Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
The fur coat kept the warmth in, but without the steaming tea, there would have been no warmth for it to contain. The fur, of course, was fake, they hadn’t harvested shimchek for their fur in centuries, but the coat did its job nonetheless. Vaiya tea was still around, except this was also not the real thing, and it was not doing its job. Yarmar had put together her own special recipe from the supplies they had available, and Hilosh supposed that if you heated it enough to scald your tongue, you could almost pretend it was distilled memories of the actual drink.
The view outside the darkened co-supervisor’s office was even more sorrowful, and made Hilosh feel cozy by comparison. The storm had entered its second week, lashing the canyon that was the base of their mining operation with piercing violet lightning while winds made everything in the workers’ barracks shiver and groan. The engineers assured him the structures could withstand a far worse beating. Then again, the geologist promised far more ore than what they’d been pulling up, and the meteorologist swore at the beginning that this storm would clear within three days. So Hilosh was in ample supply of assurances but with a dwindling amount of trust in them.
There was a hollow metallic knock on the door.
“Come in.” He didn’t need to ask who it was, knowing that it would be Yarmar, his co-supervisor, no doubt with some news he didn’t want to hear; otherwise, she wouldn’t have bothered him, knowing to leave him to his own somewhat unproductive way of coping with this adversity.
“It’s not going to go away just because you keep staring at it,” she said.
“It used to work with my kids.”
“Have you been sleeping?”
“Not recently,” and then after the pause that was filled by Yarmar’s sigh he added, “Besides, your vaiya tea has been keeping me up.”
“That tea is glorified bathwater and you know it.” She joined him by the window, looking down into the deep scar in the ground, the sheer rock faces punctured by mining caverns, some of which were plugged by drilling machines that had been tucked away from the worst of the weather. The War of the Last Gasp may have been celebrated across the Know Reaches for its blow to the Thorian Empire, the apparent signal that their time of dominance would soon be coming to an end, but forty years later, not only had that day not come, but forgotten in the allies’ victory were the Vaparozh. Hilosh and Yarmar’s people lost substantial territory at the end of the war, an unspoken compromise to have the Thorians admit defeat, which resulted in the resource crunch that chased their people to the inhospitable worlds of Dead Space, just like the rock Hilosh had now found himself on.
“Any end in sight?” Yarmar asked.
“None that I can see. Though Viri swears up and down that it’ll be another two days at most.”
“We might not have two days.” There it was, the reason she had come. “The Raire just radioed in and said they’re a couple of days out.”
“Great,” Hilosh said with what felt like the last bit of strength leaving his body.
“If this thing isn’t over by then …” She stopped herself, took the mug from his gloved hands, and took a sip of his vaiya tea. “Well, I don’t need to tell you.”
She hadn’t. Just like her, he’d been crunching the numbers the last couple of days. No one was crazy enough to fly shuttles in this weather, and even if the storm resolved itself, it would take time to collect the extracted ore for transport, and the crew of the Raire wasn’t exactly known for their patience. This far out into Dead Space, about a two-month freighter haul to the nearest breathable atmosphere, supply ships were life and they knew it. The Raire in particular was an Anthar Kai vessel, so would have little concern for the plight of lesser species. They’d stick around an extra half day, at most, and then they’d be gone, and not only would this complete an abysmal year of missed quotas, the crew would also have to ration until the next scheduled ship arrived. He wondered how much more he could lower the temperature before they chucked him down the chasm.
The crew were mostly Vaparozh, with a few Mraboran and Nabak, as well as one lonely Human, the first one to have stepped foot here since the Human that had started this whole mess for Hilosh in the first place.
“How’s the crew?” Hilosh asked. He hadn’t been out of his office in a few days, and in any case, Yarmar was always better with the whole lot of them than he was.
“You know how they are, they just want to work. Charosar has been talking about how she did four years on Rosha Chot’hagh without any work stoppages and this storm is nothing compared to what they have there.”
“Ha, I also spent time on Rosha Chot’hagh. Those storms are a gentle breeze compared to what’s out there right now. This place? Should have been shut down years ago if they asked me.”
“I take it no one asked you.”
“Nope. Just thought I’d have better luck finding another Drop down there.” A lightning bolt struck the top of a crane standing at the edge of the chasm. “I don’t know, I think my luck may have run out.”
“There’s always my luck, maybe it’ll rub off on you.” Yarmar jostled him shoulder-to-shoulder, yet Hilosh didn’t take his eyes off the storm or even crack a smile.
“You should at least join the men for dinner tonight,” Yarmar suggested.
I’ve noticed a curious trend in my writing recently to do with the setting of my stories. First question of course is how does one “notice” their own trend, aren’t I the one setting them? To that I answer that you’d be surprised what you don’t notice about your writing until you’ve had a chance to step back and take a look. Specifically, in my case I’ve been setting more of my stories in Russia, and with a particular slant to them as well.
