis, the only other humanoid race anyone has ever seen. We were a science project of the Guardians, an even more ancient race of protectors, left on Earth to develop under the watchful eye of nanotechnologically immortal shepherds, the angels and demons of Between Heaven and Hell. Got all that? It’s all back story now.

Sins of the Mothers features the Sendeni, the most powerful of the former alliance races and the species we first encountered when we ventured out into the stars. They’re dinosauroid/avians, and look like a cross between a big brained velociraptor and a turkey. Their society is rigidly matriarchal, as the males of the species are considered too violent and too dumb to hold any positions of authority. After the Nemesis War, the males, who have seen during the war how other species treat their males, rise up in revolution for equal treatment, leading to a civil war that nearly tears the Sendeni apart.

That’s the setting. But I still don’t really have a story.

Story is about character, first and foremost. So who is this novel really about? A civil war is a big thing. I could tell the story in a sweeping, cast-of-thousands Tolstoy style, but there are two problems with this. One, that’s not really a narrative style I’m comfortable with, or that appeals to me as a reader. Two, all the characters would be aliens, making it difficult for the reader to connect with any of them or even pick up the tenants of Sendeni culture and society.

So I decided to make this a smaller story. The story will be about a human stranded on Senden after the Nemesis War ends, a human who then has to try to survive as civil war erupts around her (the choice to make my focal character female was a gut choice that I really don’t have a reason for; I just like women, especially strong women). But who is she? Why is she there in the first place?

I felt she needed to be a diplomat or ambassador of some sort, some reason to be the only human on the planet. But what kind of ambassador would you choose to send to an alien world? Anthropology and linguistics might be more valuable skills than basic diplomacy. Then it hit me. Those of you old enough to remember the cold war, remember how both CIA and KGB agents always had official titles like “Cultural Attaché”? That’s what she is. Her official reason for being on Senden is to provide the Sendeni High Council with insight into their new allies in the Nemesis War. Her unofficial purpose for being there is to spy on the Sendeni and relay everything she can about them back to Earth.

Of course, as the book opens the war ends, as does her entire reason for being there. Both of them. The Sendeni don’t need her anymore and there’s no government back on Earth to report to because there’s no Earth anymore. What does that mean for our protagonist? What will become of her now. Taking inspiration from James Patrick Kelley’s “Think Like A Dinosaur,” I think the Sendeni will come to the idea that they should just kill her. It’s a lot cheaper than sending her back, and besides, humans are really the same thing as the Nemesis, right? May as well go for the clean slate. So shortly after establishing the setting, we end up with our protagonist on the run on a planet where there are no humans and everyone she meets will want to kill her.

Now that sounds like a good story.

It goes beyond that, of course. Our protagonist is different than most humans, too. She was the communications officer on a Terran destroyer that actually fought the Nemesis. The Nemesis looks human but is a single telepathic hive mind, millions of “people” acting as a single organism. When it comes in contact with humans, the telepathic waves it sends out actually awaken telepathy in 0.1% of humans. Of the roughly one million humans left in the galaxy, that means that about a thousand of them have become telepaths (as nearly all of the humans left are war veterans who came in contact with the Nemesis at one point or another). And our protagonist is one of them. It’s part of the reason she got the job after being taken out of the military. Her abilities are still developing, and right now are limited to involuntary flashes she gets of other minds. She can’t control it very well if at all, and has been doing well just not to let the Sendeni know she’s a telepath. But one of these telepathic flashes is enough to tip her off to their plan to kill her, and it’s enough to help her communicate with the males (who obviously haven’t been taught English) she meets up with later.

So now we’ve got almost everything we need. A compelling character, an interesting setting and some conflict to start us off. But we still need a name.

I’ve got a few resources I use for character names, because the names I come up with off the top of my head are almost invariably lame white-guy names. The Terran Republic during the Nemesis War has been a single world government for nearly two centuries, and I want a character that reflects post-European diversity. I decided to make her Hindi, since statisically speaking there’s a better than one in three chance even today that any randomly selected human will be either Indian or Chinese. Consulting 20000-names.com, which gives me a nice selection of names from around the world, I pull out two interesting names.

LEELAVATHI: Hindi name meaning “free will of God.”

MUKTA: Hindi name meaning “liberated.”

SophieBoth of these tie into the theme I’m going for with the book, as this human helps to liberate the oppressed male Sendeni, who have been second-class menial laborers for centuries. Now but neither has the flavor I’m looking for for her first name, the name we’ll be calling her most of the time. For that I pull out an app on my iPhone called Baby Names that has names, origins and meanings and scan through the female names until something catches my eye. And there it is. Sophronia, from the Greek for foresighted. Nice name for a telepath.

So now I have my main character. Sophronia Mukta Leelavathi, but she goes by Sophie. Thanks to another iPhone app called Avatar Creator, I also have a picture of Sophie, to help solidify her in my mind’s eye. We know who she is, what she’s doing on Senden, how she got there and what has to happen next. Next up, world building.

UPDATE: Okay, I lied. I do know why Sophie is a chick, I just didn’t know I knew it when I wrote this article.

Even though this story is about aliens and humans in a far flung society, it’s a story for early 21st century readers. Most societies on Earth today are either strongly patriarchal or have patriarchal histories, and I’m turning that familiarity on its head by making the females the oppressor class in Sendeni society. The males will be the scrappy underdogs who aren’t getting a fair shake. But given that the background of the novel is a gender war, I want to make sure that I, as a male writer, don’t allow the book to come across as misogynistic. So I’ll make the focal character, the protagonist, heck, the gorram narrator–since I continue to have an unhealthy fascination with first person narrative, even though I know it’s harder to write well–a female.

Maybe this balancing act comes across as calculating or artificial, but in many ways that’s what fiction is. This is a made up story. There aren’t any real Sendeni or, to the best of my knowledge, telepaths. Fiction is about creating stories that are more satisfying than real life. In a lot of ways, the artificiality of fiction is why we read it in the first place.

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