The Gemmell awards were held last night at the Magic Circle in London, and while I’m sure there are plenty of people who’ll be talking all about them, the venue has reminded me of a magic trick. Or sort of a magic trick anyway.
The story goes like this: once upon a time there was a writer who was writing a trilogy of stories, and in this trilogy of stories there was going to be a hero and a villain and a something-in-between. And in the first story the hero and the villain would fight, and in the second it would be the hero and the something-in-between and in the third story, it would be the hero and the villain again. And the writer was quite pleased with his three characters that stood at the heart of these stories and had started to think of them as people he knew.
There was a back-story to these characters too, one fairly relevant to the the events that would later happen. They’d all been young and foolish once. They’d done something they shouldn’t and they’d been caught. One of them fled. One of them got away. One of them was caught, and to the one that was caught, bad things happened. The other two ran away to war, the hero and the villain, but the villain lost his hand in the fighting fairly early on and came home again. That was all in the past, mind, none of it relevant to the story.
In the first book, the hero and the villain found one another again and danced around each other until at last they came to blows, and in the fight between them, the hero cut off the villain’s other hand and was then torn away before their fight could finish, but there was something of a poetic symmetry to the way things turned out and all was good.
In the second book, the hero got on with other things and the villain was only present as a distant figure in the background, and all was good.
It was in the third story that matters began to go awry. The writer quickly saw that the grand climax finale between the villain and the hero was going to lack some sparkle with the villain having no hands. It wasn’t really going to be much of a fight. The writer knew that his villain had to have at least one hand and so he started to look at how the story might be changed. He looked at the end of the first story and whether maybe the hero could chop something else off the villain instead, but that brought other problems. So he looked at the world he’d imagined into being and sought out a place and a means for the villain to have new hands. Star Wars did it after all . . . And he found a place too, a loophole in his own world that he could exploit to give his villain new hands, and so he did, and got on with writing his third story. He didn’t much like where this new loophole was taking him, but he soldiered on anyway because that’s what you do with first drafts, until he got almost to the end, and knew that these hands had changed the world into one that was different from his first imaginings and made a lesser thing as a result.
New hands didn’t work. No hands didn’t work. Saving the hand lost in the first story didn’t work. And it took this writer an inordinate length of time to finally spot the obvious that was staring him in the face right from the start. Change the back-story. Problem solved. Easy as that. Hardly a word needed to change anywhere until it matters. The writer stared at this, bewildered by how easy it was, but bewildered more by how he hadn’t seen it for such a ridiculously long time.
Characters will do that to you sometimes. They become so alive that they have to do things even when you don’t want them to, or do things you really wish they wouldn’t, because that’s who they are. And sometimes (often) a character becomes so real that to change them into someone else is unthinkable. It’s very hard, when that happens, to remember that you just made them up, that there’s not a thing about them you can’t change however you like, from their favourite colour to how many hands they have. You just have to think of a way for fate or luck or destiny to do it to them.
Next book giveaway coming up shortly.