Thinking back on my high school churn of short stories, I can’t recall any of them being explicitly set in Russia except one – the mostly autobiographical story of a kid with a heart condition trying to play hockey (don’t worry folks, knock on wood but this seems to have resolved itself – the heart condition, not the hockey, which is an affliction that refuses to leave me). There was another one that was loosely based on the events of one of the bombings of the Russian parliament in the early post-Soviet Union days, but it was set in an otherwise nameless fictional European country. An odd pattern give how much of writing advice is “write what you know”.
This seems to have begun to shift in the past few years.
Firstly, my second novel that I’m currently 70K words into is set predominantly in Russia. You can read more about it here but the gist is that someone who immigrates from Russia as a kid wakes up in his mid-twenties back in Moscow living the life he would have supposedly led if he had never left. Some parts are set in Canada, but otherwise it’s a Russian-set novel through and through.
Secondly, my third long-form writing project, which recently surpassed 15K but is still in the experimental stage is an autobiographical (or possible semi-autobiographical, since I’m still toying with this) accounting of my relationship with my father set against my immigrant experience. Most of this takes place in Canada but since I immigrated after I’d turned thirteen Russia plays a prominent role here as well.
And finally are my short stories. My production of these has slowed down considerably and I think on average I’ve completed about two a year for the last few years. Still, two out of the last four that I’ve worked on are set exclusively in Russia, with a curious common theme between them. The one that I completed last year, “Grisha and Kolya”, follows two kids, one who has a developmental delay and the other who bullies him regardless, not for his disability, but his perceived class privilege. The other, "Snowdrops", is about an older woman living by herself just above the concrete overhang of a Soviet-era apartment block and her struggles with a juvenile delinquent who keeps throwing things out of their apartment to smash right outside her window.
Both of these stories are pure fiction, but draw heavily on my own experience in Russia, including elements of myself lurking in the background, as I use the stories to try to deal with some of of the mistakes from my childhood.
It’s a shift to be sure, and not entirely a mysterious one.
High school wasn’t exactly an encouraging environment for me to explore my Russianness, as I found mostly what my identity earned me was a heavy dose of bullying. This time in my life I was trying to figure just how “Canadian” I could be given my background, and learning how heavy the first part of the hyphenation of “Russian-Canadian” would be.
Over the years, like Canadian society has finally begun to do, I’ve started moving past the “hyphenated” identity, allowing both to exist independently in the amounts that are true to myself and not some externally-dictated vision of what I should be. I think for this reason I’ve felt more comfortable drawing on my Russian influence directly, since each foray no longer threatens to envelop me in an identity crisis in the same way. I’m excited as to where this new direction in my writing will lead me.
My favourite author, Kazuo Ishiguro, set his first two novels in Japan, even though he emigrated from that country at the age of five. Not to say that I’m anywhere close to expecting the same kind of success, but it’s a great source of inspiration, and who’s to say what will happen next.
When the Human that had hit her noticed she’d seen him, he straightened up and spread his arms, “Wassat, abom? Want sommore?” Despite it being a heavily accented version of StEC, she understood enough – “abom”, short for “abomination”, a catchall epithet for anyone not Human.
She scanned him for a weapon, and finding none figured she may have underestimated the power of a Human fist. Still, she wondered what a full-force open strike from a Mraboran would do to a Human face. Either from boldness or stupidity, he showed no fear as she approached him, arms hanging limply at her side, a pose that may have looked entirely harmless, even comical, to someone unfamiliar, but to any Mraboran who saw would have been an obvious sign that blood was about to be spilled. A Mraboran did see, though, and risked putting himself in the line of fire to pull Angzal away from the street.
“Don’t be daft,” Rzena hissed at her in Mraboran, though his speech was somewhat slurred, prompting the Humans to make crude meowling noises in mock imitation as the two of them retreated, shoving past the law enforcement officers and out of the suffocating strangle of the march. Here, the pedestrians thinned out quickly, and only two blocks later they felt safe enough to slow down.
“I can’t believe you were actually about to fight them,” Rzena said, annoyed, as if it was him who’d had to drag her half-conscious bug-eyed self over that bridge.
“Me!?” She whirled on him, considering for a moment that it hardly mattered which individual served as an outlet for her rage and wondered where the same fire had been when she had to drag him out of there all on her own. “They’re the ones that attacked us first.”
“A few glancing blows. You think that would have been enough to justify a Mraboran diplomat disemboweling a few non-consequential Humans? I can almost imagine the headlines back home. Or is it that you seriously don’t want to keep this job, do you?”
“Forget the job, I’d rather live.”
Looking into his eyes, the right squinting from the swelling on his brow, she took his impatient exasperated tone for what it was – gratitude that he could never express in so many words.
So she dropped it, and they continued to put distance between themselves and the protesters until their presence no longer caused that ripple in the air that Angzal picked up on when they had left the restaurant. Rzena walked with a slight limp that he looked to be trying to hide but couldn’t avoid, so Angzal made no mention of it. As for her own injury, she touched the back of her skull and realized quickly that unless she enjoyed the sensation of a hot needle stabbing through her head temple to temple, then she should probably not do that anymore. Angzal knew the prudent thing to do would be to get it checked out by a doctor, but she had no appetite for dealing with Human xenobiologists, and the one Mraboran clinic in town would not be open at this hour. She wondered if Rzena had walked himself through the same equations yet.
