And Gone Again (With A Bit of Characterization)

Posted: November 3rd, 2022 under Craft, Horngard, the writing life.
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NewBook is off to the agent again.  It now has 34 chapters, and I did not regularize chapter length.  My brain was tied in knots last night.  I did some formatting cleanup and *think* I got all that straightened out.  Maybe.

The “gone again” reminded me that–without much if any spoilering–you might enjoy a bit of insight into how I approach characterization when a character has neurological or other physiological  differences.  You’ve seen the results in several books, but not the process of development.  Leaving aside The Speed of Dark, where I had daily contact with an autistic family member from birth to about age 18 when I wrote it, plus years of researching what was then known about that condition, it starts with at least some familiarity with the condition or a close relative.  For instance, growing up in “polio times” I knew both adults and kids who’d had it and were living in the community.  Also knew (over my life span) people who had severe loss of hearing (or were born deaf),  blind people, people with malformed or missing limbs from various causes.   My mother had had polio as a small child (and had post-polio syndrome as an older adult) and had told me about some of her childhood experiences and feeling.  Personally, I had sequelae from a bout of encephalitis that left one side weaker than the other, a temporary hearing problem, and (unrelated to that, I think) progressive vision loss through childhood.  So I had mostly secondhand, but a little firsthand, experience of various limitations of sensory, motor, and brain function.

As a future writer, this was great (though I didn’t know I would end up a writer other than hobby level.)   Everything is grist for the mill, ingredients for the soup, bits of character to aggregate into someone who never lived but feels like someone you’ve known for years.   How to show these things in fiction depends on the character’s place in the story (and the milieu.)   A minor character, a limitation or problem not related to the plot–just mentioning can be enough.  Or, if it’s not that conspicuous, not mentioned unless there’s an intersection with something where it becomes so.   A medium level character missing a limb, or blind, or paralyzed, has to be shown in a way that makes clear how that affects their life in that venue: what can they do and not do?  What are their days like?   The book may not be about them, but at that level they’re “onstage” enough that they have to feel real and whole as what they are.

With major characters, the writer needs to know more about how that condition affects most people with it, and what the range of emotional/psychological reactions is.  Whether this character’s condition was from birth or acquired–and when and how–and what elements of maturation may be tangled in the effects of the condition.  Does it affect socialization?  Cognitive capacity?  Physical strength or endurance?   Are those with it typically more or less cheerful than those without it?   This means more research, of course, and ideally the research will involve being around someone with the condition in more than an “interview for my book” setting.   The blind person you’ve been taking to and from choir practice (for instance) becomes the person who, over time, is comfortable explaining more about the experience of blindness, the little things that annoy or make life a little better.

In NewBook, the person with a serious problem is Camwyn, King Mikeli’s younger brother, who suffered major injuries from iynisin and was taken away by Dragon as the only way of saving his life.  We saw enough of this in Crown of Renewal to know that he was left with a memory deficit for everything but his life since he woke up in Dragon’s cave.  He was about fifteen at the time of injury: he has lost his entire childhood and part of adolescence.  He has, at the start of NewBook, been told little about his past, at Dragon’s insistence.  He knows he was a prince, that his brother is a king, that Dragon has planned to put him on a throne of his own.  He’s relearned walking, talking, reading, writing, weapons skills, riding a horse.   He’s been taught some history, philosophy, etc.–a Renaissance prince’s education, minus religion. But he’s missing what other people have–the narrative of his life up to waking in that cave (some time after the first wakenings.)   And we who have memory have that narrative, starting in early childhood.  We know what kind of person we are because we’ve “been there” with ourselves and the people telling us “That was mean!” or “You’re a good boy.”  We know what we did and how we felt about it, and how others reacted to it, and we build up from that our own version of our identity.

Camwyn starts this book at 20-21.  Physically adult.  Mentally competent–Dragon was able to reproduce a healthy chunk of damaged brain, but not to restore its content.  But in terms of psychological maturity–in terms of self-understanding–he’s got a huge gap, and as a result a lot of self-distrust.   He wants to know more about his life before the injury, but Dragon has kept him away from anyone who might tell him–he’s been “out in the world” but not anywhere near the Eight Kingdoms.  Cam wants to know that his feelings, his intuitions, his desires are normal-for-him.  That he can depend on them, as I  know I can depend on mine (including the “different” craving for chocolate I get sometimes is part of my migraine prodrome and that’ the time I should not eat anything sweet or chocolate, while ordinarily chocolate doesn’t kick up a migraine.)

