About Character, and a New Thieftaker Short Story


priceofdoingbusiness_cov1_smToday, I have a new short story out at Tor.com, under the D.B. Jackson pseudonym. The story is called “The Price of Doing Business.” It’s set in the Thieftaker world and it tells the story of Ethan Kaille’s first encounter with Sephira Pryce, who later becomes his rival and nemesis. The artwork is by the marvelous Chris McGrath, who also has done the jacket art for the Thieftaker books.  [Update, 2/19/2014, 10:00 CST:  The story is now live on the Tor.com site and can be found here. And here’s the updated artwork as well; I wasn’t sure which image they would use. I actually like this second one better.]Price of Doing Business

Last week we talked about plotting here at MW.  This week, starting with Di’s post on Monday, and continuing with Chloe Neill’s post yesterday, we are talking about character.  And so the release of this short story comes at a perfect time.

Chloe said something in yesterday’s post that struck me as appropriate for my story.  “Sometimes,” she wrote, “creating a character isn’t about deciding who she is, but who she isn’t.”  This in the context of discussing how we keep characters fresh.  

Ethan Kaille is the protagonist and point of view character for all of the Thieftaker books and stories.  He has many people in his life:  a romantic interest, friends, enemies, a former love, family members from whom he is estranged.  But by far the most formative relationship in the series is the one he shares with Sephira.  Because she, more than anyone else, defines who he is by making crystal clear who he is not.  And that was how I conceived the character — she was meant to be his foil from the beginning.

Where Ethan is honest, she is corrupt; where he is a loner and an outcast, she has a retinue of toughs at her beck and call, is tied into Boston’s Tory society, and wields enormous influence throughout the city.  He is older; he walks with a pronounced limp, and has started to gray.  She is young, beautiful, alluring.  He can conjure, she cannot, which is the one advantage he has over her in their dangerous struggle for power and supremacy.

They are at once fascinated and repulsed by each other.  Their interactions are fraught with bitter enmity, grudging mutual respect, and an underlying sexual tension that both would deny exists.  In short, their relationship forms the dynamic core of every Thieftaker storyline.  

Part of what Chloe was getting at in her post, and the point I am circling in this one, is that we create characters to do more than just fill in places in our plot lines.  In real life, the people with whom we interact are different from us in some ways and similar in others.  When we find a friendship with someone who is our polar opposite — or, alternately, our intellectual and emotional doppelgänger — it is something noteworthy and unusual.  In fiction, though, we can use this as a device; this is one of those instances in which fiction diverges from fact.  Creating this sort of ying/yang dichotomy between characters, brings both into stark relief.  Pitting those two characters against each other (or, perhaps, building a romance between them) makes for fascinating reading and fun writing.

I started “The Price of Doing Business” nearly two years ago, in between the writing of the first and second Thieftaker books.  I knew that I wanted to do more with their rivalry in the second novel; I knew that I wanted to complicate it, make them beholden to each other in unexpected ways, perhaps even confuse their animosity with a brief moment of common purpose.  And in order to do that, I needed to know more about the origins of their relationship, such as it was.  Put another way, I followed my own advice, the advice I have offered here on MW so many times before:  I used a piece of short fiction to learn more about my characters, and along the way, I managed to get a short story sale out of it.

Writing the story didn’t necessarily tell me much about the two characters that I didn’t already know.  But it allowed me to visualize their first meeting, to witness for myself the roots of their subsequent interactions, and to establish in my own mind which patterns in their relationship were too fixed to change, and which ones I could bend in later stories and books.

So, I hope that you will head over to Tor.com and check out my new short story.  I hope that you will follow the same advice I have followed and use a short story or two as tools to help you hone existing and as-yet-undiscovered characters in your current projects.  And I hope that you will join in this week’s discussion of character.

Do you have characters you have tried to make into opposites, as I’ve done with Ethan and Sephira?  Do you have characters you have tried to make similar to one another, but with one or two key differences?  In what other ways have you used one character to help define another?

David B. Coe

22 comments to About Character, and a New Thieftaker Short Story

  • I love Sephira Price. I have to admit, when I read stuff about her, I forget she can’t conjure because she’s got so much power and presence on the page. In a world of magic like you’ve created, it’s hard to believe that’s she’s w/o magic–she’s just so charismatic and strong. It’s awesome that her character is personal strength and is magic free, but I’m just always struck by the moments I’m reminded that, yeah, she’s not doing that with magic, just will.

    In my current WIP, my MC isn’t a nice person. She’s not even a good person. A (now mostly former) good friend of hers is a really good guy, and for the time they work together, she’s struck by his goodness and honesty. She’s done some terrible things to get what she wants (things that, if known, will cost her a lot), and she’s starting to think that maybe she shouldn’t have done them. Maybe the costs were too high. On the other hand, she’s not particularly sorry about them either, so it’s a struggle. The Big Bad in the novel is much more like her. He’s very willing to do what he has to do to get what he wants and sees people only as a means to an end. It’s that last part, when confronted with him, that makers her really question her own choices. Is that who she really wants to be? Does she really want to follow through with the choices she’s made (or the patterns of choice making)? Sure, it will get her a thing she wants–especially after she’s pretty sure she can’t have what she originally set out to get–but does she want to be this guy? (It’s YA/NA, if that matters). So I’ve got the good guy and the bad guy as points of triangulation for my MC (there are also grown-ups who vary in the range of characters–good guys who will do anything to accomplish their goals, too, because they believe their goals are so important, these, too, can be problematic. The true believer types).