“How’s your head?” she asked.
Rzena put a hand to his brow and then studied his fingers. “Bleeding’s stopped.”
He chortled at that. “Yeah, I guess it is.” He touched it again, seemingly harder this time since he winced and like Angzal thought better of poking around again.
They were passing in front of the consulate offices. The only evidence that this was the starting point of tonight’s conflagration were an abundance of litter, a sign with a snapped handle tossed to the curb and several abandoned low metal fences, for posterity, to show that some effort to control the crowds had obviously been made.
“You think you’re going to get that checked out tonight?” Angzal motioned with her head to Rzena’s swollen brow that continued its advance over his eye.
“I’ll live,” he answered, and then with a shrug added, “probably.”
“Yeah, I’ve also seen enough Humans for one evening.” A rowdy group of locals stepped out of a nearby restaurant and onto the street. By all accounts, and Angzal knew this, they had nothing to do with the others, and were simply having a good time, not even paying any mind to the two Mraboran. Still, they both made the silent decision to cross the street and out of their path, walking at a pace that was uncomfortable for Rzena until their paths diverged a few minutes later and Angzal offered to see him to his door.
“Don’t bother,” he said, and there was a pang of something akin to sorrow in Angzal to hear him sound his age. It looked as if something else was dancing on the tip of his tongue, perhaps some kind of joke or comment he wanted to use to brush the whole series of events under the rug, clear the slate. Instead, all he said was “Good night” and turned to head home.
She waited for him to disappear behind a corner before going on her way.
For Angzal at least, any notion of home was still lightyears away. Nothing about her apartment suggested any sort of sanctuary and, given the throbbing that now ballooned where the Humans had struck her, even the possibility of lying on her back in her strange bed on this strange planet and staring up into a painfully boring white ceiling to put this whole day away was taken from her.
Back in February I introduced you to my latest writing project – the fantasy story with LitRPG elements entitled “The Second Magus”. I’d gotten the idea for the novel when I saw which kind of genres succeeded on Royal Road after I had posted The Bloodlet Sun to that site I wanted to try my hand at my own story in that vein, while also finally bringing to life an idea that I’ve had brewing for a number of years. I initially estimated that I would like be ready to post this in the spring/summer.
With spring quickly slipping away from us (and if we’re going by the Russian way of counting the seasons, today is the first day of summer), I think I’m likely to miss that goal. The good news is, this has nothing to do with a general lack of progress on the story. In fact, having recently cleared 36K words, I’m further along in it by word count than I’d hoped at the beginning of the year.
The problem is that whereas I’ve seemed to have found time for writing, I’m still having trouble putting in as much editing as I’d hoped. The Second Magus is competing with The Bloodlet Sun, which is already on a schedule where I can’t afford to fall behind, andmy novel, which I’ve sworn and will continue to swear will be done soon. For this reason, the editing is lagging significantly behind the writing, and of those 35K words, none so far are publishing-ready.
This is further compounded by the fact that I want to have a pretty aggressive initial release schedule to increase my chances of getting into the “Trending” section of Royal Road. This means that I need to work up a significant buffer before I launch into it, and as a result have much more work ahead of me. Currently, my more realistic goal is that The Second Magus will launch on Roya Road in September, on the anniversary of the release of The Bloodlet Sun on this blog.
As for the story itself, I think it’s going well. I didn’t know how comfortable I would feel in the genre but I’ve found a niche I can live with – focusing on the character and the plot rather than unique and detailed worldbuilding that can be found in something like the Stormlight Archive. Elements of the world and parts of the plot sometimes sprout as I go, which is another advantage of waiting for a larger buffer to build up. Unlike traditional works which get written in their whole before going to publishing, with my serial web novels, I don’t have the benefit of being able to see the end result and then reworking from the beginning. At least with a buffer it allows me to set most of my pieces right before I gallop ahead and handcuff myself by things written in the earlier chapters.
I’ve also had a chance to try out the first few chapters on my kids and it received their stamp of approval. Wish I could take them further into the story but our story time has been sidetracked over the last month or so by my seven-year-old’s own creation: The Adventures of Bob and Appaly. I might go into that later just for fun – it is quite the ride on the rollercoaster of a kid’s imagination.
In the meantime, I will plug way at The Second Magus and work on fleshing out such minor details as the name of the Kingdom where everything takes place, and the main character’s last name (I know, I know, but fictional names have never been my strong suit so I’m being extra careful here, and with the first name being “Miro”, I think I’m just lucky it’s something that’s only four letters and two syllables long and doesn’t sound like some tertiary Star Wars planet afterthought).
I’ll also need to put n some extra effort into the synopsis, as my previous version of The Bloodlet Sun one has recently been torn to shreds by some very helpful users on Royal Road. Taking those lessons to heart, I should have something prepared in the next month, and it will probably be the next thing I’ll be sharing with you in terms of an update on this project.
