One of the best parts of being an author is the freedom to create diverse casts of characters. I like combining characters of different ages or characters from different eras. In my debut novel Circle of Nine: Beltany, I combine historical chapters and modern chapters. The main character in this novel is a modern teen in the United States, but the historical characters (her ancestors) are Irish and range in age from teen to elderly. And, one of my middle-grade novels is set at a senior living center, combining a cast of pre-teens with octogenarians.
This is why my rejection letters often said, “While I enjoyed the story and characters, I am not certain how to market this.” Oh, the horror! What shelf should this book live on?!? The good news is that my books have managed to live on many shelves, and I have had no problem marketing my titles to a broad audience of readers.
Writing diverse characters within the same novel is not always easy. In the Circle of Nine series, two of my favorite characters are roughly the same age but live more than 550 years apart. They have so many similarities, including sharing the same magical heritage as descendants of the Tuatha de Danann—a legendary founding tribe of Ireland. But, their reactions to challenges and their overall life experience is very different.
With one character living in medieval Ireland and the other in the modern-day USA, I had to think about how their decisions and viewpoints would have been informed by the era in which they live and the constraints placed upon females in that era. Reactions would be different because their options and choices are impacted by the sheer reality of their worlds, even if their hopes and dreams are the same.
And truly their desires aren’t that different. Both Dervla living in mid-1400s and Brigit living in the 2000s want to fit in with the others around them and they both (desperately) want to control their own destiny. Brigit, of course, living in the modern world has the most freedom to chart her own course, while Dervla is at the mercy of her brother who has decided to arrange a marriage for her.
But, while you would assume that Brigit has all the advantages by living in modern times, that isn’t completely the case. In Dervla’s world, while not everyone is an enthusiastic supporter of mysticism and magic, at least she doesn’t suffer much societal rebuke for practicing these “old ways”. In Brigit’s world, her mother is looked upon as a freak or possibly a witch and is the subject of gossip and innuendo that has followed Brigit her whole life, keeping her mostly on the fringe of others the same age. These different experiences have a big impact on how they embrace their magical heritage when learning of it for the first time. (See excerpts below.)
My goal was to make these characters’ desires, wishes, and hopes very relatable, and my prep work with character mapping and research paid off, giving me a platform to create authentic emotional reactions for both of them.
Another equally important aspect of creating believable characters from different eras is using accurate language. When done properly, a character’s vocabulary and manner of speaking or diction should transport the reader into the correct era and make the reading experience that much more enjoyable. While it is not always simple to write modern teen dialog, it is even more challenging to create a manner of speaking in keeping with the 1400s. I spent a lot of time on word research . . . I am forever grateful that I live in the internet age.
There are so many characters that have stuck with me long after reading their stories. I only hope that the characters I’ve created do the same for those reading my books.
(Excerpt from Circle of Nine: Beltany, conversation between Brigit Quinn and her mother.)
“Brigit, you need to take a deep breath. I know it seems unfair I’ve never mentioned this. Tradition dictates that our heritage isn’t revealed until you are old enough to understand and not abuse your power. This is not a curse. It is a gift. The Tuatha have certain abilities, but . . .”
“Abilities?” I screeched. “What abilities?”
“It’s too soon to know what yours will be. Each Tuatha has different gifts, and now that you are fifteen, we’ll explore what yours might be. Maybe it will be something like my skill in botany. It’s no different than anyone else’s talent like musicians or mathematicians. It’s nothing to be frightened of.”
But I was afraid. No matter what she said, I knew this was nowhere near the same as being able to play the piano well or do Calculus. “We are witches,” I whispered.
Mom shook her head forcefully. “No, we don’t use that word. We are Tuatha.” She finished very seriously with her eyes staring straight into mine and squeezed my hand in reassurance.
I wrenched my hand out of her grip and glared at her. I didn’t want any part of this. I wanted to go back to being Normal Brigit like I was yesterday—well, almost normal anyway.
She ignored my simmering defiance and left the table to pour more tea. “You have a choice. You always have a choice to be whatever you want to be, but you owe it to yourself to know what you are choosing between.”
(Excerpt from the novella Dervla’s Destiny, conversation between Dervla Quinn and her mother.)
“Each of the Tuatha has special gifts. It is too early to tell what yours might be, but at a minimum you will likely be more skilled in one area over the others.”
“What is yours?”
“You already know mine—the gift of healing. I seem to know what ails people and can create medicines that will help them. Sometimes I do not understand exactly how my gift works, but I seem to have an instinct about what people need. The rest of what I do is normal knowledge, like how chamomile can calm a headache.”
Dervla nodded and drank more of her mother’s tea. Even though she had only pretended to have a headache, she hoped that the soothing nature of the brew might stop her mind from playing tricks on her. After a few sips, she asked her mother, “How long will it take for me to learn my special gift?”
“That is very hard to predict,” her mother said. “It may be obvious right away or it may take some time to uncover. The only way to find out is to begin your training.”
“When can we start?” Dervla asked immediately.
Her mother laughed at her eagerness. “Finish your tea and meet me in our workroom.” As she left, Dervla thought she heard her add, I have so much to teach her.
Valerie Biel’s love for travel inspires her novels for teens and adults. When she’s not writing or traveling, she’s wrangling her overgrown garden, doing publicity work for the local community theatre, and reading everything she can get her hands on. She lives in rural Wisconsin with her husband and three children and dreams regularly of a beautiful cottage on the Irish coast where she can write and write and write.
Her debut novel Circle of Nine – Beltany has been honored as a 2015 Kindle Book Award Finalist, a finalist in the Gotham Writers’ YA Novel Discovery Contest and the Readers’ Favorite Book Award Contest as well as being a B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree.