A Different Kind of History - Damaged Characters
No, I’m not talking about the damage an author can inflict with one too many rounds of revising (though that would make an interesting blog topic in and of itself). I’m thinking of characters who are damaged by their past experiences, whether it’s a painful childhood, battlefield trauma, the morally ambiguous life of a spy, or a love affair gone tragically wrong. Which comes down to the focus of this blog--history. Whether it's real historical events, such as the brutal aftermath of the Siege of Badajoz, or fictional history, such as a lover's betrayal or parental neglect, the scars of the past create damaged characters. To explore and heal that damage, a writer has to delve into the character's history.
As a reader and writer, I've always been fascinated by history, both real historical events and the history of fictional characters (I love sequels and prequels, seeing characters at differnet points in their lives, part of what I so enjoyed about the new Star Trek movie). So perhaps it isn't surprising that a lot of my favorite characters are defined by their pasts. Francis Crawford of Lymond begins his adventures in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles already an outlaw and an attainted traitor, estranged from his family and guilty over his sister’s death. Damerel, the hero of one of my favorite Georgette Heyer novels, Venetia, is a social outcast thanks to the scandals in his past. He’s convinced he’ll make Venetia miserable by dragging her into social ruin if he marries her. Venetia has to go to great (and very entertaining) lengths to convince him otherwise.
Lymond's past scars, while they involve fictional plot twists, are rooted in the real historical event of the Scottish defeat at the Battle of Solway Moss. Damerel's damage on the other hand is more personal--a love affair with a married woman, subsequent estrangement from his family, his father's death in the midst of it. Both Lymond and Damerel are wonderful examples of the classic tortured hero. Both have a complex backstory, which I think is one of the keys to doing tortured characters well (there’s nothing more annoying than a character who’s tortured over a deep dark secret that seems common place when revealed). But while traditionally it’s the hero who’s suffered the most emotional damage, I’ve always liked heroines with emotional baggage. Barbara Childe, the edgy, self-destructive heroine from Heyer’s An Infamous Army, is a wonderful example of the type. So is Dorothy Sayers's Harriet Vane. I know some readers find Harriet too prickly to be sympathetic, but she's one of my favorite heroines, struggling to come to terms with the past (her lover's murder, her own trial on charges of killing him) yet refusing to let herself be defined or defeated by it. Of course Peter Wimsey has scars of his own, rooted in historical events--shell shock from World War I. In one of my favorite scenes from Busman's Honeymoon, it's Harriet (who begins the series "sick of myself, body and soul") who comforts Peter. That scene shows the hard-won balance they've achieved in their relationship.
It can be particularly interesting when both the hero and heroine have emotional scars. I just finished Laurie King’s latest (quite wonderful) Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes book, The Language of Bees. In this series King (who talks about Sayers as an influence and has some wonderful Sayers parallels in books) took Holmes, who has suffered plenty of damage (some shown, some hinted at) in the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories, and paired him with the much younger but equally scarred Russell. One of the delights of the series is watching these two people, who both guard themselves carefully, reveal bits of their scarred pasts to each other and to the reader. There’s something particularly heartening about two damaged people being able to form a bond (the declaration scene in A Monstrous Regiment of Women is one of the most wonderful I have ever read, right among there among my favorites with the Harriet and Peter scene at the end of Gaudy Night). And of course, the bond doesn’t heal all the damage, which makes for interesting developments over a series. The previous book in the series, Locked Rooms, dealt with Russell coming to terms with the events surrounding her family’s death. In The Language of Bees, Holmes comes face to face with the “lovely, lost son” King referred to in a previous book and with a painful past that goes back to Irene Adler. King creates a Holmes who moves believably into the 20th century, yet he is still coming to terms with his past.
It’s perhaps no wonder that as a writer I can be quite merciless in creating histories for my characters that leave them weighed down with emotional baggage. When I first began sketching out Charles & Mélanie Fraser, I knew that the secrets of Mélanie’s past would create plenty of angst for both of them. But it never occurred to me to stop there. Before I even had the plot of Secrets of a Lady (formerly Daughter of the Game) worked out, I had given Charles a tragic love past affair, an emotionally neglectful childhood, a strained relationship with his brother, and questions about his legitimacy. While Mélanie had suffered the horrors of the Peninsular War (specifically the carnage inflicted by the British Army during Sir John Moore's retreat) and lost both her parents and her younger sister. Quite a bit of that is mentioned or at least alluded to in the first scene between them in Secrets/Daughter. I wanted to show the damage these two people had suffered and the stable marriage they’d managed to build in spite it. To me, that made it all the worse when the very foundations of that marriage are threatened. All of that past damage also provides rich fodder for subsequent books in the series. Charles’s relationship with his family, particularly his father, was the starting place for Beneath a Silent Moon. And there’s lots more to deal with in Mélanie’s past…
Do you like stories about damaged characters? Do you prefer it to be the hero or the heroine or both to have the emotional scars? Any favorite examples to suggest? Writers, when you create characters do you think about how their past history has defined them? Do you try to work real historical events into their past history?