Thursday, February 28, 2013

Character Development

One of the things that I like to do as an aside to writing my fiction is developing certain characters. I want the people in my fiction to be as believable as possible, so I devise a history for those people.

Whether I actually use those histories in the story itself doesn't matter; what matters is that I know those characters as well as I know real people.

When I was writing Songsaengnim, I gave great consideration to Roland's mother, Kate. Because she had also lived through a tragedy, I wanted her to be one of the guiding figures in Roland's life. A couple of years ago, I started writing a history of Kate Axam and was considering using it in my novel, but it got shelved before I finished it. By mistake, I accidentally posted it with the rough chapters that I had on my novel's blog site. A friend read it and then contacted me about it, saying she didn't understand what it was that I was adding to the story.

I pulled the passage immediately. It wasn't intended for others' eyes (the Save and Publish buttons are just too close to each other in Blogger!).

This week, I pulled this passage out again, cleaned it up, and finished it. It's still a rough draft, but now that Songsaengnim is published and Gyeosunim is in the works, I thought I would share it. I still don't know if I'll ever use it in my book, but at least it will give the fans of Roland Axam a look into his family.

Oh, and I added a change to my main character's name. Like me, Roland goes by his middle name.


Katie Axam was a strong woman, no matter what your eyes led you to believe. Not large, not brawny. To see her was to be utterly deceived of her nature, her might, her determination, and will. A petite woman in stature and in frame; a mighty woman in substance.

Only if you gazed into her ice-blue eyes would you know not to mess with this island woman.

Born of a hardy stock, Katie was a woman who found solutions to any problem, who never let an obstacle hinder her. She looked beyond a situation to find ways forward, that were outside those that were generally understood and accepted. When a situation seemed hopeless, she found hope.

Where she came from, there were many obstacles to success. Many who came from her birthplace seldom left, rarely moved beyond its borders. Born Katherine Mackenzie MacInnes of Laphroaig, Islay—pronounced eye-lah, a small community of only a few hundred residents. Her father, Angus MacInnes, one of the master distillers from the whisky distillery of the same name and sworn ancestor of Oengus of the clan Aonghais, the founding son of Islay, always wanted more for his only daughter, who showed so much promise. Angus didn't make much money at the distillery but of what he earned he set a bit aside for his wee Katie. He wanted more for her, and though his love for his island would keep him there, he wanted his daughter to get off the island, to the mainland and to more opportunities.

Katie's mother, Flòraidh Senga MacDonald, was also strong in spirit, whose ancestors could be traced back for centuries to the famous and infamous MacDonalds of the island. Yet she was not as hearty as the land that formed her was, and died shorty after bringing Katie into the world. Which made wee Katie all the more precious to her dad.

Katie saw that her father wanted the most for her, wanted to give his only family all that he couldn't give to his departed wife and kids that would never come to be, and she did what she could to fulfill his desires. It wasn't difficult, for even she saw little future for herself in this remote village on this harsh and barren rock of the southern, Inner Hebrides.

She did well in school, dreamed of being a doctor. Her will to succeed took her far: all the way to the University of Edinburgh, where she earned her MBChB. For her father, it might have been the other side of the planet: having never left Islay before he helped his daughter move to the big city, Angus was a wary traveller. Trusted no one, feared for Katie's well being, out of his caring and watchful eye. He trusted Katie's judgement: he just didn't trust strangers.

In her final year, with studies out of the way and her career before her, Katie let the strangers come. It was then that she met a feisty civil engineer named Iain Robert Axam, known by his peers as The I.R.A.: a terror to behold and capable of mayhem. At first, it seemed like a meeting of opposites. A quiet, petite west islander from a whisky community was she; a boisterous, larger-than-life east-coaster from a community loyal to its local brewery was he. But when Iain and Katie met, it was love at first sight. A love that could never be broken.

Upon graduation, in 1960, Iain and Katie married and moved to Iain's home town of North Berwick, in East Lothian, east of Edinburgh. Iain found a job in Edinburgh and took the ScotRail line into Waverley Station every day. Katie was hired at Edington Cottage Hospital, a short walk from their newly built home on the corner of Westgate and Abbey Roads. Katie quickly found an adoration, not just of her life with Iain and the career for which she studied so hard, and her father scrimped and saved to give her the means to realize, but for her new home in the small seaside resort town.

With their careers secured, thoughts turned to raising children, and five years after settling in North Berwick, a son—Angus Roland, named after both of his grandfathers—arrived. Nearly three years later, a daughter—Siobhan Flora, named after both of her grandmothers. Their house was large but would easily house a family of four. By the early 70s, it would also house her private office, where neighbours preferred the warmth of intimate consultation to the antiseptic coldness of the town's hospital.

In the late spring of 1980, Iain was offered a lucrative position as a partner for an engineering firm in Ottawa, Canada. It was a giant step. Both he and his wife would be leaving their country for the first time. It would mean starting over. Katie decided that she would open her own private practice, and the transition for them was effortless, marked only by her minimal name variance, to Kate. The move for their children was a little harder, as they had to adjust to the different education system. Their youngest, Siobhan, had the easiest transition. She would be entering into middle school, where she would be joining a hoard of fellow students who would be just as lost as she. Roland, on the other hand, was entering into the second year of high school. Friendships would already have been formed. The soft-spoken but witty and mischievous lad would have to do some catching up. But Kate wasn't overly concerned. Her children had the same charisma as their father. They'd do well.

Kate kept her Ottawa practice away from their Sandy Hill home, preferring to stay close to the Ottawa Civic Hospital, where she had privileges. Her office, on the second floor of a yellow-bricked building that housed a pharmacy, looked south, across Carling Avenue, toward the Experimental Farm. Looking out of her office window and slightly up, on the corner of the building, she could always see the brightly coloured letters of the pharmacy, C-I-V-I-C.

As much as Kate tried, she could not get her dad to come to Canada, to check out her life first-hand. It had been tougher than pulling teeth to get him to return to Edinburgh to give her away at her wedding, had been easy to get him to come the two times to North Berwick to see the birth of his grandchildren (North Berwick, he said, was as big a town as he wanted to navigate). Angus was content to speak to her on the telephone, to read the letters and receive the photographs of his kin. But if they were to be reunited, Kate had to make the journey back to Laphroaig, which she did every summer, at the most-seasonable time of year. Iain would not always join her, but Roland and Siobhan did. The kids knew the small village as well as North Berwick, better than the whole of Ottawa (it wasn't hard: the village was smaller than their Ottawa neighbourhood. Apart from the distillery and a couple of farms, there was nothing).

It was a storybook life, for Kate. It wasn't perfect, but it was nearly so.

Until the accident brought it all down.

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