The sun had already set and an autumn chill settled over the street when they left the restaurant, not entirely having satisfied their ravenous evening appetites. Something new hung in the air. Angzal could sense it, unsure of what it could be, while Rzena seemed entirely oblivious. As they made their way back towards the consulate building, since both of them lived relatively close by, Rzena caught onto it too. The mood of the streets had shifted, and thumped with a different heartbeat. Even before they heard it – that rising tide of the noise of the crowd – they had already been walking on guard, ears perked up. Though neither of them spoke, both had the innate feeling that the other was tugged along by the same opposing forces – the threatening hum of a powerful confluence of voices and the desire to know what was happening, a flash of excitement on an otherwise dull planet.
Here and there they spied it through the breaks in the buildings, the press of people that sometimes flowed like a patient river, and sometimes churned in place with its tones at times hopeful, or frustrated, or even downright enraged. Keeping to its periphery, Angzal and Rzena found that between the crowd and the geography of the city, the way home had been effectively barred. And worse yet, keeping a few blocks away they found straggling pockets of individuals that have peeled off from the main group, and eyed the two of them in less than flattering ways. A choice was made to follow the crowd at a distance as far as they could and then cut through quickly while hopefully not attracting much attention.
They ran out of room when they reached one of the stumpy bridges across the river that separated the historic core from the new part of downtown. Here at least the road was wide enough to let the crowd thin out a bit, though it left the two of them with no options other than hurrying right through it.
Now that Angzal and Rzena were in it, they could see the crowd attracted every manner of Human, from pale beige to dark brown, as well as some Wintis, standing tall on those elongated toes like some kind of prey animal on the grasslands, and also some members of the Fusir – all Outer Rim Confederacy species, while Thorians and their fellow Mraboran were notably absent. Not everything that was shouted or chanted by the crowd was in Earth Standard Commercial, but the things that were, as well as the posters and placards carried down the streets of Malbur, explained this absence easily.
“Never really amounts to more than anything, huh?” Angzal asked, mostly in jest, and then seeing Rzena’s terrified face realized he was well out of reach of any attempts to lighten the mood, so she grabbed him by one of the leather straps that looped over his shoulder and dragged him at a conspicuous pace over the bridge.
She had figured that two fur-covered beings could only remain largely unseen for so long in a mess of mostly hairless beasts. They’d made it about halfway across the bridge before some of the shouting had definitely come to be directed at them, though the only phrase Angzal could identify was jeers of “Go home!” Before she even realized how it happened, she lost the grip on Rzena and he became separated from her by a wall of Human backs.
Later she would tell herself that there was no moment of hesitation, that her looking behind her shoulder towards the other side of the bridge and wondering how quickly she could make it there was her merely checking her surroundings. It didn’t matter, she would insist, because in the end, the result was the same – she stopped and grabbed at the shoulders of the Humans that stood between her and Rzena to get through the living barricade. She had a hard time of it on her own, but a rough shove to her back propelled her forward and she made the best of it, using the momentum to break through two bystanders. She found Rzena on his knees in the middle of an enclosed circle, shielding his head from one Human that stood over him.
Without wasting any more time, she grabbed Rzena under the arms and yanked him up, leading him out of a knot of people that seemed to be in somewhat of a disarray after suddenly finding another Mraboran in their midst. There were a few shouts of “hey!” behind them, as well as the sound of shattering glass on pavement which may or may not have had anything to do with them, though Angzal took no chances glancing back. As they were heading down the bridge, Rzena stumbled, and Angzal noticed the fur on his brow was matted with blood and his eyes were drifting every which way except the direction they were supposed to be going. For her part, Angzal thought of herself as a keel aimed in the straightest path down the road towards the other side of the river. Several Humans, some of whom looked more like curious passersby than active agitators, made the wrong choice to not get out of her way, and were elbowed sharply aside.
Once the bridge ended, all she had to do was pierce through the clot of people at each side of the road, hopefully not losing Rzena in the process. She picked a spot were several law enforcement officers were lined next to each other, assuming this would make for a safe exit as any.
Again the attack came from behind. This time, the pain was sharp, delivered to the base of her skull, and filled her ears with a dull ringing. Rzena had been ripped from her by the impact, and she herself went sprawling forward, coming to a sudden stop against one of the officers. He was a tall Human, arms crossed over a barrel chest that bulged from the armour, face constructed entirely of straight lines and right angles. Not even a hand had moved to help steady her, and his eyes had no interest in her assailant. Instead, they looked down at her in a cold hard way, drawing a line between them that couldn’t have been clearer. Under that gaze, the hotness in the back of her head swelled, blotting out any initial touch of fear that she may have experienced, and she pushed away from the officer, staring defiantly into the crowd, where the culprit wasn’t hard to spot, still doubled-over in laughter while his two friends egged him on.
Angzal stared off into a darkening window. “I couldn’t quite believe it when I got the call that I was appointed to this post. I’m the runt of my litter you know? One of my brothers works with my mother in the capital, another is an arbitrator on Kai Thori and my other brother and sister are also off-world. That just left me, sort of unaccounted for.”
“Still, an interstellar posting. Not bad for a runt.”
“Yes, as our esteemed Congressmember has already reminded me.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to push it.”
