Tag: character development

29/10, Releviĝo – Part III (TBA Readalong)

Just before we start, the wonderful folks over at Jetpack Support and WordPress.com have been fiddling with the blog feed issue I’ve been having and it is now, finally, resolved! My blog should be working properly in WordPress Reader no matter what sort of login you have or what angle you come at it from. I don’t know if these issues were actually affecting people’s subscriptions, but I certainly seem to have a couple of hundred of extra subscribers showing up now that the feeds have been reunited, so there is a chance some of you are reading this post having not seen anything from me in, uh, several years. If that’s the case, hello, welcome! This is the worst place to start. We’re reading The Butterfly Assassin chronologically and discussing the backstory, worldbuilding etc — you can jump to 17/09, Eraro to start at the beginning, or stick around and wait for me to start talking about something else. Consider checking out the Research and Books pages to know what I’ve been up to for the last few years, and do leave a comment I know you’re here :)

I think this is the first time we’ve needed three posts in the readalong series to get through a single chapter of The Butterfly Assassin, but I guess that’s what happens when a chapter gets stretched over nine days. We’re lucky I didn’t give you nine posts, lol. (You did get a nice little interruption in the form of Emma’s birthday, though. Yay?)

Anyway, today is the twenty-ninth of October, and on this day, Isabel has a Meaningful Conversation with Daragh.

Unlike in earlier drafts, when Daragh’s connection to the guild was far less complicated and conflicted, in this scene he seems genuinely uncomfortable with the part he’s playing in training Isabel as part of her recovery – and he lets her see that, too, which I think is important. Isabel doesn’t trust many people, but she finds it a lot easier to rely on people who don’t lie to her, and who admit things like “I don’t feel totally morally okay with working for a global organisation of arms dealers even if I’m a doctor and not a weapons developer”. You know, those small gestures of mutual trust-building that are so important in all relationships.

Ronan hinted earlier that Daragh had some problems with the guild, during the argument they were having before Isabel collapsed, but this is the first time we actually get to ask him about it, and find out why he would join in the first place. We learn that he comes from an industrial borough, and had limited educational opportunities, and that at Ronan’s urging, he took Comma sponsorship to be able to study medicine, in exchange for ten years working for the guild.

I think I’ve covered most of the necessary worldbuilding here in earlier posts, talking about the different types of boroughs and the schooling available there. I also mentioned back on the eleventh of October that Daragh and Ronan weren’t initially connected in any way, and then for a while I had it that they’d grown up together as neighbours, and finally I gave them a family connection. So we don’t need to hash all of that out again.

But then there’s Christopher.

In this scene, Daragh tells us a story about Christopher, his partner, who was killed by Hummingbird three years into his contract with Comma. Daragh wasn’t there and couldn’t save him, and he was forced to confront the fact that the very people he was treating as a Comma doctor were the kids of people who would do that to innocent people. Not all of them – some were families of guild members, admin staff, as close to innocent as any cog in the guild machine can be – but some of them. And he couldn’t hide from that anymore. And he couldn’t leave the guild.

I know the “dead boyfriend” backstory can be fairly overdone, but for me, it was a fairly important piece of figuring out the heart of Daragh’s moral conflict. It was, as all the useful things tend to be, a late addition, developing during my “secondary character development” phase of revisions during Author Mentor Match. And it was not, originally, going to be Daragh’s backstory – it was almost Mortimer’s.

This… works, kind of. It must’ve been Hummingbird who did it, because I can’t see Mortimer cooperating with Comma if it was them. But it doesn’t really fit with the school-as-safety emotional trajectory that we were looking at, unless it’s building on an existing fear.

Actually, you know what? This works a lot better as Daragh’s backstory. It wasn’t his brother he lost – it was his boyfriend. Maybe he was at Comma uni, already aiming to be a doctor, and his boyfriend was a civilian. He’s there/nearby when [name] is targeted, but he dies too fast and Daragh can’t save him. That’s gonna make it SO MUCH WORSE when [redacted] in b2 and Daragh [redacted], OH NO. I hate that. And by ‘hate that’ I mean ‘I’m in physical pain just thinking about it so of course it’s going in the book because I refuse to be alone with my suffering’.

Okay, we’ll come back to that when we look at Daragh, but I’m HERE FOR IT. This section was meant to be about Mortimer…

Spoilers for book 2 are redacted, but I love that you can see them a brief hint of my plotting method here – my plotting method being coming up with the worst thing I can think of and then doing it, without hesitation.

