Monday, 20 February 2012

GUEST BLOG: We need to talk about Takaar - James Barclay

It seemed like such a simple win at the time. Get yourself a hero, a character practically deified by his people who, at a pivotal moment, loses his courage and as a direct result causes the deaths of over 100,000 of those people. Then, deal a set of circumstances whereby this fallen hero is the only person who can save his race from disaster. But make his redemption complicated. Not just because everyone hates him but that in the intervening decade since his failure, the isolation and his guilt have driven him mad. Oh, and slap pointy ears on him and make him an elf, one of the ruling line of immortals. Call him, Takaar.

It’s a gift, right? Now don’t get me wrong, I love Takaar. I love the idea of him and what he creates within the Elves trilogy. But boy oh boy, every line about him causes such pain. The scrutiny, the doubts, the grinding anxiety over every little detail.

And all this is because an insane character is an incredibly dangerous one. And that’s because his very unpredictability can become a predictable plot device if you aren’t very careful. So you have to be VERY careful and even then accept you aren’t likely to get it right all the time.

You see, the way I chose to go with Takaar was to make him face the very things that sent him mad in the first place. So the isolation effects eventually manifested themselves in their being another voice in his head. Takaar craves company but cannot really handle people anymore and relies on his tormentor to make sense of it, only his tormentor seeks to undermine him at every step.

The effects of his guilt have manifested themselves in an obsession with learning new ways to kill himself, to escape the guilt if you like and the knowledge, but not the true comprehension, that everyone who once loved him now hates him. Again, his tormentor plays on this, trying to get him to kill himself and Takaar refuses to take that step. His tormentor calls it cowardice but it is actually a last great remaining strength.

As you can imagine, this makes him very twitchy around people, and it makes people very nervous around him. It’s an unhealthy mix and inevitably leads to Takaar doing or saying the wrong thing, the bizarre thing and occasionally absolutely the right and lucid thing.

Now the key problem for me was that I couldn’t afford to use Takaar as a way to drive the plot forwards, add sudden tension or create an incident – or very rarely anyway. The odd time you’ll get away with it but becomes old very quickly. But the fact is that he is unpredictable so he will do these things that create tension etc but you cannot trail it because he’s unpredictable. Can you see the knots I got myself tangled in?

Here’s what I worked out, and I’m merely scratching the surface of what’s required. First, you can kind of trail a psychotic event but not in any traditional build-up kind of way. There can be no; ‘he disliked the man and someday he was going to do something about it’ type stuff. What there can be are a few apparently throwaway lines, usually from his tormentor like ‘he really should have told you’ and ‘it’s not the way it should be done’, spread about among the general chatter inside his head. Now if I get that right, some readers will pick up on the cues, expect something to happen but not know when. This is a desired result. And another set of readers will not see the event coming but be able to say ‘oh right, should have seen that coming’. Also a desired result. It’s important that Takaar does not know when he will snap in any direction though he is being provoked at every turn. Unlike a sane individual, his decisions to act come straight out of his subconscious.

Second, the people around Takaar can trigger the sort of event that they fear by either consciously or unconsciously goading him into it. Auum, who once revered Takaar, tries to understand him and ends up despising him, is a particular example of someone who knows Takaar’s weaknesses and uses them against him.

Thirdly, Takaar’s events almost always trigger something but the effects may not be felt for a long while afterwards and this is because something he says or does can affect his behaviour or that of another character further down the line – and in this regard he is no different to any sane character.

Lastly, Takaar has to go on a journey like every other character. He can’t just stay as mad as he was when first encountered because his circumstances change and hence so does the nature and manifestation of his madness. And while I don’t expect readers to identify with him necessarily, I want them to be fascinated, frustrated and shocked by him. Frustrated particularly because there is the desire for redemption within him but not the wit (when we first meet him) to make it happen. He remembers what he once was but shies away from being that person again while desiring it utterly.

There is joy in writing him too. Every conversation he has with his tormentor is to be savoured while drafting. And every conversation he has with another character while simultaneously responding to a voice that character cannot hear is just great fun.

If I get Takaar mostly right in all three Elves books, I’ll be delighted. And he’ll be one of, if not the, most important characters I’ve written.

My advice for what it’s worth for any of you thinking about involving an insane character in your work is this: do it but handle with extreme care...


Patrick Mahon said...

Wow - great insight into how you wrote Takaar, James - thanks! I'm not sure I'd be up to the challenge of writing an insane character, based on what you've said...

James Barclay said...

Thanks Patrick. It's an ongoing challenge and there have been plenty of times when I've felt unequal to it.

As an exercise, it's worth pursuing because far more than for every other character, his mental condition and external stresses have to be taken into account when he says and does anything. I go over and over his words and actions to make sure they ring true and are not conveniently bonkers or lucid.

As I said in the article, I'm sure I've got it wrong at times but nobody's perfect, least of all Takaar...

T. James said...

Thanks for a really interesting post. Writing an insane character isn't something I'd really considered before, and I like the way you are wary of over-using his insanity as a plot device.

A subtle and difficult writing challenge, but one that sounds like an intriguing read.