Seeing the genuine concern in Rzena’s eyes and hearing an apology rather than his usual snark was far more disturbing than any moment of introspection could bring so she quickly waved him off.
“No, you both have a point. I knew the opportunities might be there if I pushed for them. So I threw myself into languages. Hatvan first, then near fluency in Standard Thorian, even though I knew Trade Thorian already.”
“You’ve certainly picked up their modesty.”
That’s more like it.
“Hey, I know what I’m good at and I’m not going to hide it.”
“And did it get you what you wanted?”
“In a way. Landed a position in the Department of Foreign Affairs. Living in the capital, off the estate, you know, thinking I’ve got independence. Mostly I was just carted in front of Thorian delegates who were amused by my fluency. A parlor trick without much substance. I thought maybe I’d have better luck with something more obscure. I’ve always found Nabak absolutely stunning so I learned their language in the hopes of being sent there but then the Insurrection hit and all hopes of that were pretty much dashed.”
“How very inconsiderate of them.”
“You know what I mean. So I decided to go really off the board, reach into some forgotten corner of civilization for my next challenge, and decided to study Standard Earth Commercial.” Angzal growled at that and Rzena gave a small snort. “Don’t know why I even bothered with StEC, given that anyone who’s anyone here knows Trade Thorian as well as anyone in the Known Reaches. Still, got me on some kind of consideration list somewhere because it wasn’t long before I was boarding a liner coming through from Vaparozh to take me almost as far away from home as possible within the Known Reaches.”
Their Human waiter, with skin a tan shade of brown so common to their species, Congressmember Reyes included, arrived to place their dessert orders and after-meal drinks before them. When it came to sugary snacks, Humans seemed to go all out, and she found the first few experiences unpalatably sweet for her Mraboran taste buds, though she continued to search for something she could more or less enjoy. Her experiment with coffee, on the other hand, was far more short-lived. After not sleeping for an entire night, she acquired a newfound fascination with the Human central nervous system, and vowed never to have another sip again. Either as a result of bravado, an aggressive commitment to assimilation, or the desire for an early grave, Rzena did not share the same predisposition and sat with his hands wrapped round a mug of the hot bitter drink.
“Do you know how excited I was when I thought I might get this position?” Angzal looked into her own steaming mug of chamomile tea.
“There are so many reasons why I can’t imagine.”
“I vowed to learn everything I could about their culture. I found a Human neighbourhood on Mrabr – oh yes, they have one now, though it’s teensy, barely two intersecting streets. I’d visit there daily, eat at every restaurant, try every dish they could cobble together from the available ingredients. I fell in love with chamomile tea, insisted they start growing chamomile at the estate. I think my mother suspected I was nuts, probably pulled some strings to make sure she could get me off-world for good. Somehow, at that point, there was no doubt in my mind this was going to be perfect for me.”
Rzena’s bemused look over his mug as he sipped his coffee prompted her to make a resigned sigh.
“The best part is? No one told me anything that could have set me straight. All I heard was ‘What a great career opportunity’ or ‘Such a nice opportunity to see the wider world’ and ‘An excellent stepping stone to advance your career’. I guess in hindsight that last one was a bit of a warning. But it wasn’t until I was on the ship taking me here that I had my first doubts. I was popped out of stasis about a week out from Earth, and went to the galley for some hot water for my chamomile tea, which, yes, I packed, let’s just move on from that, and found a lone Thorian sitting at a table.” Rzena made a little sound into his coffee and looked up at her as if to see if she was joking. “Oh yes, it was a very ‘god of the underworld disguises himself as a sly Thorian’ kind of vibe.”
“Tell me about it. He even said he was a poet, if you can believe it.”
“Since when do they have poets?” Rzena asked with a glassy glimmer coming over his eyes from the coffee, or perhaps she was imagining it based on her own experience with the foul drink.
“No idea, but whatever the reason he was on that ship, it wasn’t for leisure, that much was easy to tell. So this ‘Thorian’, you know, supposedly –”
“He tells me he’s got the actual inside scoop on these Humans.”
“Well, if there’s anyone who knows everything more than everyone, it’s Thorians.”
“Right? So he takes my newborn position and all the hopes that come with it and basically strangles it before it’s got a chance to take its first steps. He explains that Humans are difficult to work with – they’re unpredictable upstarts who hardly even know what they want and that they’re twitchy and panicky and whatever other colourful yet annoyingly accurate words he used. And it’s been like, a month now that I’ve spent among them and you know what I’ve realized?” Angzal took a small sip of her tea and set the cup down, rubbing with her fingers behind her ears. “This is just warm flower juice.”
She looked up at Rzena, who was regarding her with that air of misplaced superiority. “Seems to me at least you’re coming to your senses,” he said and then, lifting his own mug, “Soon you’ll realize that bean juice is clearly superior.” He held his cold expression for a few moments and then burst out laughing, dragging Angzal along with him.
Sometimes it’s easy to get swindled by our protagonists. They are the chosen heroes of our story – it is their challenges, their accomplishments, their growth that gets spotlighted, and for this reason, they’re prone to getting a fat head. The plot revolves around them, therefore they’re the most important being in this universe and every other character is merely a tool whose entire existence revolves around the protagonist.
