The Strength of Weak Characters

The more work I do on The Machinery trilogy, the more I come to appreciate the weaker characters.

I don’t mean ‘weak’ in terms of physical strength or lack of courage. I mean it in terms of the writing process, or more specifically the planning process. There are certain characters in the book who have developed as the writing went along – I didn’t have a clear view on them beforehand.

In general, I’m not a great planner when it comes to writing: more of a gardener than an architect, to use George RR Martin’s definition. I tend to write out a rough outline of the general twists and turns of the story, and then just get stuck in. In terms of characters, I don’t write potted biographies of them or anything like that; it’s more a case of thinking about them and forming a clear mental picture of what they’re like.

But I don’t even always do that: for some of the characters I might have two or three adjectives I could use to describe them at the beginning of the writing process, and a general idea of what they look like. And that’s it. But they often develop into the characters that interest me the most.

There’s one in particular who has grown on me as I’ve written. This character – Canning – is middle-aged, overweight, and just generally a bit of a mess (and no, it isn’t a self-portrait!). He’s come far in life, though he hates himself: he was Selected by the Machinery, and is convinced that this was somehow a terrible mistake.

When I first started working on The Machinery, he was kind of a bit player. But I grew to like him as time went on. I thought he was interesting: what happens in this society to those who are thrust to the top of the tree, despite having zero confidence in their own abilities? How do they react to that?

I didn’t have as clear a picture of Canning at the beginning of the writing process as I did some of the other characters. But that was a good thing – he was able to evolve naturally, to react to situations as they developed (which can also be a bit chaotic with me!). He is now a major character, and will be a viewpoint character in The Strategist.

One of the things that can be intimidating about fantasy is the sheer effort that goes into developing a whole new world, with its own characters following their own rules etc. I certainly thought this at the beginning. However, I’ve learned that for me at least, it can often be useful to NOT plan out everything, and to just let things develop as they go along.

Sometimes weakness can be a strength. Besides, there’s always the good old delete key if you make a mess.

UPDATE: A quick update on where I am with everything. Book 2 is now set for an August publication. In the meantime, I’m deep into the writing of Book 3, so that should definitely be out next year sometime. This will mean that the writing/publication of the trilogy took place over ten years, pretty much exactly. It doesn’t feel like it took that long!

It will be a strange day when I send in the final copy edits of Book Three, and say goodbye to the whole thing!



Author: gerrardcowan

I'm an author and freelance journalist. My fantasy trilogy, 'The Machinery', is being published by HarperCollins.

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