I’m going to introduce you to a new character. In fact, he’s so new I haven’t actually created him yet.
Yeah, I’ve kinda ripped off what Steve Vai said before he wrote a song in front of a live audience on Stillness in Motion. Being an incredible guitarist, the sort of song he can write on the spot blew that audience away, and me as I listened to the recording. But it occurred to me recently, I can do this too, except my thing is making fictional people (yeah I play the guitar too, but that’s for another day). This is where music and fiction can sometimes cross over so well: spontaneity, improvisation, the need for throwing caution to the wind and not quite knowing what you’re going to get, or even what you’re trying for.
Hat tip to fellow SF author E J Fisch, who recently tweeted about where character names come from.
I was waiting for the day a reader figured this one out, but chances are a lot of readers don’t come to this page, so here it is: I created Shadow Hatcher this way, from the simple act of his name occurring to me. It happened while I was playing Sonic and Sega All-stars Racing. When you choose a character, Shadow the Hedgehog is right next to Billy Hatcher. Not sure how I put the two together, but that’s where the process I’m about to show you began for my Talent Show protagonist. The name came to me long before the mind powers, the ambition for a literally high-flying career, the farmer’s boy background, the brutal and blood-soaked story of his ‘real’ coming of age, and all the rest. Including the question ‘What kind of asshole calls their kid Shadow anyway?’ Maybe the kind who just wants to see if he can get it past the government’s name bureau. (Does that exist in 23rd century England? It does now!) Or hide a meaning behind it, but that’s a spoiler. Maybe the kind who loves his son that much that he’d risk giving him a name that might one day give a very long and complex game away. Just in case he ever had to admit to the truth…
Okay, enough already! Let’s do it again with a character who’s story I can’t spoil. Because I don’t have it yet., This time I’m answering a different question: who is Cade Cantrell?
* * *
Last summer, I volunteered myself into one of those schoolkids’ fieldtrip days where they come and learn a bit about the outdoors and the people who look after it. (I’m a ranger by day. Stop me if you’ve heard that before, but my day job IS kinda cool.) When the teacher split them into groups, one of the names she called was Cade. I’d heard it as a surname, but never thought of it as a first name. Then I realised I had, in a short story by J S Collyer, where one character’s name is Arcadius. Is that what Cade’s short for? Well, I thought, it is now, and I want a character called that. It has something ‘modern-cool’ about it. Trendy but not pretentious. Short and slightly soft. So maybe a soft name for a guy made of surprisingly tough stuff. But he might not know it yet. Maybe his story is about how courage matters.
It was one of those odd and unexpected moments where my head was in all the places apart from the one it should be. I had to pull it out so I could talk to these kids about cider apples and orchards, and save it for when I clocked off at 4.
I spent my drive home trying to put a surname to Cade, and I’m not sure how I came up with Cantrell. There’s an Air Commodore Cantrell in Fighter’s Mark, a character made only to fill a seat at a dinner party table with just one mention of his name, but no matter, names can be recycled. Could Cade be his son? His father? If I plugged him into that world…
…I stopped myself right there, because let’s make a rule here: new character = fresh start = STOP adding to the Carnathia / Talent Show world. I’ve got to say goodbye to it someday. Yeah, I’m still writing in that world, but Oscar and Screft have enough friends and adversaries, so no making Cade part of the Carnathia’s Underground books. And don’t bring him into Talent Show either, because Shadow’s giving me more than enough trouble telling his story without me adding more people to an already huge cast.
So does Cade Cantrell sound good? I almost like it, but when it becomes Arcadius Cantrell I like it a whole lot more. It sound aristocratic. Except Cade doesn’t. It sounds like a shortened version chosen by someone who ran away from that life. Maybe to join the forces. Maybe to go rogue and be a hired gun or a smuggler, or some Han Solo type of character.
Yeah, that’s who I see Cade Cantrell as. Maybe he actually did both. Military service = gave him the knowhow and then he struck out on his own in the world. Yeah, I’ve done that with Oscar Murdoch already, but the same formula can have a variable. Oscar was the mostly honest guy, straight as an arrow (apart from how he beds mostly guys of course), and a perfect target for conman Screft. Cade is the rogue rather than the shining citizen, and a perfect target for the authorities.
Unless perhaps he was valuable to them in some other way, like a double agent. Maybe he didn’t run away, maybe his family got rid of him for some indiscretion, or perhaps I could toke on the James Bond joint and do the orphan thing. I haven’t had an orphan for a while, and I used to love that character trope back when I wrote fanfiction and just dicked around with writing in general. (For the Talent Show fans, that’s where I started with Cody White and Daniel Penhallow, and the basic story for the BlueSky Disaster, and the concept of Dream Morphine / Liquid Talent.)
Let’s review: Cade Cantrell seems like a roguish character, with a complex family background involving upper middle class or higher, possible a government service history and maybe operates on both sides of the law. Sounds good! We have the beginnings of who our character is, and we’re starting to make story already.