Don’t believe their lies.
Your protagonist may strut around like a peacock, drowning out every supporting character with the massive egos, but as the writer, you need to be smarter than that. If a supporting cast does nothing but offer themselves up to the protagonists’ story, then they’re no longer characters but props – toys to be played with by a spoiled child. If everyone around the protagonist sacrifices their agency to the protagonist’s needs, then they no longer feel real, and the world around the protagonist collapses.
I’ve recently encountered this issue in my second novel. The most important non-protagonist character in my book was spending some time with the main character and I started to find that everything she did or said was specifically geared for the MC’s story. Everything she said boiled down to prompts for the protagonist to reveal his feelings and motivations. Everything she did seemed to have followed what the protagonist was doing. It was a perfect recipe for not only having a weak character, but also for establishing an unhealthy gender dynamic between the characters. When I found myself writing another dialogue where the opening line was the other character asking the MC a question about his life, I knew that I was on the wrong path.
I hadn’t exactly uncovered a new problem – strong realistic support characters are a hallmark of good writing – it’s just that I recognized the flaw in my current WIP. But knowing that something is a problem is a far cry from fixing it. So here’s my proposed solution to resolving this particular shortcoming – imagine your supporting characters as protagonists of their own work.
We are all the heroes of our own story. Realizing this and reminding ourselves of it regularly is how we practice empathy, and so too it should go for fictional characters. Everything in your book revolves around your protagonist, they are the sun of your story. But planets that orbit the sun are centres of their own systems – they have their own moons revolving around them. What you need to do is flesh those moons out, and don’t forget about them when writing interactions between your characters.
So the approach I took is taking a moment to imagine if I was writing a book about the protagonist’s friend instead – what is her current main conflict, what are her goals, how are those goals being met or not, how do the actions and words of the protagonist impact her story?
It’s not like I haven’t thought of a backstory for her before, so she didn’t exist in a vacuum. A backstory, though, places too much emphasis on the “back” – focusing on what led her to the events of the book, but then losing sight of their continued existence as the story progresses. For this reason, I want to think of it more as a concurrent-story – the life the supporting cast is leading while occasionally intertwining with the main plot. It’s almost like a subplot that never makes it into the main work.
Having gone through this exercise, I found that the dialogue now flowed more naturally and smoothly. The opening of the conversation was no longer protagonist-driven, but rather led by the thoughts and feelings of the supporting character. I maintained the depth I’d developed for her without subsuming it to the main character’s story. Next time I’ll make sure to keep my eye on this for the entirety of writing process.
So the next time you’re writing, might I recommend keeping track of these “supporting character as protagonist” stories in parallel to your main plot, and you’ll find yourself a much stronger cast of characters.
When they left the building where the consulate was located, sunset was still over an hour away, but most of the heat had already drained out of the day. Beachgoers were largely replaced by leisurely strollers around the promenade, though the cluster of people gathered outside their front entrance seemed starkly less relaxed.
“Any idea what’s going on there?” Angzal asked Rzena, who seemed determined not to look in their direction.
“Oh, just Humans being Humans.”
“What do you mean?”
He crossed the street to put some distance between them and the small crowd.
“Every couple of months Humans find something to get really excited over. So some of them show up with their posters and slogans, and sometimes the local police have to keep them at bay, but after a couple of days they’re gone and everyone’s moved on. Bottom line is, ignore them. Eye contact is like gasoline to these people.”
When they were at what she considered a safe distance, Angzal threw a glance back at the protestors, trying to see if Reyes was among them. Or was this something she would be involved in behind the scenes, rather than on the frontlines?
Instead of familiar streets, Rzena led them to the historic district of downtown Malbur, where some of the ancient glass monolith towers that survived the Great Fire still stood. The rest of the denser city core was marked by large multi-terraced buildings with inner courtyards, green roofs and hanging gardens. Though Humans still built the occasional glossy spire to rise above these sprawling complexes, there was an austere sternness to the old giants which withstood millennia since Humanity’s first Space Age, as if they were vertical pools holding up a mirror to a darker time. Rzena explained that on other continents, historic city centres were often a thousand or even multiple thousands of years older than what could be found in Malbur, an age which would put them in much closer competition to the cities of Mrabr.
To Angzal’s surprise, the plazas nestled among the roots of the giants were full of quaint boutiques and eateries. Rzena found them a restaurant, all wooden tables and wooden partitions dividing the space for a more intimate meal, with a large aquarium in the foyer and part of the dining room, and a menu that naturally leaned towards offerings from the sea.
Initially, she was going to go for the more familiar Earth staple of a carnivore diet – a lightly roasted pâté made from crushed arthropods with small meat cubes for dipping. Rzena convinced her to make a more exotic selection, even if the dish involved some kind of grain, which was essentially grass, which was not really food, but food’s food.
