Warning: this post gets a little sweary. Perhaps a little more even than my usual peppering of the main meal. Don’t know why I’m putting a warning on because if you’ve read my books or followed me for a while this won’t surprise you. Except I’m writing this as I prepare to start a long weekend and I’m a little vodkad up, about an hour after this evening’s 10k run. And I’m talking about myself and my books. Cue me just throwing caution to the wind.
Coz that’s a part of who I am too, or at least it is on paper. I’ve been reading Chuck Wendig’s book about kicking ass as a writer this week, and he says ‘We’re all a little bit batshit.’ I might even regret this post tomorrow. But hey, I graduated from Sussex. Morning-after regret in a town like Brighton should go with making a filthy breakfast of cheap sausages and re-heated coffee by now.
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So, let’s continue the ‘Who am I?’ character soul-search with one I’m already intimately familiar with. Let’s do Oscar (said half the characters in the two ‘Carnathia’s Underground’ books.)
Let’s do why’s he here first, because it’s as much about who I am as it is about him.
I’ve talked before about how I figured out my sexuality by writing about it. I’d had a feeling since an early age that I liked girls, but hey, I just kinda liked guys a little bit more. Or at least I thought I did. I was just undecided for years. Or not wanting to live with how it might make life a little bit more difficult, or so I thought. Oscar wasn’t the character I worked all this out through. I had another character, Dylan, who helped me do a lot of that, and I’ve published nothing with him it, because he also saw me through those ‘just write and just SUCK’ years between writing fanfiction and trying to craft something publishable. Oscar wasn’t my search and discover character, he was my ‘I’m out’ character.
Or more accurately, my ‘I’m out to my parents’ character. To my friends? Not ready yet. I had to do a bit more writing first. Write with someone so unashamedly confident in this kinda stuff that I might just be able to be that guy for thirty seconds in real life and tell my friends and actually be sober when I do it. So, I needed a character through whom I could say ‘I’m out, now let’s fuck!’
That started Oscar. Along with his appearance being based on a seriously cute guy I met in a video games store, if only for five minutes, and one fun conversation about a stupid game involving pounding the shit out of teddy-bears with baseball bats. (Actually not joking there, play Naughty Bear if you think I am.) Is that kinda weird, making a stranger a character? See that ‘We’re all a little bit batshit’ get-out clause good old Chuck just gave me. And for the record, I don’t remember the name on that guy’s badge, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Oscar.
Why did I even pick that name for him? Okay, honesty time: because I wanted to nickname him Oscar the Otter. I do like the animal, and I did a conservation project on them at college. If my friends ever read the two CU books…I’ll just pull Chuck’s clause out the bag again and dose them with it like a quick double shot of absinthe. Seriously though, I wanted Oscar to be a swimmer to get that nickname, because my first idea with him was to have him swim for his life to escape a sinking cruise liner. That idea even made it to the final, published novel. (Sidetrack: I know there is actually a children’s book called ‘Oscar the Otter’ that I remember reading in a library as a kid. So, let’s do something a-la Happy Tree Friends: take something that sounds like it’s for the young and innocent and just fucking destroy any idea innocence with a debauched character train-wreck. Childhood has to end somewhere. It’s all about the subversion.)
And yeah, I wrote those first words in 2012. Yeah, that’s when the Costa Concordia sank. Yeah, I know it was a real life tragedy in which people lost their lives, and I really did find it sad, but, y’know, I’m a writer, that idea was in my head, and fuck it, I was writing this story with this cute swimmer and his boyish nickname and ‘I exist to get fuckin’ LAID, baby!’ track record, because I’d just admitted a big part of who I was, and I was using it and this was my context. (Shall I mention the batshit clause again? Actually no, I think all that sounds kinda sane when you add it up.)
So who is Oscar?
Oscar’s basically nice. Let’s start with a simple answer to that. At the start of my story, he’s just turned eighteen. He’s well mannered and polite, and likes to dress smart because he’s got the money to do it – rich family, and an element of spoilt golden boy about him, but he doesn’t revel in it or act superior to others. Literally anyone can be his friend.
For good measure, every week he visits his mentally disabled older brother in the home, despite the fact that before the accident that put him there, his brother bullied him and his parents didn’t care much. Oscar’s kind of become their ‘second chance’ kid all of a sudden, but he doesn’t have much time to dwell on it. Things just are what they are.
He’s also a determined athlete, having found a sport he got the bug for and decided he was going to be the best swimmer in the pool. (I don’t think this made the final cut, but I did once have a line about he took up the sport after his brother called him fat and unfit as yet another taunt.) Best strokes, best times, perhaps best looking body as well although he wasn’t really thinking of this until he started realising that it was part of how he suddenly found himself able to get into just about anyone’s pants he wanted.
