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  • Joan Schweighardt

Five Directions Press Authors Dish: Saying Goodbye to Our Own Characters

Last month 5DP authors dished about saying goodbye to characters not of our own making. This month we’re honing in on the real deal, the pain of saying goodbye to our very own beloved (and sometimes not so much) creations.

Ariadne Apostolou: How can I say goodbye to Ashiri, an indigenous Ainu woman in my recently completed novel, One Sky Above Us? I hold great affection for her, though we share no common language, come from different cultures, and live in different time periods. If she knew me, she might be much less interested in me than I am in her.

Ashiri came into being early in my plan for this novel. She was born of research in foreign languages that were translated for me, out of videos, documentaries, and memoirs of the Ainu people and the nineteenth-century Europeans who had lived with them and recorded them. Ashiri, as I saw her, was born on Sakhalin Island, her ancestral land off Russia’s eastern coast. She was evacuated to Hokkaido at the end of World War II, married a destitute Japanese fisherman, raised children, and eventually sailed with her sister to a prohibited volcanic island in the North Pacific Ocean to live out her days according to the Ainu practices she remembered. She had many survival skills and even possessed some shamanic gifts of healing.

One might argue whether my Mediterranean-originated self has any right to create the life of an indigenous person and speak her voice. Is this another example of white, cultural appropriation? I would respond by saying that human experience is not so singular, that the need for family and home, for culture and self-expression, to love and be loved, is universally felt. In fact, other characters in the novel debate this.

In our splintered age of isolated individuals and hallowed differences, one might ask where we shall find common ground. For me, we can search at the levels that ultimately define our humanity. Until such time as a better answer appears, Ashiri, my dearly beloved invention, lives for me, affecting everyone she touches.

C. P. Lesley: Say goodbye to my characters? No way!

Oh sure, I have characters to whom I may never return. The casts of Desert Flower, Kingdom of the Shades, and The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel consumed my attention while I was writing them; even today, they seem like old friends. Sometimes I wonder if I should revisit them. But inspiration has yet to strike, so I move on. I haven’t given up on them, but I accept that our paths may not cross again.

My current crowd is a different story. Every time I think I’ve shut the door on them, they sneak around and worm their way into another novel. They’re too good to waste, and after more than a decade spent on developing them, I can’t bear to let them go. I want to know what will happen to them just as much as they want to tell me.

Take Song of the Siren, which came out last month. I’d intended to set it in Poland, and although I planned to feature Juliana (aka Roxelana), I expected her to be the only holdover from the Legends series. But when I had trouble finding detailed descriptions of Poland in 1541–42 and decided to send Juliana on a diplomatic mission to Muscovy, the whole story opened up. I needed a military governor, and Alexei stepped forward, permitting an immediate confrontation between him and Juliana, who are ex-lovers. Then Koshkin shoved his way in, demanding that his wife give up this separation nonsense and come home. And where Alexei leads, can Maria and Lyuba be far behind?

And so it goes. Song of the Shaman has already recruited a few volunteers, and as I sit down to thrash out the outlines of Songs 3 and 4, I can see contenders massing in the wings.

So, say goodbye to my characters? Where’s the fun in that?

Claudia H. Long: I’ve been writing about the Castillo family since 1690. No, that’s not right … I’ve been writing about the Castillo family since 2007, but I’ve been practically living in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries for over a decade.

Josefina started her journey on the page in the fall of 2007, in a NaNoWriMo, and by 2009 she was an accomplished poet, a fully experienced woman, and mother of three living children. She had met Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, she’d weathered the Inquisition, suffered at the hands of the Marquis and vanquished him, buried a stillborn baby, and returned to the love of her husband, Manuel.

She was interesting and perhaps lovely, though not a classic beauty. She could do sums in her head, brew with healing herbs, and create beautiful poetry. I knew every facet of every dress, sleeve, collar, or wrap in her clothes press. I felt her every mood. I even knew the scent of her skin. She became the protagonist in Josefina’s Sin and saw the publishing light in August 2011.

Consuelo, living the double life of a Crypto-Jew in Hermosillo, was of stern stuff, hiding her mother’s Judaizing from the prying eyes of the Inquisition. Her visit to Josefina in 1711 started her on a dangerous path, leading to the arrest of her mother and the duel for her heart, her family, and her religion. Josefina’s son, Juan Carlos Castillo, took that journey with her in The Duel for Consuelo. Her story joined Josefina’s in 2014.

