Midweek Writer-Rummage - Genesis of Story and Character

When I started writing 'The Cursed Gift', it was because I wanted to read a fantasy story that didn’t require the commitment of a trilogy, or more.  I wanted to read about “ordinary people deal[ing] with extraordinary situations” (quoting Stephen King again).  I wanted to read a ‘sword and sorcery’ story that featured gods and demons, loving families, good friends …

It didn’t take me long to decide my story would be about a young woman who was too aware of her responsibilities to avoid them, when all she really wanted was a private life, free to make her own choices.  I went for the ‘obvious’ and made Leah, the protagonist, royalty, and added the element of her wanting to be the same as everyone else, and not to be treated differently.  Outwardly, she played the role expected of her, that of dutiful princess; but inside, she could not ignore her real feelings that manifested in her wishing she could be different, and quietly railing against the ‘unfairness’ of life.

I suppose I have my Malaysian-Hindu upbringing to thank, with its wealth of stories and myth, which has inspired me to write, not just about magic, but also deities who take an overt interest in the lives of mortals … much like Greek mythology.  What always interested me in Hindu mythology is that the gods are bound to grant wishes to anyone, even ‘villains’, so long as the worship is done in such a way as to prove the person’s devotion, no matter how questionable that devotion might be.

I wanted the deities to have obvious roles in the story, not merely hinted at in the background.  Using the ‘careful-what-you-wish-for’ scenario, I decided to focus on the demon-god granting Leah’s oft-repeated wish of wanting to be different.  But his motives are totally selfish, and what appears to be a gift comes with a heavy price.  Will she succumb to being nothing more than the demon-god’s puppet, which is what he had envisaged, or will she fight to remain true to herself?

I didn’t want the ‘love story’ element to be an obvious one.  I wanted to show love in its many forms – love between parent and child, sibling love, love for friends, romantic love.  The ‘love’ that I wanted to focus on was Leah’s love for her brother, which colours many of her decisions, and his love for her, as close to unconditional as I could make it.

That sounds quite straightforward and organised, doesn’t it?  Well … in the first draft, I chucked everything in, like tossing in umpteen ingredients in a giant stewpot.  And when I say everything, I mean every single thing I liked in the kinds of stories I’ve read.  When I finally stepped away, I had a bloated, heaving … trilogy.  Talk about mortifying!!  I shall spare you the details; just know that it sat turgidly on the plate, an unappetising dish of clashing tastes – third-rate ‘sword and sorcery’+Hindi movie+western.  Yes, people, it was as cringeworthy as it sounds.  And enough of the food metaphors.

I can wholeheartedly agree with the advice of putting each draft to one side for a few weeks, taking a breather doing other stuff, then going back to it.  Each time I hauled the work-in-progress out, I trimmed it mercilessly.  The version that’s now on the blog bears very little resemblance to the first draft, but still holds true to the ‘pitch’ – ‘Cursed by a demon lord’s gift of magic, and forced to do his bidding, a king’s daughter fights to remain true to herself.’  How many rewrites of that particular story did I do over 20-odd years?  I lost count.

As for how I decided on my characters … Being a woman, I thought the easiest would be to make the protagonist female.  She would be outwardly strong and confident, but secretly riddled with doubts and insecurities.  I gave her a brother as I don’t have one; it would be a challenge writing that relationship. 

To begin with, I had Leah’s parents be strong and solid in their love, then thought it would be more interesting if they appeared to be that way publicly, while hiding the cracks in their relationship.  I wanted them to be present in the story, and contributing to it.  Most parents and adults in young adult stories are either absent or seem to serve no other purpose than to ‘make trouble’ for the protagonist.

I based Leah’s female friends very loosely on the friends I had at school.  The men were a bit trickier as I had no real guy friends, so based them on my cousins, again very loosely.

As for the gods and demons, they would not be infallible; they would have feelings, and they would act on those feelings.

With all the characters, I did not want them to be ‘black and white’ because life, and people, aren’t like that.  Everyone has the capacity to be good, to do good; also to do ‘bad’ things.  Those who are branded ‘evil’, surely even they have redeeming qualities … there must be a reason why they do what they do.  Even if there is no reason, portraying a 'baddie' as simply that and nothing more means you usually end up with a two-dimensional, cardboard cut-out who doesn't pose much of a challenge to the protagonist.  And where's the fun in that?