Today, I’d like to share the process of discovering your protagonist. You’d think this is one of the first things a writer knows about a new project, and you’d be right. But fully coming to know and understand that character is a process that may not end until you are deep into revisions.
Your protagonist is among the story’s most important pieces, and one that has to really grab the reader as soon as possible for it to work. For Hearts of Iron, I had an opportunity to use an historical figure about whom almost nothing is written.
So how to present William de Hauteville, the Count of Apulia and Calabria, and Lord of Ascoli? We know he and his brother Drogo were close in age, but not twins. They were born sometime before 1010 AD, and that both were trained knights. They came to Italy (specifically the southern part known as the Mezzogiorno), took service with the Prince of Capua, and then the Prince of Salerno. And then three years later, he killed the Emir of Syracuse with one blow, earning himself one of the coolest names of all time, “William Iron Arm.”
But who was he? What was he like before he earned those titles and wrote himself into the history books? I read extensively about the Normans in Italy, but the years in which William was active there number less than a decade, and the deeds of his brothers and nephews fill the rest of that record with victory piled on victory.
I couldn’t kill him, couldn’t maim him, and couldn’t really give him a love interest. So I built his character around the fact that he was the eldest son of twelve, and that his father’s estates were insufficient for any kind of inheritance. The future of his family rested entirely on his shoulders, which in my story had to be broad enough to carry the rest of the 11th century around.
I made him a planner. A strategist concerned not only with the battle at hand, but the next three after it. I cast him as Tancred 2.0, responsible for not only his family’s legacy, but also for the lives and fortunes of the Normans under his command. I gave him a grim sense of humor, and most importantly, I put him In Charge ™. William is was now a character worth writing about, rather than a name on a tomb.
But backstory is not story. William had to DO things for the story to really come to life, and whatever obstacles I set before him had to be cool. Not as so cool as leading a cavalry charge of 300 men against a much larger and better armed force of Saracens, killing their leader with one blow, and then waiting around for 2 days for the rest of the army to catch up, but cool nonetheless.
For those reading along at home, the cool meter just pegged out somewhere north of 11. And what happened next rates pretty high as well. The 1038 AD invasion of Sicily effectively ended when he decided to pick up his ball and go home. It seems the general in charge decided not to pay him and his men, even though they’d done the bulk of the work and were responsible for nearly every major victory in the campaign.
When you chastise someone for not being a team player, better check first to make sure he’s not the Quarterback.
Since my story is set before all that awesome, I had a lot of room to let William make some mistakes along the way. In fact, with such grand victories looming in his future, it’s more or less required of me as a storyteller for him to suffer some setbacks. A compelling protagonist doesn’t just overcome obstacles, they actively seek them out and beat them into submission. Superman stories are boring until the man in the cape starts punching people. Mild-mannered reporters are also boring, so William had to reveal both his strengths and flaws early in the piece that I might exploit both later on.
My protagonist also did not exist in a vacuum. William had a built-in supporting cast in his younger brothers, who received the exact same training as he, and came from the same genetic and moral stock. But they weren’t the Elder Brother ™, and while he was alive they were always going to be on the sidelines. Given how much is also written of Drogo and Humphrey’s exploits, this seemed to me like a horrible waste of material. They would need sub plots to resolve, and defining traits of their own to elevate them beyond mere scenery.
So I decided to write a story about all three of them. William as the serious leader, Drogo as his heir apparent with more freedom to take risks, and brash young Humphrey, desperate for the approval of not only his father, but his older brothers. A story about duty and honor, and also knowing when to break the rules.
With this solid framework to build upon, more characters came into the story as I asked the writer’s questions of “what if” and “why.” Since we’re a few weeks out from the book’s release, I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot. But not all of the new additions have the kind of “plot parachute” as the brothers Hauteville, and nor should they.
They’re not the Heroes, after all.
(Hearts of Iron releases May 14, 2013)