My new series for Nosy Crow is classic fantasy for readers aged 10+ and I’m really enjoying digging into the first book as I work on all the elements that make for a good read: an exciting plot with twists and turns, a sense of place, high stakes, great characters.
As a writer, I’ve come to find that if I don’t know my characters well enough – or (horrors) discover I’m not very interested in them once I do know them! – the book isn’t going to work. It’s going to be flat and boring, like a pancake without lemon and sugar.
This bank holiday I decided to reread my first book, Castle of Shadows. And I was pleased to discover I love the characters in Castle and its sequel, City of Thieves as much as I did when I first wrote the books. The characters and their stories still fascinate me. So much so that I’m going to try to start writing the third book this winter. It will have to fit around my other writing commitments, but I’m going to give it a go. I simply want to know what happens to Tobias, Charlie, and Alistair Windlass.
Castle of Shadows is alternative history, rather than fantasy. And Charlie, or Princess Charlotte August Joanna Hortense of the kingdom of Quale, is partly inspired by the first Elizabeth of England. They share red hair, a bit of a temper, parents not being there, and a precarious and danger-laced childhood. Elizabeth wasn’t known for being a sweet-natured retiring type. She was clever and tough, and she was a survivor. If the people who met her thought she wasn’t ‘sweet’ enough, they probably didn’t say so.
So it was a shock to me, back in 2010, when some reviewers and readers (only a few, mind) said they found Charlie a bit hard-going. She wasn’t what they had expected. This was a book about a Victorian-era princess. A princess! They weren’t expecting a ragamuffin with dirty nails, a sharp tongue and a fierce determination to find her missing mother and save her father’s life.
Readers’ expectations are something writers need to think about. We should never cater to expectations, but we need to be aware of them. I still remember that one German publisher turned Castle down because: ‘Charlie isn’t sweet enough.’ In other words, they wanted something safer, pinker, more easily marketed.
Castle of Shadows actually went on to do well, both in the UK and other countries, and both Charlie and her companion Tobias earned many fans of all ages. So I’m not really worried about Charlie’s lack of sweetness, nor am I going to change her character one bit as I begin the third book because Charlie is going to have to draw on every reserve of grit she possesses to survive the next adventure. But I am interested in how both readers and writers feel about characters that defy stereotypes.
So I would like to ask readers: How do you feel when a character behaves in a why you weren’t expecting? Does it make you uncomfortable, or intrigued?
And writers, have you ever had a publisher ask you to change a character in a basic way in order to make them appeal more to readers? And were they right?