Characters make stories worth reading. A book can have the most exciting plot in the world, but if the reader doesn’t care about your characters then there’s not much point worrying about its plot, because chances are nobody will read as far as the end anyway. Many readers (especially younger ones) seem to prefer their characters to be larger than life – feisty heroines, handsome heroes with bravery to match, or evil villains guaranteed never to perform a single kind act so everybody can cheer when the hero defeats them. But real people are not like that – at least, most of them aren’t. This makes writing about real people especially tricky.
Well known historical figures such as Alexander the Great might be larger than life, but they seldom fit neatly into your typical hero or villain category, and don’t usually make a very sympathetic character for readers to identify with. More or less everyone agrees Alexander counts as a hero of sorts, but he also did some questionable things that would rival any storybook villain. After spending some time in his company, I was by turns amazed, horrified, and full of admiration for his ambition and vision. In the end, I didn’t try to make Alexander into either hero or villain. I just let him be himself... a complex and fascinating character.
Although Bucephalas counts as a hero (Muse: dare you to suggest otherwise!), my book needed a human character readers could identify with a bit more easily than Alexander. Charmeia the groom fit this role nicely. She isn’t “feisty” in the way of popular heroines, but in the context of this story I think she is amazingly brave! A slave at the start of the book, she runs away (even though the penalty for this is death) to bring poison in a mule’s hoof to Pella with the intention of avenging her mother’s death. When she sees Bucephalas fighting his grooms on the riding ground, she pretends to be a boy so she can stay with the horse and protect him from the horsemaster, who becomes the horse’s sworn enemy after Bucephalas loses him his job. Later, in her efforts to protect Bucephalas from battle, she stands up to Alexander on several occasions, and struggles to return to the horse’s side even when it puts her own life in danger. As a girl travelling with the army, I hoped Charmeia would be sympathetic enough to make the kind of character my readers might care about. Her being a fictional character was also an advantage... anything that happened to her should create more tension in my plot than Alexander’s historical exploits. More about plot in my next post.
As for minor characters, the historical ones alone run into the hundreds. I knew I’d have to simplify them somehow, for my own sanity as well as for young readers. Since this is a story of war, I divided them into two categories: Them and Us.
Them (people who fought against Alexander):
King Darius – Persian king.
Bessus – Persian leader who seized power after King Darius fled from Alexander.
Prince Porus – Indian leader.
Princess Roxanne – Afghan princess who became Alexander’s wife.
Us (Alexander’s friends and allies):
General Parmenio – leader of King Philip’s army.
Hephaestion – Alexander’s best friend.
Philotas – Parmenio’s son.
Alexander’s Guard - eight of his boyhood friends.
As to whether these secondary characters were heroes or villains, I’ll let you make up your own mind! Much depends which side of the story you are telling. To the Persians, King Darius was certainly a hero to meet Alexander in battle, and Bessus a villain on both sides for betraying his king. Was Roxanne a heroine? Maybe since she agreed to marry Alexander as part of a peace treaty, maybe not since she might well have poisoned her husband at the end to avenge her people - more about the mystery of Alexander's death later.
As you might imagine, with so many historical characters to fit into the book there wasn’t much room left for fictional ones. But I couldn’t resist adding a few:
The old horsemaster – enemy of Bucephalas and Charmeia.
Tydeos – Charmeia’s friend in the horse lines.
Demetrius – one of Alexander’s Guard.
Queen Penthesilea – the Amazon queen (mythical rather than historical).
Unusually for a book published on a children’s list, you’ll notice many of these characters are adults. Even though Alexander and Charmeia begin the book aged 12, they grow up before the end. With a story spanning 20 years, this was unavoidable, and in my second post I explain how their growing up was my main reason for choosing the horse’s viewpoint. With the readership in mind, however, I added a few younger characters as the story progressed. In fact, I developed a near-fatal soft spot for the Persian king’s son Prince Ochus, taken by Alexander as a hostage after his first battle against the Persians. As one of the more sympathetic characters, the Persian prince was in danger of taking over the entire book, and accounts for many of the missing 50,000 words my editors sensibly advised me to remove. (Muse: Prince Ochus’ story would make a whole book of its own!) I also made Roxanne younger than she is normally portrayed, so that when Alexander marries her she is still a girl, accounting for the fact she does not become pregnant until the end of the book.
In much the same way Tolkien’s hobbits are substitutes for children in his epic “Lord of the Rings”, I hoped my horse characters might provide a way into this book for younger readers. Adult horses are different from adult humans, and not just because they have four legs and a tail. They are more like loyal friends and servants than heroes or villains. In some ways their relationship to their riders and grooms is like that of child to parent... trust, dependency, love, and either willing obedience or outright rebellion, according to what they are being asked to do at the time!
Obviously the horse characters in this book would be more important than the humans as far as Bucephalas was concerned, so I needed them to have their own characters, and had a lot of fun naming them and drawing them all. I gave Bucephalas a special mare to care about from the start – a dapple grey called Aura – and a special stallion friend called Petasios.
I let Hephaestion ride Petasios, and gave the rest of Alexander’s friends horses to reflect their characters. They changed around a bit later on, as some got wounded or their riders died, and later in the book Aura had some foals - a colt called Hoplite and a filly called Electra, both of whom Alexander eventually rode into battle.
Putting the horses and humans together, when Alexander leads his first skirmish on the Thracian border we have:
Bucephalas carrying Alexander – dominant stallions!
Petasios carrying Hephaestion – best friends
Aura carrying Demetrius – gentle faithful companions
Psylla carrying Hector – first casualties in battle
Harpinna carrying Ptolemy – good tough fighters
Apollo carrying Perdiccas – vain but strong and brave
Borealis carrying Leonnatus – big and strong
Zephyr carrying Philotas – small and with divided loyalties
Hades carrying Iolaus – carrying the shadow of death
(Muse: Bucephalas says “horse carrying” rather than “rider rode” to reflect the horse’s viewpoint.)
These horses became Bucephalas’ special herd, and to keep track of them all I ended up with sixteen different lists on my noticeboard as the book progressed. I sketched them all too, but there isn’t really room for all their pictures here.
There’s just space for Zoroaster, the sacred Persian horse of the sun captured from the Persian camp, about whom Bucephalas makes this comment, having never seen a gelding before:
I have already smelt him. He is tethered at the end of our horse line near my usual spot. He is white all over and nearly as big as me, though he is fat and soft, not hard and muscular like us warhorses. His mane has been braided with silver threads, and his tail has little bells in it that tinkle whenever he flicks away a fly. He smells of flowers and he looks ridiculous.
I make myself huge and squeal at him. But the white horse doesn’t squeal back. He simply turns his big dark eyes on us, pricks his ears and stares at me. Then he gives a big sigh and goes back to his hay. This is MOST confusing. He is a male horse, but he acts more like a mare.
Some questions for you:
1. Do you prefer human characters or animal characters in books?
2. What is your view on heroes and villains… should they be larger than life and feisty, or act more like real people?
3. Which character in “I am the Great Horse” did you care about the most?