Portrait of a Protagonist: On Developing Áine

It started not with a name, or a face, or even a voice. It started with two words. I had decided a while back that I wanted to figure out what my two favourite words were and after a very long time I made my choice. I settled on ‘brave’ and ‘albion’. Now, this had not been an easy decision. Close seconds were the words ‘shutter’ and ‘avalon’, and for similar reasons. Shutter and brave can both be nouns and verbs, but often their verb sides get forgotten. I decided that if it were between brave and shutter, I’d rather be brave.

The decision between avalon and albion was less about character and more about appearance and sound. I decided I liked the ‘b’ more than the ‘v’ and I went with that. Right about now, you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with developing a main character. Well, it’s simple. The character I’ve created started with those two words. Brave and Albion. Brave Albion.

It started with these two words that I had decided were my favourite words, based off a multitude of things. Sound and meaning, etymology and history and simple appearance of letters. I don’t mean to say that Brave and Albion are the best words. Simply my favourite. And from those two words, I created the story I wanted to write. It had taken a lot of consideration to choose which were my favourite, so I knew these two words had plenty of meaning to draw upon.

But first came a character. I knew she would be brave, that was obvious. But what came later was that she was more than that. She was bravery. She was all that I thought to be brave and courageous, and it became for her the central-most part of who she was. And it also drove elements of the plot, but more on that later. Today, we’re talking about the main character. One word was an idea, the other one a place. But the more I branched out from those words, the more they began to relate. The idea became solid and real and the solid and real place became an idea. The idea of Albion is just as real as the place once was, and in a way, still is.

In my private definition of what bravery is, it is separate from courage. It is stronger. It takes courage to protect a stranger, to fight against an injustice, to climb a dangerous mountain. But one can be brave in the smallest of ways. One can be brave to continue believing in love, or hope, when the world has offered you nothing but pain. One can be brave when they are weak, and in many ways, bravery exists in its purest when we are weakest. Of course, these are my own private definitions of these terms, and in no way do I claim to say they are the definitions. I’m just letting you follow on what my thought process was like in the early stages of my character development.

Which brings us back to character. I knew I wanted her to be brave. And yes, I knew she was a girl from the beginning. I can never know why, and won’t pretend to understand. It was simply one of those things writers seem to just know about their worlds, as if they were facts and not make-believe. So I was thinking about bravery, and I was thinking about albion, and I was thinking about stories and books. And I knew that she must be a reader. There she was! Sitting in a little carriage, straining her eyes to see little words in the pages of a rather old book. She was a red-head, no, no, she was blonde and she had a dusting of freckles across her nose and under her eyes and her skin was a little pale beneath the freckles. But she was so pretty, I was sure she must have been nobility. A princess, or the daughter of a duchess or lord. Sure, her eyebrows were a little thick and her skin was a little pale, but those eyes were something else. Blue, like the sky on a cloudy day, almost grey in their paleness. She looked sad, but she wasn’t.

Thinking about books and stories and albion had put her in a place and had dressed and influenced her. The book she held in my mind had no title, but it had a cover that reminded me of King Arthur. And I knew more. I wanted her to be brave. She had such cloudy eyes, they reminded me of the skies in Ireland. I called her Lilian for a time, but knew she’d need a better name before I truly started. Aine was a pretty name. It was strong, and it had old roots and old meanings. Her story was a little sad, and Aine looked a little sad, but she was a survivor. It seemed fitting. I knew I’d make her go through a lot, in my writing, but I knew she could handle it. I sat her to the side for a while and I started writing more about the world.

I’d decided much earlier that books would be a key element in my story. I thought about the streets of London in the 17th and 18th Centuries. I thought about libraries, and archives, and shadows of former empires influencing modern nations. I thought about Rome and record-keeping and tales of ancient libraries. I thought about the intelligentsia of past times, of arbitrary political houses, and of the demystifying of all the world’s riddles, except the ones that are closest to ourselves. Magic would play an important role in my story, but it would be bartered with and used as a tool for an eternal cold war, rather than as an actual weapon. It would be whittled down to a practice and an art, rather like how sword melee became fencing. It would be the equivalent of royals fencing with nuclear weapons, so to speak. Books contained magic, and that magic was gathered and collected and fought for in secret, in a struggle to see who was hypothetically on top. All under the watchful eyes of the Emperor who is the one who keeps a cold war from becoming a real one, but largely with fear and strength.