I actually have almost 2,500 words of notes about Daragh’s backstory and upbringing, though, so the fact that it only constitutes about two pages of the finished book is pretty impressive, in my opinion. Apparently, Daragh and Ronan both have siblings, and are both the eldest of all their siblings; there’s a substantial age gap between them and the next sibling down, which is how they ended up closer to each other. (I had entirely forgotten about Daragh’s siblings until now. I am not sure they are canon, otherwise they probably would’ve been mentioned in book 3 when Isabel is talking about his family.)

My notes also contain more about Christopher, none of which is massively new information compared to what made it into the book – in fact, some of it is the book verbatim, which is hilarious because usually my notes are incomprehensible – but I like seeing the original wording of it:

About a year into his employment with Comma, he starts dating a civilian called Christopher. Christopher is a painter – a street artist, a house painter, a freelance art teacher, whatever he can find that will let him make things colourful. He’s full of light and love and colour, and Daragh is drawn to him from the day they meet. At first, he’s afraid to tell Christopher that he’s employed by Comma, but he’s surprisingly understanding once they finally have that conversation: he’s still a doctor, isn’t he? Nobody would judge him for getting his fees paid the way he needed to, and it’s not like the guild is 100% evil, right? Most of the people he treats have never killed someone, after all.

Dating Christopher shows Daragh a side of Espera he never really got the chance to see as a student. He comes with him when he goes out tagging and painting buildings, sees the way his murals spread across the walls of buildings and the underside of bridges. He tells himself he’s only there so that if Christopher gets in trouble, he can use his guild connections to get them out of it, but in truth it’s more than that. There’s something healing in that art. It feels like the moment a patient’s scans come back clear, the day he tells someone they can leave the hospital, the first second of holding a healthy baby in his arms after a tough delivery.

Christopher is a doctor, he concludes. A doctor for people who never leave the city. He brings colours and the world to Espera’s enclosed streets. Sometimes he even paints the city walls themselves, little sparks of sunshine dancing around watchtowers and bolted gates.

“Finn…” you’re saying, reading this, “is Christopher meant to sound so much like Emma?” Yes, of course, he’s basically a narrative double, I love a narrative double. (And I love to directly compare romantic and platonic relationships like this because the friendships are just as important. This will recur, as an idea.)

What I really love about these notes, though, is the details they give us about how Daragh ended up working for the Sunshine Project. He touches on this in the finished book, but it’s a passing reference, not the whole story. In my notes, though:

He takes a month of compassionate leave and wanders the city, looking for Christopher’s paintings. Some of them he’s seen before. Some of them he knows are Chris’s because of the style, but they were painted while he was working, or before they met, and they’re faded and weather-beaten but still unmistakeably colourful. He follows them down narrow alleyways he’s never taken until, finally, he reaches a small, brightly-painted building that declares itself to be the home of Espera’s Sunshine Project, a non-profit clinic for low-income civilians.

When he goes inside he asks them about the decoration. Yes, they say, it was painted by Christopher. He did it for free, and came back every few months to give it another coat, make sure it stayed bright. No, they hadn’t heard the news, but they’re sorry to hear that. He’d always been a friend of the clinic. They treated his sister a few years ago; that was how he’d got involved.

Daragh doesn’t cry. But he asks them if they need any more doctors, if it would help, if there was anything he could do.

When he goes back to work, he asks Ronan if he can reduce his hours to four days a week, and spend the fifth working at the clinic. Ronan doesn’t get it, is suspicious at first – but he knows Daragh is grieving. Truth be told, he thought when his cousin called him that it would be to ask if Ronan could get him out of his contract early. It’s not in his power to just grant the request, but he knows the person who has that responsibility, and he can pull strings, if he wants to.

Please, says Daragh. Christopher used to help them, and he’s dead now. Daragh can’t repaint their building for them, but he can help like this. Ronan liked Christopher well enough, though they only met a handful of times. More importantly, he knows how much Daragh loved him. He pulls the strings.

It helps. It helps to know he’s helping. It helps to walk down those narrow, forgotten alleyways and to find himself surrounded by Christopher’s artwork. It helps even when it sucks hugely because he’s treating people who can’t afford what they need to get better, and he does more than he’s meant to and gives more than he can afford because it does something to fill the hollow pit inside him.

He starts working there on Saturdays as well. Ronan warns him against it, says he’s overworking himself, but it’s easier than sitting at home where Christopher isn’t and trying to forget the fact that yesterday he stitched the wound of somebody who will use their health to hurt somebody else. So, finally, Ronan stops trying to talk him out of it.

