East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Supporting cast

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It sometimes happens that I fall in love with my support characters.

Now, every series should have a handful of characters the hero can call upon when he gets in trouble – as heroes will.
Not properly a sidekick, more like a recurring character.
Think Marcus Brody and Sallah in the Indiana Jones movies.


Such characters provide support, continuity, and quite often an element of comedy that the hero can’t bring himself (being heroic AND funny is hard work indeed, for both hero and author).
More generally, they can voice the feelings and the thoughts the hero, for a number of reasons, can’t.
They can act as conscience, provide wise suggestions, or quite simply hand the hero the tool he needs, when he needs it.

Back when I first drafted my novel, I provided my hero with a back-story, a number of hinted-at previous adventures (“Oh, Sabatini! You’re the guy with the headhunters, right?”), and a cast of supporters.
Many of those supporters are being brutally excised as the final draft takes shape.
Useless time-wasters – better to just collapse two or three of them into a single character, making it more significant.

But one of my support characters, much to my surprise, is turning out to be quite good and promising.
So good and promising, that I’m actually expanding her part, and she’s got the best dialogue so far.
Her royal highness (yeah, believe it) Helena Adéle Saratova – actually a Polish adventuress that surfs the upper crust in Shanghai in the ’30s pretending to be Russian royalty – is growing so fast, she runs the risk of bumping the female lead of the novel out of the plot.
This is not good.

I sketched the Duchess using as a basis the character played by Myrna Loy in the 1932 movie Love me tonight: the perpetually randy* (and possibly narcoleptic) Comtesse Valentine.


Then I threw in a few details stolen from real-life Shanghai ladies – social climbers, adventuresses, swindlers, bored ladies living a fast life in a strange, exotic place.
Like, that Russian lady that had a “private institution” on Bubbling Well Road, in the late ’20s, where she cured any ailment (for a stiff fee) by putting her patients feet in carbonated water, and then electrocuting them.
Nobody ever complained about the results.

My original thumbnail for the character is the following:

Garish clothes (yellow, red). Blue hair, bare feet, dramatic make-up. Perfume: Joy.
Fake Russian accent. Melodramatic. Sexually suggestive.
Common sense. Practical. Lots of contacts.
Hints at alternative lifestyle.

c7a4c5398f69d288b3d0ebdeb0aa9347The finished character is over-the-top, flamboyant, excessive, funny.
And I’m working to make her real – she was not in the first draft, and that has to change.
She’s also a strong support for the hero. Someone he can trust when everything and everyone else fails him.
The Duchess is coming into her own now with the final draft – her scenes have been changed, but she’s still an entertaining diversion, and a narrative pivot, hopefully providing a much needed change of pace at the end of the first part of the novel.
She also acts as a reminder of the wilder side of Shanghai in the ’30s – showing how reality could be much stranger than fiction (and fantasy fiction, at that!)

And one of the things I found out, in all these years of writing, creating characters and what not, is: supporting characters can fuel a series as much as the main character.
They can be interesting, and I sometimes can fall in love with one of them.
So yes, I’m currently planning a second novel featuring my main characters – but the Duchess, with her blue hair, fake Russian accent and predatory attitude, is the one I really want to come back to.

She and my main character, Felice Sabatini, have a past, too, and she’s sort of sweet on him in a flirtatious, mock-aggressive way. So I went and put a hook in my story – might as well write a prequel, too.

* Ah, those Pre-Code days!

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

One thought on “Supporting cast

  1. Pingback: Character Profile – Pat Neil | Karavansara

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