When their dishes arrived, Angzal had to admit they looked appetizing, and Rzena explained to her that it was somewhat fortuitous that they even had the opportunity to order them, as many of Earth’s aquatic species were on the brink of extinction before the Great Fire, and when Humans rebuilt their civilization from the ashes of the old one, they approached the task in a far more respectful way to the planet than their ancestors had. Rzena was brimming with historical information about the local species and the hapless planet that had the misfortune to be their home, a curious accumulation of knowledge that Angzal remarked on.
Rzena made a noncommittal sound as he chewed his food. “Someone like me has a lot of time on their hands to travel and visit museums and read every single plaque I can get my eyes on. If I’m going to spend the rest of my life here, whatever that’s worth, I might as well get to know the place. I know some expats who’ve hardly spoken to anyone outside their own species. A huge waste, if you ask me.”
“Have you ever been back home?”
“You mean since I moved here? No. Considered a trip after the first couple of years but that idea died out so slowly I barely noticed. Between the cost, the length of travel and how much time it’s been and how much must’ve changed, feels like setting myself up for disappointment. None of my litter is back there anyway – my daughters are on other colonies and my son’s on the Vaparozh homeworld. Go figure.”
“Do any of your litter come to visit?”
“They used to, here and there. Earth isn’t exactly the kind of place you crave to visit more than once. My little one was here last, but that must have been … about six years ago now.” The look on Angzal’s face made him wave off her concern and continue. “They’re all grown now, two of them have litters of their own and one of them decided to keep going and find another mate. They’re busy, I get it. Doesn’t mean I like it. So ‘home’ for me is basically just this job – a series of tasks to be completed without much connection to any sort of real place.”
“And what happens when the job’s gone?”
“Ha! That’ll be the day they find some other idiot to fill my shoes. But I suppose I could retire to Guawana. They have a proper Mraboran community there. You can even score an agmari steak if you’re lucky.”
“True story. Even raimzau, too. If you’re ever over on that island, I’ll let you know where the good places are. Here, they’ve got two Hatvan nightclubs and a Thorian food court and they think they got themselves an interstellar city. There was an Iastret cabaret for a while, but that closed down. At least in those other cities, if you squint hard enough, you can pretend you’re almost near civilization.”
“Well it’s good to know not everywhere on Earth is as bleak as this.”
“Ah don’t let me get your hopes up, it’s a far cry from what you’re used to. Still, I’ve spent almost twenty years in this city, but I’d sooner retire to be closer to our kind than be neck deep in Humans all day.”
A low growl escaped the back of Angzal’s throat and prompted Rzena to laugh. “They are a trying bunch, aren’t they?” he asked.
I’d be the first to admit that I’m not the handiest guy around. This isn’t a point of pride, by any means; and I’m generally not a fan of having pride in one’s ignorance. The fact that you don’t cook, don’t read, or can’t change a tire isn’t a personality trait, so no need to hang any part of your identity on it. For me, it’s just a hole in my knowledge that developed without any effort. My dad wasn’t terribly handy either and I’ve been privileged to get by with other people being able to do this work. That said, I can hang a picture straight, and where the situation calls, can turn to Google if necessary.
The situation called loud and clear on Saturday night when the cold-water handle of the kitchen faucet popped right off as I was washing the dishes just before midnight.
Let’s just say containing a gushing geyser with my bare hands while my wife tries to keep the baby asleep in the other room isn’t my preferred way of spending a Saturday evening, but we don’t always get what we want.
Fortunately, she was able to step away and come to the rescue, grabbing a thick towel which allowed me to cover and contain the flow long enough to switch off the tap underneath the sink.
But now what? It was too late to call the handyperson and with the water flow contained, it was no longer an emergency. What I also had to keep in mind is that during the pandemic we’ve been pretty hunkered down, and not letting people into our house when we have the choice was a key part of our COVID mitigation strategy. So now we have to organize the plumber to come in just as we’re almost out of the worst of it (fingers crossed). Seemed like such a waste.
So I rolled up my sleeves and made a second attempt at getting to the bottom of this faucet handle – a faucet handle that was now at the bottom of my sink. I’d tried once before, when it first started leaking, but couldn’t get past the “remove the handle” stage. The instructions said either undo the screw or pop the handle off. I couldn’t find a screw and the handles wouldn’t pop off, so that dead-end made me feel less than clever, to put it mildly.
Having the handle now in my hand allowed for a closer look, and found a sneaky hex-socket screw (the typical IKEA Allen wrench screw) that got out with some serious wiggling. One of the two never got back in, but I’ll just focus on the victories for now.
Having the inner workings of the handle now available, the diagrams on the internet made that much more sense. Turns out, I had a busted o-ring in my cold-water handle, which didn’t create the right seal. Not only that, but the fact that my handle managed to pop off with the water pressure meant that the main screw that held it in place was also loose for a while. The “how” of “how it happened” though was far less important than the “how” of “how to fix it”.
I dismantled the hot water handle to compare the two and to switch o-rings and then put the faucets back exactly as they were, turned on the water pressure … and found both the hot water and the cold water were now flowing through into the faucet itself without me having to turn the handles.
Somehow I’ve managed to eff it up even worse.