Marcela was the child who opened the door to Consuelo at the safe house, and she too joined the Castillo family when she took refuge with them during the final auto-da-fé of the Inquisition in Mexico in 1720. Josefina was just a memory, but that memory was strong in her little office hung with herbs. Marcela was exiled to Zacatecas, where she became one of the most powerful and wealthiest women in the silver-mining world. Her daughter, delicate Alicia, completed the circle by the end of Marcela’s story, as she too joined the Castillo family in her union with Josefina’s youngest grandson in 1750. Marcela and Alicia came into print in Chains of Silver in 2018.

It’s hard to say goodbye to the entire family, but Josefina will always live with me. My next story, My Name Means Remember, is contemporary, with looks back to World War II. I give the 1700s and the Castillo family a final wave, a kiss of gratitude, and with tears in my eyes, I move on to the present.

Gabrielle Mathieu: I said goodbye to a character for decades, only to greet a new version of her last year. I first conceived of Berona, the feisty heroine of my upcoming novel Girl of Fire, when I was fourteen. She was fourteen too, but unlike me, she wasn’t trapped in a desperate small town full of pawn shops and fast food. While the world aged forty years, Berona aged only four. Originally conceived as a brave but illiterate girl, she’s become an astute but impulsive young woman.

Ah, but how the world has changed. In 1976, women in thriller films screamed theatrically while men defended them with guns, fists, and, in the case of James Bond, snarky remarks. The idea of a girl warrior was as fresh and shiny as a newly minted penny.

When the first Alien movie came out, with a lean and cropped Sigourney Weaver grimly battling the alien, I felt vindicated. The 1990s brought us women as predators and sexually adventurous fiends, beginning with Glenn Close’s stalker, who cooks her married lover’s pet rabbit, and culminating with Sharon Stone’s notorious psycho-killer, who flashes the cops in the interrogating room, presumably leaving them incapacitated by lust. (I never watched it, on principle.)

Now we have fantasy novels featuring rabid female assassins or enslaved fighters whose heads are weighed down by the swaths of hair gathered from the slain losers. The witch Circe, young Anya Stark, and their legion imitators all have pet wolves. Women warriors remove their wombs by drinking poison and spare no tears for those they slay.

Some of these books are great reads: twisted, heart-wrenching, and absorbing. Yet I have remained true to Berona. She remains charismatic, inspires love, and will not be raped, humiliated, or forced to torture others. Berona is still a warrior for the best of reasons: to defend those weaker than herself, and to find her own inner strength.

May it ever be so.

Joan Schweighardt: When 5DP authors first decided to dish about the difficulty of saying goodbye to characters of our own making, my fingertips began to flutter and twitch; that’s how excited I was to make contact with my keyboard and begin the process of reporting the absolute impossibility of ever saying goodbye to my Rivers trilogy crew. I have worked with the same family of characters—give or take a few births and deaths—for the last eight years. Together we have traversed three novels covering twenty-two years of history, conveyed along on ships, ferries, launches, canoes, and even, in one case, the current itself, back and forth between the NYC Metro Area and Manaus, Brazil, and the rainforests surrounding it. I have loved them one and all, even when I had to witness their most grievous mistakes, their biggest failures, and their worst moments of outright brutality. I gave them life, for what it’s worth, and in exchange they gave me eight years of the most intense creative experience a writer could ever hope for.

But now that book 1 is published, 2 is undergoing a final draft, and 3 just needs a tweak or two to complete, I find I am prepared to say goodbye. My characters have dictated my research all this time: I’ve read countless books on the South American rubber trade, World War I as experienced from the United States, the beginning of the Great Depression, and all the other events that the trilogy touches on. I’ve even made two trips to the rainforests of the Amazon. I have regarded time and place through the eyes of my characters, and they in turn have (sometimes forcefully) taken me along routes I might never have discovered on my own. But now my curiosity about these particular times and places has been exhausted. It’s time to move on. That doesn’t mean I’ll ever forget Jack and Bax and Nora and the rest of them. It just means that saying goodbye will be bittersweet, and not nearly as tragic as I anticipated before the task of writing this essay compelled me to think out how I really feel.

Images: Seagulls over the ocean near Sakhalin Island from Pixabay (no attribution required); book covers from Five Directions Press.

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