Monday, 10 March 2014

THE GREAT HORSE RELOADED: Choosing a viewpoint

Pick up any award-winning or best-selling YA novel today, and chances are it'll be told in the first (normally young female) person. So I ought to have been on to a good thing with picking the first person viewpoint for "I am the Great Horse"... except my book is told by a (definitely male) horse, and they aren't very romantic as a rule.

If I'd been cut-throat commercial at the planning stage for this book, I might have let Bucephalas' groom Charmeia tell the story. But then it would have been a totally different book, and possibly a different story since Charm did not get to fight in all of Alexander's battles alongside the king.

So it could have been a romance - but it's not. And it could have been a horsey book aimed at girls - but it's not. Since it was neither of those things, the publisher wasn't quite sure how to market it, which is bad if you're talking marketability in a bookshop, but maybe not quite so bad online where several search keywords can all end up at the same book.

Here are a few of them: Horses. History. Alexander the Great. Ancient Greece. War.

So, over to the horse...

I knew early on this story would be told by Alexander’s horse, to the extent that I was able to scribble it down as part of my original idea. This is actually quite unusual for me. Quite often the idea for a story will come without any characters, in which case I have to invent a few before I can decide which of them I’ll use as a viewpoint. Or the idea might come with a strong character, but until I start developing the story I can’t be absolutely sure that character will make the best viewpoint.

It might sound obvious, but the viewpoint character needs to be present in all the important parts of the story, or have some clever way of finding out about these - for example, another character could tell them, or they could see it on TV (assuming they have a TV, which of course Alexander the Great didn’t… can you imagine him as an armchair conqueror?). The viewpoint character doesn’t have to be the main character in the story, but it often makes sense to combine the two.

In this case, my main character was Alexander the Great. So the most obvious viewpoint to use for the book would have been Alexander himself. Why didn’t I do this? Well, first of all I knew I had to write a book suitable for a young audience, because my contract was with Chicken House, who do not publish adult fiction. If I’d used Alexander, I’d need to leave out some parts of his story when he starte to grow older and I reached the dodgy question of his sexuality. The death count in his battles wasn’t a problem – publishers of teenage fiction don’t seem to mind how many characters you kill off, or how bloodily you do it – but if I was going to do Alexander justice, I wanted him to be a fully rounded character… and there was no escaping the fact most historians considered him to have had a same-sex relationship with his best friend, Hephaestion. Added to this, I was a bit wary of getting too far into Alexander’s head. Could I, a girl born in the twentieth century who has never fought in a battle or had much desire to conquer the world, really understand Alexander the Great’s innermost thoughts? I know authors are supposed to use their imagination, but with such a well-known historical character, I'll admit I chickened out.

A solution might have been to tell just the first part of the story, while Alexander was still a boy. There is plenty of exciting material even in the first few years of his life. But could I honestly end the amazing story of Alexander the Great halfway through and abandon him and his brave horse on some dusty battlefield in Asia? I decided I couldn’t. What I really needed was a viewpoint that would enable me to tell the whole story from beginning to end, particularly since some of the best-known tales surrounding Bucephalas happened later in his career. So not Alexander.

Another possible human viewpoint who would have been with Alexander and his horse most of the time was Bucephalas’ groom. This seemed a bit more promising. The history books claim Bucephalas would only allow one special groom to ride him bareback, but not much else is known about this person. Being aware that horse stories are mostly read by girls, I decided at this stage it would be a good idea to make my groom into a girl, who could disguise herself as a boy to look after Alexander’s horse. I called her Charmeia (Charm for short), stealing the name from a tiny scene near the end of Alexander’s life where he hugged a common slave boy called Charmides much to the amazement of his generals and friends. No problem getting into her head – having been a groom myself, I understood grooms all right! At least I’ve never groomed a warhorse, but imagine sending a warhorse into battle is similar to sending a racehorse into a race like the Grand National. You bite your nails, watching helplessly, until they return safe and sound (because, sadly, sometimes they don’t). But this girl would grow up, too, as the book progressed. Alexander’s career spanned twenty years from the time he first sat on Bucephalas as a young prince to the time he died in Babylon, so not the groom.

I briefly considered changing viewpoints half way through, starting with my girl groom while she was still young, and then – when she and Alexander grew up – switching to a son or daughter of one of the characters so I’d have another young viewpoint to finish the story. This had possibilities… the Persian king’s son Prince Ochus, perhaps, or maybe a fictional child of Charmeia’s. But switching to a brand new viewpoint character so late in a book is usually a bad idea. OK if you know the character well from the beginning, maybe, but in this case they’d not even be born at the start of the story. So no to multiple viewpoints. To tell the story of Alexander all the way through, I really needed a character who could be with him the whole time, but who would not “grow up” during those twenty years he was busy conquering the world. The only really obvious answer was his horse, Bucephalas, who carried him into all his major battles.

Like most pony mad girls, I’d read Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, so I knew a horse’s viewpoint could be done well, and that readers of all ages would accept it. Also at the age of ten, possibly inspired by Black Beauty, I’d written my own little book from the point of view of a pony called Flax, so I knew I’d enjoy doing it. Using Bucephalas as a viewpoint character would allow the reader a glimpse into Alexander’s head when he spoke privately to his horse, while remaining blissfully unaware of anything that went on inside the king’s pavilion. On the battlefield, I decided, even Hephaestion would be discreet. A horse’s viewpoint would also cut out most of the tangled Alexandrian politics, which would have made the book three times as long, believe me!

So I had my viewpoint character. And with him being a black stallion, I saw right away there would be comparisons with Black Beauty so I was determined to give him his very own character from the start. Fortunately, all the history books agree Bucephalas was no mild-mannered beauty. He had a big head, he was getting on a bit in years when Alexander’s father bought him for his son, and he had been in battles before so would have certainly had the battle scars to show for it. Then there was the famous story of the horse being unrideable when he first came to Macedonia, so I gave him a temper to match. His “voice” arose from my image of a grumpy old warhorse, impatient with the youngsters but fiercely protective of his friends, both human and horse.

I usually pin up pictures of my main characters above my computer while I am writing about them, so I drew a sketch of Bucephalas to remind me what he’d act like when threatened:

And with such a big-headed character, I thought I’d let him kick his main literary rival out of the way before he got started. Here Bucephalas introduces himself:


My name is Bucephalas, and you should know right away that I’m no Black Beauty. 

My coat is the colour of oil-from-the-ground, but that’s where the resemblance stops. I have a big head, a white splodge between my eyes, battle scars, and a brand in the shape of two horns burnt into my backside. I am, however, very strong and worth my (considerable) weight in gold as a warhorse – at least I used to be, until I did the most shameful thing a horse can possibly do and killed my own rider...


I AM THE GREAT HORSE is now available as an ebook
Amazon us
Amazon uk
Nook (NOT digitized from 1845 volume!)


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