Thursday, November 10, 2011

Imperfect Heroes: James Douglas

In the coming month, I'll be featuring some Imperfect Heroes from fellow historical novelists. These are the guys who tip the scales, rise victorious from conflict and (hopefully) get the girl in the end, but they aren't without their flaws.

We could discuss the (exemplary) archetypal hero vs. the (contrary) antihero, but what about those protagonists who fall somewhere in between? As in reality, literary persona run the gradient of good and bad traits. For those of you who have read Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Tales, Uhtred Uhtredson of Bebbenburg, on first impression, is about as antihero as you can get. He's cynical, ruthless, and far from being the romantic type. But over the course of the stories, you see a clear pattern evolve - he keeps his word, he's courageous and he's more than willing to take action to get what he wants. And that makes him admirable.

Perfect heroes are boring. Let's face it - Prince Charming is very one dimensional. He's handsome, he's rich and his kiss alone can wake Sleeping Beauty from a seemingly interminable coma. All very convenient for our wilting maiden, but in fairy tales like that, it's external circumstances, not the characters themselves, that need to be overcome for a happy ending.

As we get older, we come to realize perfect people don't exist. And in real life, happy endings aren't always guaranteed. We can identify with flawed characters. We feel their angst, understand their fears. We root for them. Cheer when they succeed. Mourn when they fail.

When I started to write The Bruce Trilogy, the first chapter I put down was about ten-year old James Douglas, standing on the parapets of Berwick at his father's side, witnessing the assault on the castle and subsequent massacre led by the ruthless Edward I (Longshanks) of England. That event - the atrocities and his father's humbling submission - determined his life's path. It filled him with the want for retribution, hatred for his enemies, and the determination to put things right in the only way he knew how - by force of arms. Unfortunately, being so young then, he could only bide his time. How serendipitous that when he finally came of age, Robert the Bruce was making a bid for the crown of Scotland. He became King Robert's most loyal soldier and, renowned for his cunning and stealth, was given command at a young age.

Perfect? Hardly. He was right for the role he played in Scotland's history, but as a man he was an imperfect being. What few descriptions we have of him are that he spoke with a lisp and then not often. One gets the impression that he was shy with words, maybe even a little uncomfortable in social situations with the opposite sex, even though his male friendships were like Super-Glue bonds. I focused a lot on this awkwardness in The Honor Due a King, where his reticence keeps the woman he loves at bay, and his loyalty conflicts, more than once, with winning his life's love. Even as I was writing him, I kept wanting to grab him by the collar and say, "Speak up, man! How is anyone supposed to know how you feel if you keep pushing it back down inside you and denying it? You deserve her. Go for it, will you?"

In time, his loyalty and thirst for revenge became traits that even he began to question. Numerous times he recaptured, ruined and even razed his own boyhood home, Douglas Castle, because he did not want the English to have it.

As for the girl - well, I won't tell you if he gets her in the end. You'll have to read the book to find out.

P.S. The guy on the cover of The Bruce Trilogy books - that's James Douglas. But if you've been thinking all along that it's Robert the Bruce, please continue to do so.

Happy reading,


Hazel West said...

Imperfect heroes are what make books. It would be terribly boring if everything went well for them. James Douglas is one of my absolute favorite Scottish heroes. (Under Wallace, of course) I always thought about how he must have waited all those years to get revenge on the English for his father. He almost brought to mind Andrew Murray for me. Douglas is a dynamic character in himself. Isn't it always nice when real people happen to be novel material? It makes like so much easier for writers :)

And men who have a vendetta usually aren't good with the ladies. They often time have too much else on their plate. ;)

N. Gemini Sasson said...

Thanks for stopping by, Hazel! I tried to answer earlier, but Blogger was being temperamental. But yes, history provides us with some intriguing heroes and stories. Scotland is rich with larger than life figures. While historians are fantastic at uncovering the clues, novelists are the ones who attempt to figure out what made some of those people tick.

Hazel West said...

That's okay, my internet has been acting up too. I love history for the people, and frankly, half the time, they are more interesting than created characters. And Scotland has so many wonderful stories and heroes to grace it. This June, I wrote several short stories for my blog Bonnets and Broadsword on Bruce and Douglas and I had a really good time doing so. I'm going to try to get a copy of your book soon. I'm excited to see your take on the story!