Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Learning from the masters series: Building Character with Kim Headlee

The pen is my sword.
I have written before that writers are readers.  We read for our own enjoyment and to learn techniques, both through exposure to well-written work and through examination of the works we read.  Lu Chi's Wen Fu (which I have cited in the past) said it best: 
When cutting an axe handle with an axe,
   surely the model is at hand.

With that sage advice, I am looking closely at how author Kim Headlee designs character.  One could say she has a head start since she makes use of the King Arthur legend, but it is more of a base of familiarity her readers can walk in with, for she is by no means married to it.  Her characters carry the names and much of the fame, family affiliations and general motivations delineated in the legend, but Headlee deepens, defines and evolves these basic character requirements far past those initial mythological underpinnings.

There is very little background on Guenevere (choose your favorite spelling; there is sure to be one that will fit your fancy).  Headlee builds off this strong character from mythology and adds backbone, a fighting spirit and self-determination.  But first she introduces the character in Dawnflight (Book 1 of the Dragon's Dove Chronicles).  After the prologue setting up the heartbreaking birth that ends with the mother dying, Gyanhumara (Headlee's chosen version of the famous name) arrives in full form in Chapter 1.

     "Keep up your intensity!" Ogryvan swiped at his opponent's midsection.  "Always! Lose your battle frenzy, and you're dead!"
     Neither was fighting in true battle frenzy,, but the younger warrior understood.  Smiling grimly through the rivulets of sweat, the student danced out of reach, whirled, and made a cut at Orgyvan's thigh.  The blunted practice sword could not penetrate the leather leggings but was sure to leave a bruise precisely over the wound he had taken at Aba-Gleann two months before.
     Although the swordmaster gritted his teeth against the pain, his opponent sensed satisfaction in the accompanying nod.

That is great characterization.  We don't know yet that the young warrior is Gyan, the lady who will marry Arthur Pendragon, but we already know a lot about this character: warrior, quick, skilled.  Lines later we see her bested by her father, but we don't know that until the line, "The Chieftainess of Clan Argyll hated to lose."  Even that line informs us well of the spirit of this character and the heavy mantle of power she wields. 

Headlee develops character through action and reaction, intimate knowledge of the mind of the character and well-chosen dialogue.  "Ogryvan whispered, "'Pay attention, Gyan.  This is my favorite part..... All hear and beware!  The Ogre takes no prisoners!'"  What is to follow is a ceremonial pretense of beheading.  But Gyan responds by noting her father's boasting to the watching crowd has drawn his attention away from the "enemy."  She twists out of the role as the defeated and turns the sword on him, shouting, "'Neither does the Ogre's daughter!"

In that moment, the reader will never expect Gyanhumara, Chiefteness of Clan Argyll, to ever be bested for long.  Character realized in just a few pages.  What I can learn from Headlee will take pages and pages to explain and practice.   But I am working on it.

Recommendation: read this book and the next one, too.  I am getting ready for number three.

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