  • sagablessed

    Like Pea, Sephira is my fave. She has a strange sense of honor while being ruthless as well. She takes no crap, and rules by personality and will, a trait not oft found in a woman in those days. My other fave is the old Caribbean woman who is Ethan’s mentor. She cares for him, but will never admit it, and is more powerful than Ethan knows.

    I have several characters in my current WIP. One that is developing is the relationship between a daughter and her overbearing father. She hates him, and will do anything to get out from under his thumb. She feels isolated from the outside world, and works to overcome it, although her methods may cost her more than she knows.
    She relates only to her cousin and his boyfriend. Yet she feels driven apart from them by years of emotional turmoil her father forces on her.

    The father thinks he is protecting her, not realizing it was this overwhelming desire that drove his wife away. Because she left, he thinks control is his only option to keep the family together.

    Then there are the two lovers, one coming to grips with his dependency issues, the other realising the relationship may not survive the upcoming struggles. One has the heart of a poet and a familiar, the other longing for a normal life as a frat boy. They both have a similar goal in life, but want to take different routes to get there.

    And the old man, servant of powers he cannot fathom, has only one desire: release from several thousand years of service. He must adapt to a changed world and modern technology while keeping the group from disintegrating.

    My Big Bads have their own issues and drives, which I am still working out as I write.

  • Chris Branch

    David, would you be able to provide a link directly to the story? I followed the links to tor.com and saw no sign of it. Maybe something about using a mobile browser? Even searching at the site and via Google didn’t find it. Thanks!

  • Emily, thank you so much. What a great thing to say about Sephira. I wanted her “powers” to be formidable, very nearly a match for Ethan’s magic, so the fact that they come across that way is incredibly gratifying. And I love the triangulation you describe in your own WIP. That’s a sophisticated way of approaching these character issues and one that makes me want to read your book. Hurry up and get it published!!

    Donald, thanks. I love Sephira, too. And it sounds as though your characters are all driven by unique and well-conceived “wants” and “needs,” weaknesses and strengths. Another book I look forward to seeing on bookshelves.

    Chris, I have now provided a link to the story. If you go to the Tor.com website you’ll find the graphic and link in the upper right hand corner. It only went live a short time ago, so you might have gotten there too soon. Thanks for checking!

  • I had to do something sort of similar to flesh out a supporting character in Rogue 5 after one of my betas commented that he wanted to know more about that character after reading something the character does about midway through the book. The character was so closed-lipped about his past that even I didn’t know what it was. So I had to write a story describing the catalyst that made him the way he is. It was closer to a synopsis, but it gave fresh perspective as to what was going on in his head and allowed me to add some bits in that gave the character more depth. I may end up writing it as a complete short story someday after I get Rogue 5 out there into the world. Oddly, that could be a fun project, writing shorts on each of the members of Rogue 5.

    And after I get back from putting in an application, perhaps I’ll have to hop over to Tor, kick back with a beverage and do a bit of reading. 🙂

  • khernandez

    I’ve been struggling with the motivation for the villain in mine. I want it to be one of those good-guys who started out with the best of intentions, but started down the slippery slope of “for the greater good” that eventually led to villainy. I might need to write a short story, I see now.

  • Daniel, these short stories are remarkably fun to write. You should definitely do that with the Rogue 5 characters. Hope you enjoy Sephira’s story.

    KH, I would think that a short story would definitely help with that. Maybe a tale about the tipping point, the event that took your villain one step too far to be redeemed.

  • Nice story; it makes me want to know more about how Sephira Pryce became so powerful and of course more about the mutiny that cost Ethan 14 years of his life.

  • Thanks, xman. I have another story about Sephira as a young girl that explains a bit more of her background. That one will be in a next Big Bad Anthology.

  • Love love love this story.

  • I also adore Sephira, although sometimes she comes across as just a little to self-empowered and strong. I keep remembering she’s a woman in pre-revolutionary America, and her self-reliance sometimes just doesn’t hold true for me. I do hope in future novels you show us some of the kinks and dents in her armor! 🙂
    In one of my WIPS, my MC has two foils. One is a young man she is betrothed to, and has only just met. If she hadn’t recently met her other romantic interest, he’d have been the man she had always imagined marrying. He’s suave, polite, attentive, arrogant – the typical lord’s son she’d always assumed she’d marry. But the other guy – well. He’s different. It’s been fun building these two guys to both match type and yet have undercurrents that are both off-putting and alluring in terms of the setting they occupy. Neither is perfect, and yet neither is wrong in the sense of their own cultures.

  • Razziecat

    David, I really enjoy reading Sephira and the way she interacts with Ethan. The attraction is there, but subtle; and it gives a great underlying energy that infuses every scene they share.