At the start of this book Cam feels completely disconnected from his past–unlike me with my first memory loss (fall off a horse over a triple bounce) that cost me 45 minutes complete loss and partial loss for the next half hour to hour as I tried to find my way back to the city “by instinct”–Cam has absolutely no recall for the injury that started it or anything before it.  I had the fall itself, up to sitting up and seeing my instructor walking over.  It was a “waking memory loss” because (I heard later) she helped me up, I helped catch the horse, got on, rode the rest of the lesson (which I do not remember at all), and “came to” sitting on the horse in the cool-down period.  I was able to reason out, sort of, what day it was, and “on a horse” was where I was, but the rest was confusion…and the very typical brain-not-working desire not to let anyone find out I wasn’t all there.  The missing 45 minutes bothered me for years.  I was told I jumped the bounces perfectly the next several times, but the next time I saw a bounce jump (not at that stable) I froze, terrified.

Dragon does not really understand human psychology.  Dragon thought memory loss would be a chance to start over with a clean slate and not be “bothered” by annoying past memories that could make someone repeat earlier mistakes.   And memories can be so bad that they are edited out or stuffed in a mental box for years–or they can be destroyed by brain injury.  But for most of us, our memories of ourselves, good or bad or in between, are important in defining who we are…to ourselves.

So how does someone like Camwyn develop a personal narrative?  He needs help.  He gets some.   It can’t all be repaired at once.



  • Comment by Annabel — November 4, 2022 @ 6:40 am


    I am looking forward to finding out whether Camwyn has retained his magery since his injury, or whether the part of his brain that was injured included whatever it is that produces magery in a given individual.

  • Comment by Leslie — November 4, 2022 @ 4:26 pm


    to Annabel in comment… Last week I re-read about Camwyn waking up and when he first wakes, Elizabeth said his hand was glowing, so magery was there. I’m looking forward to the book! Hoping to find out if he can still rise off the ground and do other things. Elizabeth, thank you so much for the tidbits, especially about Dragon as eldest not understanding human psychology. I’ve been wondering if your experiences with concussion would be reflected in this book. Thankfully, I’ve not had an experience of losing consciousness since I was about 6 due to an accident with a swing on a playground. I don’t know how long I was out and don’t remember if I lost memory. I’ve only had to have two or three surgeries, and I seem to find it hard to wake up. First time, apparently I was talking to a room full of people who had come to visit me in the hospital. someone asked if I wanted some jello and I guess I agreed, but the first thing I really remember was suddenly having a mouthful of cold sweet stuff and thinking, WHAT is going on?!
    Interesting that you mention not wanting to appear not quite there. I occasionally experience scintillation in my vision, It’s called a migraine, but I don’t have pain when it happens so I hesitate to call it that. There usually isn’t any warning but I will realize there is a spot to one side of the center of my visual field that is not dark but becomes blurry to the point of not being able to focus. The scintillating color vibration starts and it becomes VERY difficult to carry on a conversation and I have that feeling of not quite being ‘all there.’ I have learned that when it starts the best thing I can do is go lie down for the 30 to 45 minutes until it clears up.

  • Comment by Daniel Glover — November 7, 2022 @ 11:07 am


    I concur with what Elizabeth has said. Doing partner dancing with multiple individuals, many times each, over the past quarter century with blind individuals you do get to have a different perspective as they become comfortable describing things. Since I’m being eyes for two but we’re both listening to the music and carrying on a conversation at the same time.

  • Comment by elizabeth — November 9, 2022 @ 12:47 pm


    Migraine aura with the scintillation is a pain if you’re in a music rehearsal and suddenly all the notes on the score are jiggling. With me, if it’s text or music they’re like dancing flakes of gold against a dark background. The color ones are usually when I’m outdoors and get brighter than Texas sun in midsummer…yes, the best thing for me is to go lie down in a darker place.

  • Comment by AJLR — November 11, 2022 @ 4:44 pm


    A post-grad programme I was taking a while back introduced me to the idea of ‘social constructivism’, where at least one element of the theory says that people are constructs of the learning and experiences they have been through over the years, either by themselves or as part of a group. That made sense to me, as does Cam’s wishing that he had the memories that would make him whole and also provide help on how to approach different situations. Poor lad, having to go through all that while feeling such a lack.

    Am so looking forward to reading this story. 🙂

  • Comment by elizabeth — November 14, 2022 @ 10:15 am


    There was an interesting article in The New Yorker a few weeks ago (I think) about whether we stay the same or change, that referenced the social construction ideas. Certainly our narrative of ourselves, that all of us with undamaged memory have, is the result of the situations we’ve lived in, how they were related to us (when we were children and parents/guardians/teachers told us what a given experience “meant.”), how we interpreted them through whatever sensory lenses our personal neurology allowed. The notion of “self-made” is so ridiculous…our *grandparents*’ experience could be coded into our genes, and their conscious awareness of social influence would have influenced their children, our parents, who influenced us. As did every other person we came in contact with. For good, for ill, on all axes of our personalities…they nudged us toward or away from interests, skills, friendships…and we acquiesced or resisted because of previous stuff, inside or out.

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