I write out of a character in a situation; that’s nearly always the starting point, and if the character isn’t working, the story dies. I can’t seem to say, ‘This is the world and this is the plot,’ create the appropriate characters to enact it, and send them out on stage. The end result is that even when I think I have a plot all worked out, a history to tell, once the characters come properly alive, it can turn out I was under a serious misapprehension, not necessarily about the largest outlines of the history, but about all the details of how it worked out and who actually drove the story.
Take Ahjvar and Ghu, for instance, those two embattled men on the cover of The Leopard. The heroes, in fact. (I love the way that Raymond Swanland shows them here.)I kept trying to write the book about someone else, trying to tell the history of an event in Marakand, which is the place you get to if you keep going east on the caravan road. This potential hero was a come-from-away Marakander guard captain who found herself ensnared in the affairs of the Lady, the tyrant-goddess of the city. I was determined to tell this history. I went through draft after draft that just would not satisfy me, that was just wrong. There was an assassin, a lesser character whose actions were the catalyst to touch off catastrophe. He had a different reason for being there in every draft, but he always showed up already in the city with his servant, or he was already a captive of the Lady, or at least he came riding up to the city gates. Then … “The assassin’s house …” I finally began, hundreds of miles from Marakand, from the point of view of a new secondary character, a young bard sent to carry a message to the assassin Ahjvar, the Leopard. (She had begun life in one version, where Ahjvar was a more legitimate servant of a king, as his recently-slain partner. You know, the grim corpse sprawled stage left.) Suddenly, at the point that it switches to the assassin’s perspective on the encounter and Ghu, whom the girl of the opening paragraph has seen as a simple-witted servant boy, begins upbraiding Ahjvar for his behaviour towards the girl and Ahj says he doesn’t like the colour of her hair, the story all fell into place around them.
What? I thought. Why? What’s wrong with her hair? I love it when these minor lines that just seem to write themselves suddenly get caught up in the under-mind’s frantic dance to weave everything together, the subconscious puzzle-solving of writing, and suddenly turn out to be the seed or the hint of something complex and important. It’s sort of as though instead of being able to say, ‘humorous line, minor detail’, the unconscious pattern-seeking storytelling mind thinks, It’s there, so it must be a clue, and begins frantically to discover — invent — all the connections that explain why Ahjvar doesn’t like red-haired women, and why it matters — vitally — that he doesn’t.
I’d always known he was under a curse. I hadn’t been able to settle on why.
Oh, I realized, rather quickly. It’s his book.
The plot itself is not that different from what I had planned; part of the larger story arc of Moth and the werebear Mikki, who wander in and out of other heroes’ stories for a few chapters in their quest to find the devils (or perhaps to avoid finding the devils) who’ve escaped their graves. Although Marakand is not a sequel but a new two-book series set in the same world, it builds on hints in Blackdog of the situation in the city of Marakand: the execution of wizards, the existence of the Voice. How I ended up telling it, though was quite different from what I had initially imagined. It’s definitely epic in that it is a polyphonic narrative, with a greater complexity of politics, human and divine interactions, and long histories underlying its present. Along the way, though, much of the history between beginning and end turned out to follow a different path to that end than I had anticipated, and that’s because of the characters, who, in best S&S tradition, set off on a journey with no idea where they’d end up.
The best of both worlds, I’d like to think.