Daragh suspects, maybe, that one or two of the anonymous donations that come in to support the clinic’s work are from his cousin. But it’s not something Ronan would ever want to have associated with his name, so he doesn’t ask.

Again, I had forgotten about some of these notes. I had forgotten, in particular, what I wrote about Ronan here. It’s a version of Ronan we never see on the page, but maybe it brings us closer to the Ronan that Daragh knew, the one Isabel never sees.

And then, after she’s heard his story, Isabel asks Daragh how much longer he’s got of his ten-year contract – and he tells her five days. Given that we’ve already seen how Daragh is the only Comma doctor who seems to respect Isabel’s autonomy as a patient, you can understand why she might be freaked out about that, but Daragh tells her he’s staying. For her. Because he’s been kidding himself for a decade that he can make the guild better by being a part of it, so it’s about time he acted on that.

At the very end of all my character development notes from 2019, I have a single sentence: “[Character] wants…”. Daragh’s: Daragh wants to help people. To some extent, this translates into wanting to atone for the evil he’s been complicit in as a member of the guild. This translates into wanting to fix/make up for what the guild has done to Isabel, even at the cost of his own opportunity to leave Comma.

And while I may not have referred back to these notes very often in the past four years (to the point of having forgotten large amounts of what was written in them), I think that aspect of his character has continued to guide how I write him.

Safe. She never thought she’d find it here, in the hands of a Comma doctor.

God. I bloody love Daragh. I really do.

Anyway, tell me how this scene made you feel. Tell me how these excerpts from my notes make you feel! In Daragh’s place, would you have stayed? Would you have taken the 10-year deal in the first place? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll see you tomorrow for a phonecall with Emma and a glimpse of some of Espera’s finest genre romance novels…

28/09, Helpo–Historio–Rekuniĝo–Ĉifro (TBA Readalong)

We’re reading The Butterfly Assassin in real time! Just joining us? For an explanation of this project, see TBA Readalong Starts This Sunday; to start at the beginning, jump to 17/09, Eraro.

On Friday 28th September, Isabel goes in search of Grace Whittock for help with an antidote, but Grace is absent. Instead she finds Emma, and admits to her that she’s sick. Emma invites her to come home with her after school so that she doesn’t have to be alone processing this news, and Isabel goes – only to discover that Emma’s foster mother is Toni Rolleston, one of the Comma agents who led Cocoon and helped train Isabel. The confrontation is tense, and results in Toni’s identity being revealed to Emma, who didn’t know about her mother’s connection with Comma. Isabel storms out, has a bit of a breakdown, gets home, and finds Michael Griffiths in her flat.

Michael was another product of Cocoon, slightly older than Isabel, and saved her life when she was fifteen and got stabbed on a job gone wrong. However, it was partially his fault that the job went wrong in the first place. Comma considered kicking him out, but in the end, he was taken in by Ian and Judith Ryans and lived with them and Isabel. Isabel sees him as something like a brother, but has always kept her distance from him emotionally, knowing that their parents would have used affection against them. Michael confirms that Isabel’s father did in fact poison her and drug her to forget about it, and reveals that her parents have defected to form their own guild – leaving Michael behind.

When Michael mentions that the only hint to saving Isabel from the poison might be in Ian’s files, which Comma have confiscated, Isabel retrieves the documents that Ronan gave her, and resolves to decode them. Michael offers to help, but Isabel would prefer to handle this herself. He gives her his number, and they part as allies.

Whew, that’s a lot of plot to get through in one blog post. Two previously-mentioned characters (Toni and Michael) make their first on-page appearances, we get way more insight into Isabel’s backstory, and we also learn a bit about Emma’s upbringing – but it’s looking like their friendship might not survive Toni’s involvement.

Let’s have a look at Chapter 12 first: Isabel’s reunion with Toni.

I have to admit, of all the chapters in the book and all the angst that Isabel experiences, this is the chapter that gets me. When I first listened to the book as an audiobook, and therefore was able to experience it as a piece of fiction rather than something I was supposed to be editing and improving, this chapter nearly made me cry.

I think the reason it gets me is that Toni – whom Isabel holds responsible for a lot of what she’s been through, including the job that nearly killed her and Michael – acknowledges, out loud, that Isabel’s upbringing was messed up. That somebody should’ve helped; that she was failed by the people who were meant to protect her; that she could have been something else if given that chance.

