When I began writing this blog post I thought it was going to be a simple introduction to one of my ‘side-characters’ Aelfric. But I found myself not talking so much about the character himself as what his role was in the novel. What did I mean by that? Sure, every character has a role to play in a novel. If they don’t they shouldn’t be in it. But what was Aelfric’s role? In other words, what was his dramatic function?
To find out, I went back to my character outline; this is what the beginning looked like:
Character name Aelfric (means powerful/ruler and elf)
Birth date/place Bernicia
Character Archetype Antagonist/shapeshifter/ally
Eye colour Pale blue
Hair colour/style Thatch of fair hair, tangled and braided, decorated with beads, bearded
Build Big made, tall with lots of muscle
Skin tone Pale but blushes easily
There is a lot more to the outline than this but the crucial detail for this post his role as Antagonist/shapeshifter/ally. But what does that actually mean? What is a character archetype in the first place? A quick Google doesn’t help much. You can find anything from ‘5 common character archetypes in literature’ to ‘The ultimate list of over 325 archetypes’. So I decided to go back to basics and re-read a book about it.
My go-to book is ‘The Writer’s Journey’ by Christopher Vogler, who maintains that any story is the journey a hero makes through a number of different story stages. I found some of it a bit hard to get my head around, but I liked the idea of characters as archetypes who play distinct roles in a story. These character archetypes have a bewildering variety of names, depending on your source, so I’m going to stick to Christopher Vogler’s descriptors. (These are clearly set out in this blog with examples.)
The Hero is easy enough – this is your Protagonist, the person through whose eyes you experience the story. In my case this is Corwynal, Steward of Lothian, guardian of Trystan, his much younger half-brother. Opposing the hero is the Antagonist. (Christopher Vogler calls this the Shadow), the person trying to stop your hero from fulfilling his or her story goal. There can be more than one Antagonist, although usually there is a main one and a few lesser Antagonists – let’s call them enemies. Aelfric is one of the lesser Antagonists. This is how he’s introduced in Chapter 3 in a scene in which he himself is the narrator:
Aelfric of Gyrwum, son of Herewulf, lately of Bernicia, waded ashore from the last long-boat to land, saw the smoke plume up from the fishing village and gave vent to his feelings in a flood of oaths in Angle, Jute and Saxon. ‘You complete prick, Godric! You motherless son of a goat, you arse-licking polecat!’
The motherless son of a goat in question emerged from one of the hovels down by the shore, dragging a screaming woman by the hair, but let her go when Aelfric strode up to him, grasped his tunic with one hand and dragged him up until his face was on a level with Aelfric’s own. The man’s feet dangled well above the ground since Aelfric was an uncommonly tall and powerful man.
‘This isn’t what we agreed!’
It isn’t surprising that Aelfric first appearance is as an Antagonist. He’s an Angle and they’re traditional enemies of the Britons of Lothian, on account of their raiding, murdering and slave-taking. So when Aelfric arrives in Lothian we know things are about to get worse for my hero. By the end of the scene we realise how much worse, because Aelfric has more than raiding on his mind. This is how that scene ends (with apologies for Aelfric’s bad language):
‘I’m coming to get you, Ealhith,’ he promised her as the Angle raiding party headed inland through the woods, making for Dunpeldyr. He’d been promising that ever since he’d learned what had happened to her. ‘I’m going to get you back, love. I’m going to take you away from him.’
For he was going to Dunpeldyr for one other reason – to find the man whose slave she was.
‘And then I’m going to kill him,’ he promised himself. ‘Corwynal of Lothian, I’m going to fucking kill you!’
It’s pretty clear from this that the two men’s story goals are in opposition. Aelfric wants to rescue Ealhith, Corwynal’s Angle slave, and then kill Corwynal. Corwynal wants to protect Trystan and he needs to be alive to do that. The simplest outcome would be for the two men to fight and for Corwynal to kill Aelfric. One enemy out of the way. But that wouldn’t be very interesting would it? The two men do indeed fight quite soon after Aelfric arrives in Lothian early on in the story and Aelfric almost kills Corwynal, but Trystan intervenes and Aelfric is defeated and taken prisoner and then Trystan tricks him into becoming Corwynal’s bodyguard – a situation resented by both Corwynal and Aelfric.
At this point Aelfric is still an Antagonist. His goal of fighting and killing Corwynal hasn’t changed, but fulfilling it has been deferred, allowing time for the two men to get to know one another. Gradually Aelfric begins to respect certain of Corwynal’s qualities while despising him for others. Corwynal, against his will, finds himself relying on the big Angle. But can Aelfric be trusted? Has he given up on his goal of fighting and killing Corwynal? He tells himself he hasn’t, but is he an unreliable narrator? This doubt makes him another of Christopher Vogler’s archetypes, the Shapeshifter, whose dramatic function is to bring doubt and suspense into the story.
This is an exchange Corwynal and Aelfric have towards the end of the novel which shows how the dynamics of their relationship have changed. Once more this is narrated by Aelfric himself.
‘You sold me?’
‘Maredydd’s short of a crewman and –’
‘You fucking sold me?’ Aelfric stared at Corwynal and wondered why he was so surprised and – yes – hurt. He was a slave, after all, so what did he expect? ‘You bastard!’ After everything he’d done for the man, the number of times he’d saved his life, that fucking awful journey to Meldon, the even worse one to Galloway and –
‘I thought you’d be pleased! You’ve been hanging about the harbour ever since we got here. Anyway, I’ve not sold you. I just loaned you.’
‘You think that’s better?’
‘Listen, Aelfric, I need someone I trust to go to Dunadd with Maredydd.’
And that was the final straw.
‘Woden’s balls, what sort of an idiot are you? I’m your enemy! I’ve sworn to kill you. The last thing you should be doing is trusting me!’
In Corwynal’s opinion Aelfric is no longer an Antagonist by this stage. He trusts him as an Ally, and this is yet another archetype, a character who supports the hero in his/her adventure. So, what is Aelfric, exactly? Antagonist, Shapeshifter or Ally? The answer is that he’s all three, that he transforms himself from one into the next and this transformation is his character arc. Whether Aelfric continues to be an Ally as the trilogy goes on … well, you’ll just have to read the books to find out.
Another name for an Ally is Side-kick, and Sidekicks often provide a comic element in a story. This too is Aelfric’s dramatic function since he’s an outsider and as such is in a great position to comment, usually pithily, on what’s going on. When I decided to write my novel from multiple view-points, the scenes in which Aelfric is the narrator were the ones I had the most fun with so I hope that when my novels are published that my readers will enjoy reading about Aelfric too.