Today I’m talking about how a character’s backstory influences their actions.
In the first draft of Magic’s Stealing, I never really explained why the main character, Toranih, didn’t like magic. She simply didn’t. But stories generally read better if the author knows why a character behaves a certain way, even if they never explain this directly to the reader. So, in order to add credibility to Toranih’s character, I began to explore her motives.
From Dictionary.com (a really useful resource when double-checking that a word means what you think it means), motives are “something that causes a person to act in a certain way, do a certain thing, etc.”
To see why Toranih acts so paranoid/distrustful of magic, while being so interested in learning how to effectively wield a sword, let’s take a look at her world. Toranih is the youngest daughter of the Lord of the Armory, so she has plenty of access to swords and the people who can teach her. In regards to magic, the kingdom has a high number of ribbon mages, so magic is common. However, the ability to see magic is not. Neither Toranih, nor her older sister, Siklana, can see ribbon magic, though her best friend can.
In the original draft of Magic’s Stealing, Toranih did not like magic because she felt like it was all tricks and illusions. (A side note: the trouble with using the term ‘illusion’ with magic is that if you actually have magic doing something, the illusion of something happening is no longer an illusion. I’ve been slowly weeding this word from the story). So my first idea for why Toranih didn’t like magic was that maybe a bad event scared her in the past. She gets her first glimpse of magic at a parade when she was little, and it overwhelms her. Thus, she’s been wary ever since.
However, my husband pointed out that a parade with a lot of colorful, fluttering ribbons is likely to be awe-inspiring to a four-year-old, not terrifying. While I still feel that everyone has different reactions, so what some kids like, others are terrified of (for example… clowns), I started looking elsewhere for answers. Toranih doesn’t like magic, and to the extent that she is paranoid in earlier drafts, there seems like there might be a bit more to her paranoia. So I cut the bit about the parade (keeping the event, but not having it terrify her), and considered Toranih’s distrust of their mythology. There are already several references in the current draft which lends itself to this theory.
For example, after an event involving Toranih being magically called to do a task she wouldn’t otherwise do:
Old fables flitted to the edge of her mind, haunting melodies of immortals and creatures whose very power was that of magic’s lure, the power to call and demand, to whisper in a person’s ear and convince them, without fail, to do their bidding.
In something of a flashback, Toranih’s sister tells her about life and death magic:
Once, long ago, when Siklana showed Toranih how to use her crystal, she’d convinced a couple of the servants to come stand in front of them. One had magic, the other did not. And she’d pointed to the one with magic and all the ribbons, and explained what ribbon magic was and how it worked.
Then Siklana pointed to the other servant, and said that even though he wasn’t a mage, he still had magic. Everyone had magic, but it was difficult to see because it was closer related to string magic, but couldn’t Toranih see it? There were two thin strings running through his body, each entwined and almost impossible to spot.
Siklana had adjusted the crystal to make them more visible. “That’s the only string magic visible to a ribbon mages,” she’d said. “One strand is life, and the other is death. Everyone has them. If you don’t, then you’re dead. That’s how the gods made us,” Siklana had continued, much to Toranih’s dismay. “But only the really powerful gods can manipulate those strings, so there’s nothing to be scared of.”
That memory had stuck with Toranih ever since.
In a conversation with Aifa, the Matchmaker goddess:
Aifa rolled her eyes. “Such a harsh tongue, tut-tut. Dear, I’m the goddess of relationships, not all-powerful. But if you don’t mind your manners, you’ll find yourself mute.”
Toranih swallowed hard. She had heard tales of citizens who’d crossed the gods in older times. Citizens who found their love lives broken or their ability to communicate… impossible.
Toranih has plenty of reason to be uneasy about magic and the gods’ use of magic. However, we can take this a step further. We know that Toranih is very interested in swordsmanship, and wants to be a guardsman except that her father doesn’t think that position befits her station. This is especially problematic when her sister, Siklana, reveals intentions to marry into a different estate, thus leaving Toranih as the sole heir.
Her father handed one of the servants his empty plate and rested back in his chair. “Understanding self-defense is important, but you’re taking these studies a bit far. There are more important subjects for a young lady to—”
“Siklana is much more adept at those studies,” Toranih interrupted. Her scone crumbled and she swept the crumbs into a napkin before he could get onto her about that, too. “Let’s be honest. When inheritance time comes around, she’ll inherit the estate. She’ll master magic at the academy, and she’ll be the one to win the hearts of the city and lead them in her wise, older age.”
Siklana ducked her head behind her bangs. Her dark brown eyes shown through. She was smaller in stature than her younger sister, especially since she lacked the muscle that came from Toranih’s years of swordplay. “What if I marry into a different house?”
Toranih turned sharply. Her sister… marry? Of course she would, she had always been interested in the attention of suitors, but Toranih hadn’t thought she would try to climb the social ladder through marriage.
If she married into a higher class, she would leave behind the Covonilayno estate. “I’d be the heir,” Toranih whispered, stunned.
Her father nodded. “The rights would fall to you. As is custom.”
Toranih glared at her sister. “How long have you been planning this?”
“I’ve been thinking about it for a year,” she admitted coyly. “I’ve already passed the academy’s first year exams, and I’m well into my second year. Our inheritance is decent, but there are a few worthy suitors who could help me further my education once I finish in Cirena City. With a decent suitor’s allowance, I could travel to the Islands. I’ll make sure that’s part of the contract. I might even learn word magic.”
Toranih swallowed hard. While having at least some degree of ribbon magic was common, word magic was practiced by very few. Anyone could learn it, so long as they knew how to pronounce the spell.
But say just one syllable wrong, and any number of horrors awaited the practitioner. Setting ones’ self on fire, opening a portal in the middle of a crowded city and killing anyone in its path, trying to heal someone and killing them instead… and a particularly powerful spell could bind a target to do the mage’s will.
Toranih shivered. Unlike ribbon magic, word magic was invisible. No crystal could reveal words the way it could reveal ribbons.
My husband pointed out that maybe Toranih doesn’t like magic because, unlike her sister (and most every other mage in the kingdom), she never really became adept with magic.
As a young child, Toranih saw her sister and Daernan surpass her with flying colors while she struggled to control ribbons for even basic tasks. At the same time, young noblewomen were taught basic self-defense, which is where she excelled. She threw herself into the study of swords and knives, hoping to become a weapons master. In the meantime, she became more and more resentful of magic. She eventually understood the basics (which we see her using in Magic’s Stealing), but she never quite comes to terms with the fact that she’s been left behind by the mages.
She can’t easily control magic, so she doesn’t trust it, and (as the current blurb says) she would rather have a sword in her hand than use her powers to heal and throw fireballs.
And now we have the reason that Toranih doesn’t like magic. We can see why she might, at times, lash out or vehemently deny anything to do with being a mage.
But she lives in a world so saturated with magic that she can’t ignore it, and so she still uses the magical light crystal her sister gave her. She still changes into an owl when Daernan convinces her to go to the parade. She still tries to save people who are dying when their magic is stolen. But she has a flaw, and because of that flaw she doesn’t always use her powers when she should, and her unwillingness to try could cost her the people she loves.
Now I’ve just got to make sure that is apparent within the story, even if I never come outright and say this is why she acts the way she does.
I hope you enjoyed this post. 🙂
Have you found any books where character motivations were well-done, or where they were lacking?