What followed was a long trial and error process that uncovered that I had loose rubber seats that were supposed to stem the water flow from the pipe to the handle, which I then put back in. This solved the problem for all of a minute, returning the moment I turned the handle, which then led to discovering that the cold tap was missing a little spring that was supposed to hold the rubber seat in place. The spring from the cold water tap lay loose in the sink o the verge of falling down the drain.
After about three in the morning, everything was in place except for a broken o-ring now on the hot water handle, but otherwise the sink was perfectly usable until I could get my hands on the spare parts to take care of that last remaining leak.
The feeling of satisfaction I experienced though was quite surprising – this was something that had sadly been completely outside of my wheelhouse, but that I was able to puzzle through. For many, it probably seems like a simple task and they’d chuckle at the amount of grief it gave me. But for me, it was a new problem I managed to solve all thanks to one of the indisputable advantages of the internet – the accumulation of nearly all of human knowledge at my fingertips.
Hopefully trying to install that new o-ring won’t leave me botching the whole thing entirely, but I guess we’ll wait and see.
Twice over the course of that conversation the Ambassador referred to Angzal by the formal address “Angzal gan Mreniyaur”. The feelings that the first such instance had stirred were buried by the discussion that followed, but the Ambassador’s inclusion of Angzal’s full name as she bid what could generously be described as her “farewell” dredged them up again. A Mraboran’s full name came from their litter, which was in turn derived from the names of the parents. Litters usually comprised three to six individuals, and were restricted to one per parent pairing, leaving Mraboran to choose between unlimited procreation and monogamy. The majority picked the latter, Angzal’s parents among them. This left Angzal with only four siblings, scattered across the Known Reaches, and none closer than a month’s journey away. So on her way back to the office, instead of dreading the meeting upon which her entire career now apparently hinged, she was composing letters to her brothers and sister; letters she knew she was long overdue in sending.
To Rzena’s credit, he did seem to make a serious attempt at hiding the look of glee when Angzal asked him to schedule another meeting with Reyes.
“Could you just, let me know when you’re about to call her to set up the appointment, so I can be out of the room?” Angzal requested. “I want to see neither your face nor hear her voice over the line.”
“That’s a shame, I was planning on putting it on speakerphone.”
“Have I ever told you you’re funny when you’re toying with death?”
At that, Rzena made a sound that was half laugh, half old-man-grunt and returned to the absorbed silence of his work.
To say that Angzal’s first conversation with the Ambassador did not go the way she had envisioned it was to put a mild spin to the fact that Angzal replayed it over and over in her head until she started to feel claustrophobic. The worst part was she couldn’t decide whether she was relieved she hadn’t said all she wanted to, or angry that she chose to hold back. This was further amplified by the fact that she imagined multiple scenarios where she did choose to speak up.
“Is that it? The Thorians are at their weakest and we’re still going to cower in our own corner?”
“I hadn’t realized that the whole reason for our species’ existence had been reduced to being thorns in the Hatvan’s side.”
“So it’s true what they say, the only ones the Protectorate is willing to protect are the ones at its top.”
Although each new invented retort scratched an itch inside her, even in her own fantasies none of these scenarios resulted in the Ambassador being rendered speechless, or sputtering or somehow being put in her place. Rather the long-term outcome was invariably Angzal never getting off this rock again. This was, she admitted darkly, a future that may have already been sealed for her. What she really needed, instead of masticating on the events of the day by herself, was someone she could vent to. Her sister shared some of her frustrations, but had the better sense to keep them to herself when it best suited her. Unfortunately, she was also the furthest of her littermates, and even if Angzal sent her something today she wouldn’t hear back for almost a month. Her brothers, though closer, were decidedly more useless in this respect and would provide no comfort and only the empty platitudes about believing in the infinite wisdom of government. The only thing less helpful than them in this situation was the clock that insisted on dragging this day out past her breaking point.
There was a number of emails sitting in her inbox about a reception with an Imsogon trade delegation, most of which pertained to the menu – frivolous questions that did not mesh well with her current lack of appetite yet were somehow the most palatable of her unattended work.
Despite its gargantuan efforts to the contrary, the work day did indeed succumb to the laws of time and space and concluded. Rzena took his stubborn few minutes before he started packing up, as if this was simply a natural break in his work and he wasn’t counting down the minutes before he could leave. This, in turn, delayed Angzal’s own exit as a result of her own equally tenacious insistence that she never leave before him.
How many thousands of times had he packed up this desk, and how many of them have been any kind of distinguishable from the others? He did it with a distant look, as if he was already gone or had never really showed up, the fur around his eyes already starting to take on a lighter colour, unlike the darkness of the Ambassador’s face. After the day she had, Angzal thought she could see a glimmer of her own future in his expression – spending your days in a far-flung corner of the Known Reaches to provide a voice to your people when they’ve long stopped listening to yours.
“Hey Rzena,” she called out and he looked up mostly with disinterest. “You want to catch dinner or something?”
If it elicited any surprise in him, he hid it well. Instead, he paused, as if rifling in his mind through a normally busy social calendar. “Sure, got anywhere in mind?” he asked.
“Anywhere but here.”
“I might know a place.”
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.