And that’s the bit that really gets me: the idea that Emma and Isabel were once alike, but Emma was loved, and Isabel wasn’t and now Emma is colour and sunshine and mischief and an outstretched hand, […] hope in human form, and Isabel is broken glass and barbed wire and a knife clutched in bloody fingers.

It would be safe to say that I’m interested in doubles and narrative foils. I wrote my A-Level English coursework essay about doubles and dissociation in The Bell Jar and The Dream Life of Sukhanov: how the characters see themselves in others, fail to recognise themselves in mirrors, are mistaken for other people, watch their lives branch into different possibilities, are replaced and imitated.

Since then, it’s a topic I keep returning to, both in fiction and in academic works. I’m fascinated by narrative foils who end up confronting each other, and those who represent another path the character could have taken, and those who are acknowledged within the narrative as somebody’s double or mirror but denied the chance to share their fate.

I would argue that both Emma and Michael are foils for Isabel, in different ways. Emma is what Isabel could have become, if somebody had loved her and looked after her instead. If Toni had saved her, instead. We see it in her: the way she loves art even though she doesn’t understand it, craving colour and expression that she’s always been denied. She may not permit herself attachment to many people, but when she cares, Isabel is all in for her friends. Some of that she learned from Emma. But some of it, I think, was always part of her, and never given a chance to grow before.

This moment with Toni is also key to one of the ethical questions of the series: to what extent is an individual culpable for the crimes of an organisation they work for? Toni involved herself with Cocoon because she thought she could make it better, keep it from being ‘completely evil’; instead, she became the tool used to hurt Isabel. Over the course of the trilogy, we come back to this question: is there a way to work for Comma without being complicit in their atrocities?

We may not, in our everyday lives, be forced to ask ourselves whether we want to work for a guild of assassins or not, but the parallels aren’t difficult to draw. Many of my more scientifically-minded friends have had to consider whether they want to work for companies involved in the arms industry, in weapons development, in military intelligence, in the fossil fuel industry. They have little use for experts in medieval Irish literature, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to avoid the question. Every day we are made complicit in the crimes of corporations in small ways: our banks investing in arms or oil, our taxes funding military investment, and so on and so forth.

Toni became complicit in Comma’s child abuse, despite her good intentions. Was there a way she could have done otherwise? I don’t know. I don’t think books are supposed to give you all of the answers, and I think stories are less interesting if those answers are obvious. But the difference between Toni and the rest of this Comma, in this moment, is that she looks at Isabel and says: I’m sorry. We failed you.

And in doing so, and in drawing the parallel between Isabel and Emma, she denies Isabel the small comfort of believing she would always have been like this and there was never any other path open to her. She means well, but acknowledging the trauma in that way forces Isabel to acknowledge it, and I don’t think, at this point in the book, that Isabel is ready to.

A version of this scene has always existed – which is to say, Emma has always brought Isabel home to her house, and Isabel has always run into Toni Rolleston there, and Toni’s identity has always been revealed to Emma. In the first draft, the impact of this moment was weak. Toni and Isabel had less of a direct connection, and Toni’s identity was immediately revealed to Emma, rather than discovered by accident; there was little to no exploration of Isabel’s trauma.

A woman comes out of the living room and stares at Isabel. She stares right back.

“Well, well, well,” she says. “Isabel Ryans. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Toni Rolleston,” she responds. “I could say the same for you.”

Emma stares at them both. “Wait, you two know each other?”

“Indirectly,” says her foster mum.

“I guess she never told you that she works for Comma,’” says Isabel.


“I don’t work for them anymore, Isabel, you know that. I left years ago.”

“Before or after fostering me?” says Emma, clearly outraged, and then something occurs to her. “Wait, hold that for a second. How do you know?” she demands of Isabel.

It actually took until Draft VI – the AMM rewrite/overhaul – for this scene to start looking like it does now, and for all my favourite parts (i.e. directly contrasting the young Isabel and Emma) to enter the picture. I think this scene needed me to have developed a more nuanced understanding of trauma before I could write it, as well as to have thought more about the secondary characters and their backstories, treating each of them as if this was their own story and figuring out what they wanted.

When I really want to cry about this (and believe me, I am always crying about my own characters), I like to imagine a story with alternating chapters: Isabel and Emma, c. 2021-22. Emma, ten, recently fostered by Toni and still processing the trauma of abandonment by her parents and a string of unsuccessful placements; Isabel, nine and then ten, in the first year of Cocoon. Toni spending the day working with Isabel and then going home to Emma at night. And the contrast there – the care vs the hurt, the healing vs the damage – makes me sad, because it was happening at the same time, and by the same person.

