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The crafting of a character: Harbert Pencroft

February 14, 2014 by Olivier Blanchard - 2 Comments

The accidental protagonist:

I have a confession to make: Harbert Pencroft, the central character in ‘The Peacemakers,’ was an accident. He was the unexpected result of needing to add a character to the story as a narrative device. Not only was he never supposed to be a major character in the story, he wasn’t even supposed to be a character at all.

About a year into the project, when I was working on the story’s first concrete outlines, I realized that the first three acts of the series needed to be told in first person. (I can’t go into why without revealing some major spoilers, so don’t ask.) Anyway, changing from a traditional 3rd person narrative to 1st person completely changed the dynamic of the story, its pacing, its structure, and the way it would unfold. Now, instead of being able to see everything that was going on with all of the characters, the story had to be told from the ground. It had to pass through the eyes of one person and be told in his voice. So a year into the project, I found myself having to create a new character who would affect the story a little but not too much, sort of like Nick Carraway in ‘The Great Gatsby.’ More observer than participant.

Characters are people too:

The original Harbert Pencroft was going to be a timid thirty-something clerk. He was supposed to be sort of boring. A fish out of water. A sort of likable but otherwise amorphous blank slate through which I could tell the first part of the story without running the risk of having him step in and change anything. The problem is that when you try to tell a story through a character, the story becomes that character’s story. Expecting a character to just sit there and be boring because you want him to is kind of naive. Fiction doesn’t work that way. Characters have a way of growing into real people. Worlds too. It’s a popular misconception that writers just sit there and create stories out of thin air. Good fiction has a way of having a life of its own. You don’t write fiction as much as fiction writes you. I know it sounds like stupid New-Age self-improvement babble but it’s true. There’s probably another blog post in here somewhere about how writing stories changes your reality as a writer but we’ll tackle that some other time.

Long story short: Harbert didn’t want to be a boring thirty-something clerk. He didn’t want to be more observer than participant. Before long, that little bastard started telling me his story: who his parents were, how they met, where he grew up, what he likes to eat and drink… everything. More pragmatic writers will say “great, you worked out his back story, his voice, his core. You built a narrative platform.” Yeah. I did that. That’s what it is. But… I didn’t really build that. Harbert sort of built himself. What I mean is that I didn’t sit there and write down personality traits. I didn’t engineer him from the ground up, with purpose. I just sort of opened myself to it.

It’s like planting a seed and watering it a little every day: you can pick the seed and you’re the one providing the ideal environment for it to grow in, but when it’s all said and done, the seed has to do its own growing. That process takes time. You can’t be on a tight schedule. It takes a while for a character to fully mature. Months, sometimes years. You start with some idea, a detail, an archetype, the kernel of a story, but the rest builds itself over time. Characters aren’t fully fleshed out until they start to do things on their own, until they take your story in a direction you hadn’t expected. They will say things that make you laugh or cry or think. They will become as real as anyone you’ve ever known. Sometimes, when you least expect it, they will even push back and make you dig deeper than you planned to and write stories you didn’t expect to write.

Scrapbooking  and visual composites:

My brain craves images. Photos, sketches, frames in a movie, paintings – it all works for me. Collecting images that help me visualize certain aspects of a character -whether it’s a physical trait, an article of clothing, an emotion or a mood – is part of that watering process I mentioned. You can’t just sit there and hope for the character to grow all on his or her own. You have to put water in the watering can.

One of the most helpful tools I found these past few years – and I know this is going to sound weird – is Pinterest. I was already using it for inspiration in a lot of other areas – photography, graphic design, website layouts, fitness motivation and so on – but I found it to also be a great platform for image searches and scrap-book style bookmarking. The board I use to collect and organize images for ‘The Nemesis Engines’ is private so you can’t see it (at least not yet) but it helped me shape Harbert’s character once I had figured out his background story. I needed to give him a face, a personality. Every time I ran into an image that made me think of where the character was headed or what he might sort of look like, I bookmarked/pinned it and made a note of what it was that I found compelling about it. Over time, his portrait became an amalgam of dozens of images, each hitting on a particular detail. It sounds a little silly but visualizing him like that made him become more real. It gave me visual points of reference. It may seem trivial but it helped with two pretty crucial aspects of the writing process: 1) once I actually sat down to turn my notes into actual chapters, the writing flowed a lot better, and 2) it was easier to keep the character’s voice and reactions consistent. It made both of those things a breeze.

Harbert Composite

One more thing: creating a visual composite of Harbert didn’t just cement him as a real person made of flesh and blood, it also anchored him in the story as a finite being. He wasn’t just an idea anymore, a sketch. He was real. He was someone I could actually look at. That made it easier for me to understand him and speak through him. Don’t underestimate that. (By the way, if you own any of these images, don’t sue me. I am just using them in an example.)

