Killing Characters is Chicken Soup for the Soul

By , March 13, 2013

I wrote a swashbuckler for the Foreworld Saga last spring and summer called The Book of Seven Hands. it was written in the wake of a divorce, and I can tell you, with no uncertainty, that I loved my mental escape to Sixteenth Century Spain. I really, really needed that world of exploding cannon fire, back-alley sword fights, and insults volleying over crossed steel.

Hm. Upon further review, it wasn’t much of an escape from reality. But let’s press on!

I’m not big on Art as Therapy. In most of my stories, I play. That’s what writing is. It’s a way of diverting my mind to matters of beauty and fun. I like playing with structure in science fiction (“Lot 12A: The Feast of the Dead Manuscript”) and making stories that steer straight into the surreal (“Parade of You”). Stories like those require me to be in a flow of words and dreams, meta-aware of how the sentences are coming out, more like writing poetry than telling an actual hook-rising action-big climax sorta story.

Ripping good yarns of dueling swordsmen are a different kind of flow, but I like it just as much. It’s a flow that’s comforting and familiar to me from studying stage combat, kendo, and tae kwon do. A story about swordmasters resurrecting an ancient martial art in 1524 Spain? Yes, please!

While writing The Book of Seven Hands, I had the 1973/74 production of The Three Musketeers & The Four Musketeers very much on my mind, probably because fight arranger William Hobbes blocked those movies’ duels to look so chaotic, dirty, deadly, and funny in a seemingly out-of-control way. (Just like life!) He also arranged Robin and Marian, Excalibur, and Pirates, each of which has Hobbes’ signature of fights fought in panicked desperation – little films within the film. I wanted my adventure to have the same taut energy.

Why? Because Basilio and Alejo, the heroes of The Book of Seven Hands, were going to pay for my misery. Accordingly, they only have one scene where they kick actual ass. Every fight and narrow escape after that is another humiliation, another debilitating wound or broken bone. This matters doubly because it’s 1524: There are no doctors as we think of them, only barbers and “surgeons” (a term of near-derision that elicited shudders and disgust in 1524). Poor Basilio and Alejo were unlucky enough to be born in a time when bleeding or burning the victim, er, patient, was the answer to every ailment, and cleaning wounds with water was radical gonzo medicine.

That’s right. I went medieval on my Renaissance characters.

The other thing I found deeply satisfying, beyond torturing my characters, was creating a rich back-story for them. I see The Book of Seven Hands as, perhaps, the final installment of a three part story. It stands on its own just fine because I laid out in rich detail for myself how my middle-aged sword fighters got to this last, hopeless chapter. And it was fun flashing glimpses of the older adventures at readers:

Basilio grabbed the back of the expensive red chair as the room seemed to spin for a moment. He had once leaped from the crow’s nest of a sinking galleon, flaming sails flapping around him as he dived head first into the flotsam and jetsam scattered from a Mediterranean sea-fight. He and Alejo had once run headlong at a French cannon line to stop them from destroying Don Manuel’s supply caravan outside Florence. But the Archbishop of Barcelona, seeking for him in Vacanana – that actually frightened Basilio.

It’s easy for some to disregard adventure stories as being untrue to life, fabricating problems that we know they’ll get out of, or to dismiss a swashbuckler like this as escapist or fantastical. But for everything there is a season, even in writing. A time to create reality and a time to alter it. A time to look life in the teeth and a time to play with it. Last year was hard, but it was also more fun than I’ve ever had in my life, in no small part because I met a new cool and lovely companion and also because of The Book of Seven Hands.

I’ll live.

I can’t say the same for all my characters. But I’ll live.

2 Responses to “Killing Characters is Chicken Soup for the Soul”

  1. Bambi Anderson says:

    She IS a “cool and lovely companion” and I, for one, am so happy that you both have found one another. Good luck with your book, Barth.

  2. Barth Anderson says:

    Thanks, Bambi. Yep, E’s a keeper. Hope you can help spread the word about the book! :)

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