I knew, of course, that reading was important to Aine. I also discovered that her only true ‘power’ came in the form of an uncanny memory for things she has read. Now, books seem to be the only things she memorizes. She doesn’t remember every detail of the world, only what she reads. I knew that she may seem a little naive, and perhaps she is a little. I knew that she had a strong sense of what was right and wrong, and that it was mostly because of the books she had read. She thought books to be safe, and wonderful and it created in her a distrust of the Emperor and even of Librarians, of which her father worked as one. Librarians tracked books down for the nobility. Librarians were commoners who couldn’t afford the right to own books, but had somehow learned how to read. If it was found out that you could read, you were sent to the Imperial Academy, where all Librarians are trained. The Academy is dangerous, and many don’t even survive the training. If you do, you simply get assigned to tracking down books for nobility. The greatest Librarians are the ones who manage to save up enough money by finding valuable historias that you can buy the right to own books, which essentially marks them as a minor noble. Other Librarians marry into one of the great Houses and become minor nobles that way, but marking themselves as allied with that noble through marriage.

Her father was a House Librarian, under the long employment of Mr. Caraway. Most of his work consisted of simply picking up a book Lord Caraway had arranged to be bought from another noble. Many nobles barter and trade with books, and this was what most of his work was. Sometimes he was sent to find books still in the old ruins. These jobs could be dangerous. Her father never allowed her to accompany him on these events. She would always be left at a hotel or an inn to wait until he came back, and then she would get the opportunity to read the little book or historia on the trip back to Mr. Caraway’s home. Needless to say, she spent a lot of time traveling, but mostly with her nose in a book. She had a brother who she loved dearly, though they were quite different from each other. Her brother was courageous.

He was also prone to stealing pocket things from people and breaking into places he shouldn’t be. I knew he had an affinity for pocket-watches, and necklaces. I was curious as to how they interacted. Did they bicker, did they get along? Was there any resentment? What would one sacrifice for the other? What wouldn’t they? I knew that it was because of her father and brother that Áine had kept it a secret that she could read for this long. She was an opinionated person, with strong ideals of right and wrong. She also had a great love for books. The idea of having to keep that a secret upset her more than anything else. Being a Librarian wasn’t all that bad, in her own mind. She’d seen her father get injuries, but overall it didn’t seem terrible. Fear of being a Librarian wasn’t a strong enough reason for her to be so careful, so against her own character for so long. No, it was deeper than that.

Áine had lost her mother, when she was four years old. She doesn’t remember much from that early in her life. She doesn’t even remember her mother’s face, or the sound of her voice. Her father worked hard, and he’d always been a bit of a distant man. At least, for as long as she’d known him. He could talk and be kind and he very clearly loved them. But his mind was always somewhere else. He was forgetful about the simple things, like preparing food or brushing your teeth, or going to bed on time. It was Áine who learned to do those things. So, in a way, she became a bit like a mother. And she was bright. At least bright enough to realize that her father and brother might not survive losing another family member.

So, her truest personal enjoyment came when she got to read. Books, as they are, exist as fuel to dreamers. They sharpen our minds and make the impossible seem achievable. In her case, this was a recipe for unease. Reading books that fueled her dreams, but still bound by love and family obligations. But her curious spirit was only being given more energy, building up inside of her in this treasure trove of stories whose words she never forgot. Her remarkable memory allowed these things to be just as strong today as they were the day before, or a month ago, or a year ago.

To truly know how she’s the bravest person I’ve ever had the joy of writing, you’ll have to wait until the book comes out. Or stick around and keep an eye out for future scenes from the work in progress. Let me know in the comments about how your protagonist came to be.