Because that’s the other point I’m trying to make in this trilogy, really. That people are not Good or Bad, inherently. That people can do great harm, and still have the capacity to do good; that people can do good, and still have it in them to harm. Toni helped Emma, and she hurt Isabel, and those are both true statements and they are both crucial parts of her character. Is Toni a good person or a bad person? No. There is no answer to that question and there isn’t supposed to be.

And there’s Michael. Three years older than Isabel, so he’s twenty here. He was fifteen when he was recruited into Comma following his mother’s untimely death, so he had a little more time to grow up beforehand than Isabel did, but fundamentally, he was another child destroyed by the guild. A fellow survivor – not just of Cocoon, but of their parents, even if Isabel bore the brunt of their abusive behaviour.

The reunion with Michael came much, much later in the early drafts. In the first draft, she encountered him while recovering in the hospital, and once she had already done an assignment for Comma (this specific assignment got cut in later drafts):

“Mind if I join you?” he says.

She sighs. “If you must.”

There’s a creaking sound as somebody lowers themselves onto the weights bench next to her. She lowers the weights and sneaks a peek through barely-opened eyes. The young man is probably five or six years older than her, but something about him is vaguely familiar.

“Michael,” he says, seeing her looking at him. “Remember me? Of course, you probably don’t.”

Slowly, memories start to come back: an older boy putting pressure on her wound after she was stabbed in the assignment that went wrong; pleading for his life when Comma wanted him dead for failing the assignment… “You saved my life,” she says.

“And you saved mine. So I guess we’re even.”

By the fourth draft, Michael had been spying on Isabel for Comma earlier in the book and she’d caught sight of him once or twice, but they only ran into each other once she was already in hospital, as before, although a little earlier in the process. The same was true in the fifth draft, and it was once again only in the sixth draft, the AMM rewrite, that he entered the book at this point and became one of Isabel’s allies and a more significant character.

A big part of the decision to introduce Michael earlier and allow the reader to get to know him more was, as I already mentioned, to an increased focus at this point in the motivations and intentions of secondary characters. In developing these, I found the book Story Genius by Lisa Cron to be helpful, although I have to say I did not vibe with that book’s writing style. The content, however, helped immeasurably in my quest to create secondary characters who weren’t just props for the plot.

I wrote a lot of notes about Michael, exploring his backstory and his relationship with Isabel in far more depth:

To Isabel, Michael is a reminder of her parents and her training, which is a negative. She may initially find his presence triggering and she’s definitely not going to trust him. But he also has shared experiences with her that nobody else has – he gets her.

A lot of these notes focus on his role as a foil for Isabel, but also on the way he represents her father, Cocoon, and everything she’s running from – more on that later. Despite all these intensely detailed notes full of symbolism, however, there were some things I never did figure out about him:

Interests: ??? that would require him to not be a brainwashed screwed-up assassin boy 
Playing cards, I guess?
Surely you have some interests, Michael, please talk to me a little here.

As a result, there are whole aspects of Michael’s character that bear no resemblance to Drafts I-V, and everything important about him showed up in Draft VI. Even the white streak of hair behind his ear, which we share; I gave him this small aspect of my own appearance because I was hastily trying to construct a physical description due to a lack of these in the earlier drafts (I am not a big one for describing people).  

I like the Michael we meet in this chapter, although he’s a deeply flawed individual, and his cowardice has, in the past, left Isabel open to her parents’ abuse. But what she starts to realise here, and what we as the reader are learning with her, is that Michael is also deeply traumatised, and the two of them are alike in that way. This Michael is a lot more interesting than the Michaels of the early drafts, and it’s hard not to root for him at least a little bit, despite Isabel’s complicated feelings towards him.

But he can’t, in this moment, help Isabel, and she’s left with the knowledge that her father poisoned her and a pile of documents she doesn’t yet know how to decode.

So, before we dig deeper into those codes (it’ll be a shorter post tomorrow, I hope), let’s stop there for a minute and discuss these chapters. There’s a lot going on with these two unexpected reunions; which one had a bigger impact on you, as a reader? Do you believe Toni when she says that she’s sorry? Are you rooting for Michael, or suspicious of him?

As always, leave the answers to these questions or anything else you might want to say in the comments below, and I’ll see you tomorrow for the rest of Chapter 14.