I’m very pleased to continue the Men of Urban Fantasy theme with author James A. Burton. His novels are incredibly character driven, with lush language and, as he discusses, more than your typical heroes and heroines.
Heroes? by James A. Burton (aka James A. Hetley)
Lucienne suggested that I write something about non-traditional heroes and heroines, those being the sort I’ve written in POWERS (as by James A. Burton) and my earlier novels. And my first thought was, “I don’t write heroes.” What I write, what I try to write, are people I can respect. To do that, I don’t start out with Athena springing fully-armed from the forehead of Zeus. I have to meet the characters and get to know them, walk around with them — let them grow into people. Some writers outline and know the story before they begin writing. I find out the story as I write it.
My first published novels, THE SUMMER COUNTRY and THE WINTER OAK, began with a scared woman walking through a winter storm at midnight. I had to find out who Maureen was, why she was scared, what she would do about it, the same way you find out things about a “real” person you’ve just met. As I wrote her story, I watched how she reacted to the world, what she did when things happened. She turned into a person rather than a character after the first twenty or thirty thousand words, and from there on, she told me what happened next.
POWERS began with another abstract character dealing with a problem, Albert Johansson faced with a demon materializing on the other side of the kitchen table, and then I found out who Al was by writing him reacting to and solving that problem.
He was a man faced with a demon, a man with certain skills and failings. He had to be a loner by the setting, meaning he had to have a reason to live quietly alone, a reason readers could respect. He wasn’t antisocial, he didn’t have psychological or physical problems with social interaction, so the reason developed into the problems of a man who doesn’t die and how that kind of man would fit into modern life. He can’t form relationships, he can’t stay in any place too long, he can’t be any kind of public person, because humans age and die. He doesn’t. And people notice things like that. Modern governments notice things like that.
Al asks, verbatim in that first chapter, “Why me?” The demon has to answer that, which means I had to answer it before I could write it. It isn’t the problem that the demon poses, it’s the question behind that and the one still deeper down. Al turns out to be unique, not just a supremely talented smith with senses that go beyond human sight and smell and hearing.
Then, solving that problem, I had to have him collide with an antagonist, since stories require tension. The demon seemed too abstract, an outside force with powers and motives neither Al nor I could really understand. But an arson detective, another person with motives and shortcomings and secrets of her own — there I have another character I could respect. So Mel entered the story, Melissa el Hajj, and just by naming her and describing her through Al’s eyes, she has a background. She has a story of her own, and it goes way back because of the things she saw and figured out about Al that no normal human would see or understand. “Antagonist” doesn’t have to mean “villain” or “enemy”, so I started with Mel . . . ambivalent. Al tweaks her curiosity, the first new thing that has crossed her path in several hundred years. Al fears her, and I had to give him reason for that fear. He sees her as deadly and enigmatic, as swift and merciless as the killer mountain winds, as vengeful and long-memoried as the Asian hill-tribes of her people.
Somewhere in all this they turned into gods — very minor gods you’ve never heard of — but I’ve tried to keep them people rather than heroes. They have powers, minor powers in narrow areas. They have strengths and weaknesses and blind spots. They have obligations, things they cannot or will not do because of who they are. They can be hurt, hurt in ways that make death look like the easy way out.
Traditional heroes are ideals. If heroes have weaknesses, those become mythic in themselves, like Achilles’ heel. Heroes don’t have second thoughts and sobbing nightmares over past mistakes, like Mel. Heroes aren’t afraid all the time, like Maureen in THE SUMMER COUNTRY. Al’s only heroic attribute is that he never quits. Real-life heroes turn out to be complex people when you get to know them. I try to bring that to my stories.