Searching for Ashbless

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We talk about character development quite often around here, hashing out all the details large and small that writers should know about their characters, whether or not those details find their way into the story. We share techniques for fleshing out characters, from using gaming aids to people-watching in public places. We agonize over our characters, wondering if we’ve chosen the right name for each one or if the voice we hear in our heads is really that character or some other who hasn’t introduced himself to us yet. It’s important for our characters to come alive in our imaginations, so they’ll come alive for our readers. But sometimes it’s what we don’t tell that makes a character come alive.

Many years ago, I was working in an independent bookstore in the mall. Usually I manned the Customer Service desk, which meant I spent my days directing shoppers to the bestsellers or the childrens’ books, and trying to help them remember the name of the book they’d seen Oprah promote two months ago (and this was before the Internet, so searches were a real chore.) But one day the woman who worked upstairs in paperbacks had to have surgery, and the manager asked me to help out. She gave me a list of books that needed to be stripped and sent me up the stairs. It was a quiet day, not a lot of customers to get in the way, so in between stripping books, I was reading the back covers of books I wasn’t discarding. (You didn’t think I could surround myself with books and not shop a little?) That was when I discovered The Anubis Gates. Coleridge expert Brendan Doyle joins a mysterious millionaire’s private party to travel in time to 1810, to attend a lecture by Coleridge. He is stranded when the party leaves without him, but decides to look for another poet he’s studied extensively, William Ashbless, and beg for his help. Interspersed in the book are passages from Ashbless’ poem The Twelve Hours of the Night, and I was utterly entranced. I wanted to read the whole poem, as well as anything else Ashbless might have written, so before I finished reading, I began looking in old poetry anthologies and encyclopedias for any mention of Ashbless. I talked to librarians at the college library, all of whom shook their heads in tight-lipped confusion (well, except for one graduate student, who thought he might have been a contemporary poet living on a commune in Oregon. Hey, she tried.) My search turned up nothing, of course, because Ashbless was the invention of Tim Powers and James Blaylock. During their college days, they’d entertain themselves by writing epic poetry and sending their work to the school literary magazine in the name of William Ashbless. He was a little bit of each of them and a whole lot of himself, and a wonderfully mysterious character. Even after I knew the truth, I couldn’t help feeling that there was still some secret about him. That’s the way he was written – even when the book ended, you didn’t know all there was to know, and you weren’t going to.

Besides, it’s just fun to know something about your character that no one else knows. Once years ago in game, I had a character who split away from her friends, and found a locked chest. Inside was a black cloak with all sorts of magical pockets. She could create water from one, call forth animal companions from another, and so on. The cool part was that from the outside, it looked exactly like the plain black cloak she was already wearing. She took off her plain cloak, folded it up and placed it in the chest, then donned the magical cloak. She locked the chest again, and rejoined her friends. Much later, they all randomed onto the chest, but my character never said a word. It was too much fun knowing a secret and not sharing it.

Just because we know everything, we don’t have to tell it all. Today, choose one of your characters, and try to think about what secrets he might be keeping. Don’t tell me, and don’t put it in the story, but see what you can do to drop a tantalizing hint. Maybe one day someone will be talking about your secret the same way I just told you about Ashbless. Wouldn’t that be cool?

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10 comments to Searching for Ashbless

  • Love this post, Misty. I’ve always found it fascinating how we can create fictitious people that others think might be real. The same goes for fictitious works of fiction — quoting from or having characters refer to books that don’t actually exist. In some cases, the books go on to be referred to in other works, and in some cases, the books are later written (like The Necromnicon or Naked Heat). The whole thing amazes me.

  • Great idea for character building, Misty. When I do my Character workshop, I actually have my students write something very similar to this in an exercise — Give one character a secret, and then have another character try to extract it.

    Hope you’re feeling better!

  • This is great! Misty, I probably do less character history than any of the regular posters on the list, and so I’m always being surprised by the things that T discover or that my characters tell me on the way. This means that my characters all have secrets, which adds zest and joy to a creative process that is–for me–often so very outlined and planned for. Yeah. Secrets. I like em.

  • I actually had to write a back story for a character recently that one of my beta readers latched onto and wanted to know more info about. It was in response to a conflict scene where he was dying but placed himself between two characters to keep one from shooting the other. He wanted to know why the character would have done it. It was a noble move from the (in romance terms) lecher of the group and my beta knew there had to be a reason, something in his past not mentioned, that prompted his actions. I knew there had to be too, but didn’t even think about the guy’s past until it was pointed out. The character was so closed lipped with his past toward the other characters that he was even closed lipped with me. I had to mentally corner him and get the rest of the story. A story only vaguely hinted at originally, but a story I had to at least partially tell to one other character in the group to give that conflict scene even more punch. I still know far more of the story than the male protag does, but it was just enough to give the readers a better sense of the character’s underlying nobility and a greater understanding about why he’s with the group and why he is the way he is.

    And I do so love creating characters with secret pasts, in RPGs or otherwise. It is, as you say, fun to know something that no one else does and possibly have it unfold throughout the story. When I’m running a game I want the players to come up with back stories for their characters so that I can use them throughout the campaign. It gives the story more depth and involves the characters and players more fully in the campaign.

  • Being ill agrees with you; great essay.

    If you get pneumonia, will you write a Pulitzer-prize wining novel? 😉

  • No fair making me laugh with laryngitis! 😀

  • Young_Writer

    Edmund, if that’s true, maybe Misty shouldn’t get any vaccines. 😉 Anyways, I hope you feel better.

    I love when my characters make me try hard to figure out their secrets. ?One of my characters had a borderline-abusive mother, and I didn’t know why she downright hated her child. A little detective work and I realized she didn’t want a child in the first place. Also, missed her husband (he had left them becasue of her evil behavior towards my MC) and took it out on her. (A weak plot, I know, this was my first novel. please don’t blame me).

  • Unicorn

    Thanks, Misty, I love mysterious characters. Especially if, at the very end of the story, you just get this tantalising little bit of information that nearly explains the character but not quite. Is this one going to make it into Magical Words How-To Book II?
    Unicorn

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    Roger Zelazny used to write a scene for his main character that he did not put in the book. He just had it in the back of his mind as background.

    I always both thought that this was cool…and wanted to read the scenes.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    I should add that like you and Ashbless, I was completely taken in by the existance of S. Morgenstern as a child. I really thought William Goldman had merely edited The Princess Bride.