Sunday, June 23, 2013

On Developing A Character Without Much Agency...

One of the criticisms the early drafts of my novel Battle for the Wastelands received is that the character Catalina Merrill, sister of rebel chief Alonzo Merrill and unwilling concubine of the villain Grendel, is a "stereotype." One of my early readers has described her as a princess in a tower awaiting someone to rescue her.

My immediate response was that she's not in a position to realistically do a whole lot. She's one of if not the youngest of a small number of concubines (Grendel's harem numbers in the single digits and is guarded by a couple trusted soldiers, while the notoriously intrigue-ridden Ottoman harem numbered in the hundreds and was policed by large numbers of eunuchs). This puts her (and other concubines as well) in a weak position for harem intrigue (especially when Grendel is around and can keep an eye on things), and due to her being essentially a political prisoner, she has the least personal freedom of the bunch. I viewed criticism of her lack of activity as akin to those people who complained about Sansa Stark not punching Joffrey "Baratheon" in the face or trying to escape King's Landing, where she's a hostage of the ruling Lannisters, in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels. All that would accomplish would be to get both of them killed (or at least punished severely) and given the history of victorious oppressors in our world, most people would rather live on their knees than die on their feet. The actress who plays Sansa in the TV show pointed out that if she "acted out" like Arya, she'd be dead. Although Catalina is too valuable to Grendel's schemes for him to easily kill, she doesn't know that, plus there are other things to fear besides death.

However, although that response works on the macro level, it does not work on the micro level. It's been a long time since I've read A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords where most of the "Sansa in King's Landing" story takes place, but I do remember the following:

*When the drunken Ser Dontos makes a fool of himself at a tournament, Joffrey orders him to be drowned in wine, but Sansa suggests he instead make Dontos a fool (jester) because this would be "crueler." Joffrey, a sociopathic sadist who isn't particularly smart, falls for this. Despite her weak position and regular torment by Joffrey and his lowlife bodyguards, she is able to manipulate him and save a man's life.

*When Stannis Baratheon lays siege to King's Landing, Sansa tells Joffrey that her brother Robb always leads his troops into battle in person. This provokes Joffrey to spend at least some time on the front lines of the besieged city rather than hiding in the Red Keep. I don't remember this part clearly, but I get the distinct impression this was Sansa's sly attempt to get Joffrey killed without putting herself at risk.

*Sansa does manage to warn Oleanna Tyrell, grandmother of Joffrey's intended Margarey Tyrell, that Joffrey is a sadistic monster. This leads to Oleanna, a political mastermind and the real ruler of House Tyrell, to conspire with Littlefinger to have Joffrey assassinated and Margarey married to Joffrey's kind-hearted but weak younger brother Tommen "Baratheon." Good riddance to bad rubbish.

And on a historical note, it's not like oppressed people sat around being passively miserable all the time. They had coping mechanisms like religion (Santeria in the Caribbean and what strikes me as an early form of Pentecostalism in America, the Bacchal cult in ancient Rome), art (there's a fascinating essay I read in high school discussing religious quilts made by black women as a form of creative expression as well as an act of religious devotion), pets (to use a more modern example, Jaycee Dugard and those women kidnapped in Cleveland had them), etc. And one can be free in one's own head, at the very least.

How does this affect Battle for the Wastelands? Well, in addition to some earlier edits making Catalina's weak position more obvious, I've also devised some ways to foreshadow some of my future plans for her in the way Martin seems to be foreshadowing Sansa becoming a political mastermind (Littlefinger spirits her away after Joffrey's death and makes her his apprentice in political intrigue). Over this past weekend, I've come up with some bits of internal monologue that would not only develop Catalina as a character, but also to foreshadow some things I have planned for her later. They don't require her to do stupid things or even amount to major changes in the novel, but they make for a much more developed character and set things up for later.

For my fellow writers, particularly those writing about time periods (or fictional worlds analogous to those time periods) where people were oppressed and had their activities restricted, hopefully this post will be useful to you.


  1. Yep, pretty much agree on all counts. I am honestly staggered at how cookie-cutter seemingly everyone's models are for "strong" protagonists. Why can't they make space for other types of characters? It makes me so mad. I just keep on gagging while perusing the Goodreads lists, because it's so tired and I don't want to read another book with the same tired tropes, the only changes being maybe the elves' ears are a little pointier in this book and the girl is blonde instead of brunette and has a love quadrangle instead of triangle and GAHHHHHHHH

    I think I'm so bitter because I've never related to Arya's character -- in many ways Sansa resonates with me. I have the strength of a feather duster, basically... I'd be so content with a small story about someone overcoming her fears or being a little more like how he wants to be, but alas.

    1. Thank you for your comment. There's more than one type of strength--Arya is a fighter, but Sansa *endures* and isn't broken by it.