Pool parties and sex are kinda made for each other, aren’t they? But before all that starts in his life, he’s aware of how he likes guys that little bit more. Sure, he could drop his pants for a woman, but what he considers to be the best wild ride is to get with other guys. He later discovers it works better if it’s guys who can actually compete on his level, because everything’s a competition to Oscar. Life itself is one big swimming pool and he wants to finish first. Wall in front of you? Just do a tumble-turn and carry on. So…
Why’s he here (in the story itself, beyond being a character the author just needed to write with)?
Well, that question’s a great big ‘Hell if I know’ shrug to this guy. Erm, yeah, Did I mention he’s a teenager at the start of my story? Okay, eighteen, so technically a man but still very much the boy who’s just gotten the grades, obsessively followed a strict training program to become a great swimmer, and shown signs that he might be destined for high achievement. But what does he want to do with his life now that it has to be about more than just swim-by-numbers?
Actually, he does have an idea. He likes food. He’s always been able to afford the best in everything, so why not learn to cook it for himself instead of always having to be waited on? This is where I inserted a little extra backstory: perhaps he’d always been doing that, and it was just another hobby because there had to be something different to balance out the sports. So, what if he decided to make a career of that?
Now, forgive me a little story to go with my character development. Enter a curveball: his parents are going to go NUTS when he tells them that’s what his life’s for. The parent freak-out is worthy of another blog post, and it’s a trope I’ve used many many times, so let’s just leave it for now and add a third question to the mix:
What do Oscar’s parents think that Oscar’s here for?
There are plenty of characters who can go ‘I’m an adult now so fuck you’ to a parent, but Oscar’s not that guy. Maybe he does have a shot at being that guy, with politer terms, but still, his rich parents who have a air of superiority that would probably place them squarely at a 23rd Century Donald Trump’s best dinner table, don’t want their son learning a humble trade. They want him as something like an officer in the Carnathian fleet.
A little more story now: what if military service wasn’t compulsory on Carnathia, but the testing for it was? (For the record, I’m actually quite pleased I came up with that idea – a military that says ‘Sure, you don’t have to join, but look at what you’ve just tested out as capable for…sure you don’t want that? Sure you don’t want society knowing you turned it down when your civvy career doesn’t work out quite so well?’ Crafty little regimented fuckers.) This is where I threw in the idea that Oscar might just test perfectly for a space craft pilot. So that’s what his parents want because to keep their social status, it’s pretty much expedient in this society that if you’re a high flyer and the service says so, you’d better fuckin’ serve and like it, bitch.
And eventually, that’s what Oscar decides he wants too, because, (back to ‘Who am I?’) he’s actually very susceptible to big ideas once he’s had a little persuasion – a trait which eventually gets him into very deep shit as soon as he meets Screft – the character with whom he shares the spotlight of the two CU books. This part of ‘Who is Oscar?’ gets introduced early, in the form of that career choice, because as well as deciding that his life is for enjoying food and fucking as many different partners as the world offers (including some quite elusive and dangerous ones), he figures it’s good to have a side of him which serves a greater, worldwide purpose, and fulfils his potential.
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So where do I take his story from there? Well, it’s shill-the-books time: you’ll have to read it, because I’m keeping this spoiler free. The interview where the character does this in his own voice? That’s basically what the second half of Fighter’s Mark is, polished so it doesn’t look like an interview at all. (It’s Oscar telling Screft his story but stylised to make it feel like he’s telling it to the reader.) The interview at the end of the story? You’ll have to just stop having me spoon-feed you everything. If you’re into this character, do him yourself.
But I’ll tell you this much: I like him even more at the of the two CU books. And on record: that does not necessarily mean he survives them. Or maybe he does. Or maybe there are some pretty big prices to pay because of who he wants to be by the end of that story, either alive or as a legacy for the world of Carnathia to know…
Why do I like who this character is and what he does?
Bottom line: I like Oscar because no matter what trouble he gets in, he tells the truth. He isn’t a paragon of virtue (oh HELL no), but if I were to put him through a 12 steps rehab, he’d shine when he reached that ‘We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves’ part. Why might a reader like him? Same thing: he’s pretty aware of right from wrong when he’s doing both, and when it’s time to make amends he knows how to do it. In that respect he’s the most virtuous character I’ve created.
And he certainly has a lesson or two to teach Screft, who was practically born a con-artist and spends a good deal of CU planning how he’s going to deceive the entire world for the rest of his life.
Again, no spoilers, but here’s the next stage of the exercise: after you’ve made a couple of characters according to the guidelines I’ve set out, pair two characters up who are two fundamentally different people and believe they are here in this world for completely different reasons. Opposites attracts? Fuck that cliché, do better: opposites can sometimes change the world with what they influence each other to do.