Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Interview with an assassin

In the writing world, I, the author, am totally in control, the ultimate authority, manipulating my characters and directing their every action like a master puppeteer.


Right! As if!

They really do have a life of their own, and they don't always want to co-operate. It can be quite eerie when one of your characters stubbornly refuses to follow the script and starts taking the story in a direction you hadn't envisaged. A fellow writer over at Discarded Darlings has long conversations with hers, and they haunt her desk and corners of her room. For me, they mostly just put up passive resistance. I write, and I just know something's bothering them, and the story won't go right until I sort out what they really want to do.

Somewhere in my writing journey, one of my colleagues recommended "interviewing" characters as a way to get inside their heads. Here is one such interview with my main character from Ghosts of Innocence.

Shayla Carver - on motivation for mass murder

So, Shayla, you got very close to killing the Emperor, along with about two billion innocent bystanders. It's a bit of a clichéd question, but why did you do it?

[She laughs] Very simple! Revenge. Nothing more complicated than that. No political aspirations, no deep-rooted desire to establish a new order -- let alone anything based on truth or justice or crap like that. I lost my home world to this man, and I wanted revenge. And I was young and naïve enough not to understand that I didn't have a hope in hell, which is probably why I nearly succeeded. You really can achieve the impossible as long as you don't know it's impossible!

I think we all understand your motivation, up to a point, but the lengths you went to seem pretty extreme. That suggests both anger and determination way beyond normal.

Well, I guess it was an abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation.

But there were hundreds of other survivors from Eloon. Why didn't they all turn into lethal assassins?

Who says they didn't try? A lot of people were seriously pissed! They all had to cope with it in their own ways. Many of them did join the military, or the Insurrection. Many died in combat, or simply grew old and settled down. But they all wore the scars. Honestly, what were the chances of any of us making a real difference? Out of hundreds of survivors, and maybe thousands of other people affected, you just happen to be talking to the one who lasted long enough to get serious.

All the same, your lifelong mission was serious. Some would say 'above and beyond'. What kept you going all those years?

I guess I had nothing left to live for. My whole world was gone. And I mean my whole world.

I'm a pretty introspected person. Never made friends easily. But I adored my father. He taught me so much about life, and especially about loyalty and fairness. I don't think he opened up to many people either, but I thought I knew him. Back then it seemed like he was my only real friend. Then he was gone.

[She leans forward, speaking earnestly] I was shocked by the totality of the destruction. And the power. Have you ever seen a planet cleansed?

[I shake my head]

Well, I watched it!

Imagine the biggest volcano you ever saw, blowing its top. The weapons those Swords carry are like a force of nature. Liquid lightning raining down. Turning cities to glass.

[She frowns thoughtfully] I think quark bombs are the only other man-made things that come close to challenging nature for sheer power, but they are so touchy they're almost impossible to deploy.

Anyway, even watching from light years away, knowing I was safe, I could feel the heat. It was terrifying. But the point is, I was more shocked by the unfairness of it. This wasn't blind nature. This was personal. Someone, somewhere, made a conscious decision to bring that destruction down on my world. It was a choice! Someone chose to do this! That is what really stuck with me all through the years.

So you chose revenge.

C'mon! You're talking about an eleven-year-old child here! A spoilt super-brat at that! Of course I chose revenge. And there was never any question about the form it would take either. You took my world, I'll take yours! That was just childish simplicity talking, but over the years the focus became so ingrained it never occurred to me to question it. A matter of habit. Of belief. Almost religious.

And of course I had Brandt to think about too. He was just as affected, and just as determined as me. I think we fed off each other. Kept each other going

Didn't it occur to you that you were also making a choice, that you were going to bring destruction to another world just like someone did to yours?

Not really. Not at the time anyway. I didn't see it as a real world. It was the home of the Emperor, that was all I saw.

And I only really thought about Eloon in terms of my own personal loss too. It was all pretty selfish. Remember that I was from a privileged family, so I'd led a sheltered life. I didn't mix much with other kids. There were lots of people coming and going -- my family was pretty well-connected -- but they were formal acquaintances, not friends.

Remember when you were a child? Didn't you think the universe revolved around you? Well, I was still at that stage and I saw Eloon as my home. It didn't really occur to me that it was other peoples' home as well, so the loss of a planet was my loss. And I only saw the revenge on another planet as hitting at the Emperor. The other people on the planet didn't really register. If they did, it was an unfortunate evil but not important.

And all through the years, nothing caused me to challenge that idea. As I said before, my course was set. I had my goal, and it was never up for question after that.

So what changed?

I think what threw me was seeing Magentis close up. It was not how I pictured it. Of course everyone sees newscasts and stuff. All the famous views of the Palaces, the Legislature, and all the docs and histories, and the operatics set there. So everyone 'knows' what Magentis is like. I 'knew' it was a world full of strutting Imperial types, pulling all the strings to lord it over the rest of us.

And that's all real of course. It's all there. All the huge incestuous machinery of the public service, the military, the politics. But that's only one percent of reality. I had never imagined the other ninety-nine percent. The sheer ordinariness of it.

When I landed in Horliath and met up with the Insurrection cell, I was on a mission into hostile territory. What I was never prepared for was mixing with ordinary folk. The Inn at Skerrin could have been on Eloon, or Ploorbellin, or anywhere. Even in the Palace, right at the heart of the Empire, it was full of perfectly ordinary people living remarkably ordinary lives.

What about the girl on Chantry Bay?

Yes ... [long pause] ... That got me off-guard. I don't know why I hadn't seen her aboard before. Maybe she was with one of the richer passengers. Some of them pretty much stayed in their suites rather than mingle with the rabble.

But for a moment I saw myself in her. That touched me in a way I was not prepared for. I think that's what opened me up to seeing the people of Magentis for who they really were. It was like someone had opened the gates on years of denial.


  1. Great interview! Sounds like she's really opening up to you. Hopefully she'll be more cooperative in the future. :D

  2. Thanks, Jean. Yes, this was invaluable in helping me to keep her reactions "true" as the story unfolded.

    I have another interview, which I might post later, which surfaced some other aspects that I had never considered. That one turned into powerful insight that gave an entirely different flavour to her actions as she infiltrated the regime.


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