    In my space opera stories (more like one long, multi-part story actually) I deliberately created two worlds that were opposites: One is a desert world, and one is mostly water. The two main characters are mirror images of each other, similar in personality and even in backstory, but all they see is how much they hate each other. I’ve never been able to write the story of how they first met, but recently, recalling how much I love stories in which two enemies are forced to work together, an idea came to me. I’m really excited to be able to finally get the beginning of their story down 😀

  • quillet

    I can’t say I’ve ever tried to create characters who are opposites. I did try to create two characters — father and son — who were butting heads because they were so similar. Didn’t work! They ended up butting heads because they’re different. Very different. Almost, um, opposites. They certainly come at problems from totally opposite directions, so they’re constantly misunderstanding each other’s motives, which makes for a great tension in the story. …Says the author, rubbing her hands together and laughing cruelly.

    And what Pea said about Sephira? YES. I agree, I agree, I agree. I’m also really curious, like xman, to find out how she got into her position of power, so I’m looking forward to that story about her as a young girl. (You just had to torment us by telling us about it and then making us wait, didn’t you!)

    And now I’m off to read a story, yay! 😀

  • inkfire

    I love all your characters David, but Sephira strikes a chord with me. She’s totally in control (most of the time) and she knows what she wants and how she’s going to get it. She’s not the defensless woman normally thought of in those times. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ethan, but, sometimes, (okay, a lot of times) I can’t wait for Sephira to show up…Deffinitly want to hear about her as a kid, that’ll be excellent..

    In my WIP, I use a dead guy (killed before the story takes place) to identify my character. His presence in her past is used to show how she became who she is, and, for the purpose of revenge, still influences how she lives day to day. In my first draft he didn’t have a name, he wasn’t even supposed to be a big character. But at some point I gave him a name, and he grew from there. And now my MC’s personality is way deeper than before. Naming a dead person was, most probably, the best decision I ever made in reference to this story…

  • Thanks, Faith.

    Lyn, I understand what you mean. But you have to remember that the limitations placed on women’s role in society was actually a 19th and 20th century phenomenon. There were lots of women in the 18th century, often widows, who owned their own businesses and stepped out of “traditional” roles. Life was harder then, and society could not afford to coddle anyone. As a result, it was a more “enlightened” time. Even sexual mores in the 18th century were more open and sensual than you might imagine. Love the traits you describe in your characters for the WIP; sounds like a cool dynamic.

    Razz, thank you. Love that idea of the worlds, and I’m glad you have found a way to tell your characters’ early story. Best of luck with it.

    Quillet, hope you enjoy the story; thanks for the kind words. Have fun playing with that tension in your WIP.

    Inkfire, thank you. As the Thieftaker series progresses, you will see moments of Sephira losing control, which was really fun to write. Stay tuned! And that idea for your story sounds fascinating. Looking forward to hearing more about it.

  • Completely unwittingly, I did this with the two main characters of my WIP, but these two are best friends, not enemies. Flann is a collection of strengths and shortcomings; Demetrius is his complete opposite, with virtues where Flann has flaws and flaws where he has virtues. Flann is extremely brave; Demetrius tends towards the cowardly. Flann has a worse temper than a nest full of hornets; Demetrius’s patience knows no limits. Flann always talks before he thinks; Demetrius seldom says a word, and when he does, he’s sure of what he’s saying.
    They have some similarities – both loyal, both selfless, both nobly born – just enough to give them something in common. But they even look different; Flann is tall and dark, Demetrius is stocky and fair. Watching these two characters handle situations in their own ways was fascinating, and they made a killer team in the end, with each one’s strengths filling in for the other’s weaknesses.

  • Unicorn, I love the sound of both characters, and I would imagine that their interactions are great fun to write. Thanks for the comment.

  • I haven’t used this technique much, so I’m definitely interested in learning more. But in one of my new projects I have two girls who have to work together, despite their differences. One was born and raised on earth, and the other in a fantasy world. The first is straight-speaking and calls things as she sees them, while the second strives for delicacy and propriety. They find a common enemy and a common goal, so the fact that they overcome their differences makes me uncertain how opposite they really are. (They’re definitely no Ethan and Sephira.) I am definitely going to think about this, though. I wonder if there’s something I can apply this technique to in the future. Thanks!

  • Chris Branch

    Thanks for the link David; I enjoyed the story!

  • Razziecat

    David, I forgot to say that I read your new story and loved it! I got a kick out of Ethan surprising Diver, and Sephira is, as always, fascinating.

    How about a story telling how Ethan and Kannice first met and how they became lovers? 😉

  • […] a new series, which I discovered through the Magical Words blog where David B. Coe, writing the Thieftaker series as D.B. Jackson, posts regularly. The series is set in the years prior to the American Revolution, […]

  • Laura, it sounds like you are using the technique. There isn’t just one way to do it, of course, and using two dissimilar characters to create a partnership like the one you describe seems very cool to me.

    Chris, thanks.

    Thank you, Razz. I appreciate that.