First person narration isn’t just a style choice:

What I discovered in the process is that you can’t divorce the narrator’s inner world from the story he or she is telling. Who the narrator is as a person affects the way he or she processes the world and makes sense of it. So when you read ‘The Peacemakers,’ you aren’t reading the story of what happened to all of its characters between Date A and Date B. You are reading Harbert’s experience inside of that world between Date A and Date B. You only see what he sees. You understand the events of the story through his mind. You judge people based on his experiences. His filter becomes your filter. It’s his voice you hear in your head. Making that choice as a writer is a huge gamble because it would be a lot easier to just “once upon a time” it. This kind of storytelling limits the number of tricks at your disposal. It forces you to approach the story from just one angle, and if you don’t make that angle interesting or compelling, you’re pretty much screwed. But the payoff is that if you manage to do it right, readers will form a bond with the character telling the story. It helps create a deeper emotional attachment between a book and its readers. And best of all, the story will seem more believable.

If you do it right.

More unexpected side-effects of letting a character become a real person:

I have probably mentioned that ‘The Nemesis Engines’ was originally supposed to be just a novel. I was aiming for 350-400 pages. One of the reasons it grew into a series is that every time a character became a little more alive, the story got a little bigger and cooler. By the time the story had fully matured, all of the character arcs – which had before been vague and sort of relegated to the world of “let’s see what happens,” – began to drive everything about the story. Harbert’s personal contribution was probably the most significant as the entire first volume grew from a ten page world-building prologue to a full three-act hero’s journey. The world-building elements of what became ‘The Peacemakers’ are still definitely there (and they grew as well) but at the core of the first volume now is Harbert Pencroft’s own adventure inside the universe of ‘The Nemesis Engines.’

I wasn’t even aware that I was writing a hero’s journey until I was about two hundred pages into it. I was getting a little concerned that the story wasn’t about revenge anymore, or even about Archie Whitfield. Archie’s story arc is about reclaiming his humanity and unleashing some pretty serious payback against some very bad people. It’s a much darker story and there wasn’t a whole lot of innocence and wild-eyed wonder about the world in it. Same with Alexandra and Steiner: when the story begins, they have already been affected by what is happening around them. Their innocence is gone. Harbert’s story is the complete opposite: he starts out fresh, unsoiled. He is an innocent, an idealist. While everyone else is either trying to rectify past mistakes or set things right again, Harbert is throwing himself into his life’s first great adventure without understanding the potential toll on his soul. He is Indiana Jones on his first expedition, Captain Nemo on his first dive aboard the Nautilus, Sherlock Holmes on his first case. It hit me out of the blue one morning. (“Oh… so that’s what this book is! A classic hero’s journey. How about that.”)

Another unexpected side-effect of letting Harbert take over the first third of the series was he became the series’ moral center. I have to be a little cryptic here (because: spoilers!) but every character is going to have to deal with some pretty difficult choices along the way, and the further the story advances, the worse things are going to get. Harbert’s constant struggle with right vs. wrong, doing the right thing vs. doing the expedient thing, and accepting that sometimes the lesser evil can be the greater virtue (or not) turned out to be one of the things early reviewers of ‘The Peacemakers’ really liked about it. No one else in the series struggles with moral choices the way he does, which makes him unique in ‘The Nemesis Engines’ universe. No matter what is thrown at him, he doesn’t simply default to some tried and true survival mode. He rebels against defensive impulses like cynicism and bitterness. His better nature always fights tooth and nail for its own survival. That leads to some pretty great moments between him and characters he bumps into along the way but that’s all I can say about it. Some of the exchanges between them are as relevant today as they were in 1915, and I hope they add a little substance to the story as a whole.

What about the love story thing?

Because Harbert wasn’t supposed to play such a big part in the story, he also wasn’t supposed to fall in love. Given his penchant for thwarting my plans, you can imagine how that turned out. That unexpected change affected a core element of the original story: the love story between Archie and Alexandra. This definitely threw a pump into my plan’s spokes, but hey, complications are the fuel of drama, so it worked out in the end. The result is a much more compelling, layered story. Don’t expect any of the volumes to delve into the romance novel genre or anything, but trust me: still a better love story than ‘Twilight’ applies here. No question about it. By the time readers are thirty pages into the second volume (Q1 2015), everyone will be hooked. I’m sorry… that’s all I can really say. You’ll have to find this out for yourselves.

Okay, that’s it for now. I hope you enjoyed this inside look into the process. Lots more posts will follow so stay tuned.

Cheers,

Olivier.

PS: The Peacemakers (#TNE1) is scheduled for release in March of 2014 is available now on Amazon (click image below). Steel and Bone (#TNE2) is due to come out in March of 2015, and if all goes well, Copperheart (#TNE3) should follow in March of 2016.

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