So what does he look like? I never did actually see which kid Cade was in that school group, but that’s actually better, because now I can’t cheat, and I don’t want this character as a kid anyway. But what age do I start him at?
Let’s not go definitive, let’s speculate some more.
I don’t quite know how I thought of this, but last week I was thinking of Booker DeWitt from the videogame Bioshock Infinite, and for some reason thought Cade Cantrell might look something like the picture of Booker on the front of the box. I remembered DeWitt’s line ‘You think a dunk in the river’s gonna change what I’ve done?’ when he’s offered redemption in the form of baptism, and added another layer to Cade Cantrell: did he maybe do something he knew was evil in his past life and spend a lot of the rest of it trying to atone? A connection to the family throwing him out thing?
This is starting to sound like real story potential. So what part of Cade’s story do I want to tell? Do I want to begin with him in his mid to late thirties like I imagined Booker DeWitt to be from that picture, or perhaps go for forties and age him up a little? I’ve been into writing with younger characters for ages, which gave me Shadow, Screft and Oscar, and many of their supporting cast, so why not try an older person this time and see what readership went for him?
This is where thinking of reader appeal comes in to character creation sometimes, but let’s not get too caught up in that or think about trending market tropes, God forbid. This has to be a story I want to write, with a character I want to know and learn about, first and foremost. So do I want to start with Cade leaning towards middle age or maybe start his story from his coming of age and when he first went out to find the world, following the family drama?
Let’s stop here, because honestly I don’t know what I want out of this character yet. I’ve written one sketch already, exploring the idea that perhaps Cade’s decision to join the space marines carries a problem: there’s a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy about guys being with other guys in this world (as if to contrast the blatant promiscuity in the Carnathian fleet of Fighter’s Mark), and one of the things he’s going to miss from the home where he’s no longer welcome is higher class guys indulging him in his secret. Oh dear, that’s a pretty big deal for a guy who might not quite fit in to the marines anyway!
I’m not sure if this works, and let’s face it, I’ve gone rather nuts on characters both gay and straight being driven by who they want to get their rocks off with in all my books so far. Sure, it’s a pretty universal thing, but maybe I want a different angle on this outing for variety. I never did want to become one of those authors who wrote to formulas, or repeated the patterns too much. So what else could I do with Cade Cantrell, before I get sidetracked onto exploring sexuality on the page yet again. That’s what Oscar Murdoch and Walter Christensen (Talent Show) were partly made for, so let’s make Cade in a different mold.
How about this: before Christmas I tweeted that I’d woken up one morning with a story idea that for me seemed to extraordinarily simple that perhaps I should drop all my complex plot-twisting and deep characters and just write it. It goes something like this:
‘Authorities: We’re impounding your spaceship and there aint nothin’ you can do about it.
Protagonist: Oh really?’
Maybe it amused me because I always did like those O’RLY owls that were a big meme back when I was at Uni. Never thought of putting a sci-fi context into that question. (And I’m going resist having Cade ‘The Owl’ Cantrell. I’ve done too many animal nicknames for characters already. My readers probably already think I’m a furry. I also described Kester Offren in Ghost of the Navigator as being ‘owlish’ as well, so I’ve spent that one.)
Plug in a character, a ship, a reason for it getting twocked, and hit go. How about Cade as my main man then? Maybe he’s that guy with the means and the plan to steal a ship back from the law. Maybe the law don’t know quite who they’re fucking with, and there’s gonna be a big ‘We’re sorry sir, we didn’t know it was you’ involved in this. Except that would be too easy: what if that SHOULD be the way things are, but there’s some reason why the law’s suddenly after someone who was previously special. Has he been framed for a crime involving the ship? Did he actually commit one but somehow didn’t know it?
Start mixing these ideas together and see if they gel and you’ll get to where I currently am on all this. I don’t have a working title for this project, and I don’t have a world built around it yet, and that’s another essay in itself. All I’ll say is look out for this character and a handful of these ideas that might make the cut later. I’m currently wrestling in a field of mines called Deception Crossing (AKA Book 3 of the Talent Show) and I must resist the temptation to begin Cade’s story before I get so lost in it that I just never get Shadow’s finished.
To wrap this up then: I was setting out to answer the question of ‘Who is Cade Cantrell?’ and it seems like to a large extent I still don’t know, but I’ve had a handful of ideas and already started getting the story as a knock-on. Only when I write this story will I know the full answer to that question, just as I didn’t really know who Shadow Hatcher was, and on my third book with him I feel like I’m still answering that question. Ideas are the start. The full answer about who someone is is the fundamental one I go searching for.
This is also the nicest place to be for a writer: the safety of not having started that new and promising project where it’s all looking so promising that nothing can possibly go wrong and it could never end up being a shit book that doesn’t live up to all your others and never lets you down by never finding that readership you’re hoping for, let alone makes you sales. Sometimes I think this is my favourite part of being a writer: hope for the future and setting sail on that uncharted voyage to a character’s soul.