From The Writers' Room Featuring Tremontaine

In Praise of Minor Characters

I write dialogue by eavesdropping on my characters. When you know a character, you can hear their voice in your head, like a conversation two seats down on the bus, or at the next table over in the restaurant. For my first episode ever of Tremontaine, I needed a Voice, someone I knew well, but who wasn’t too much of a major, who could introduce me to the place and ground my imagination.

That someone was Joshua.

Joshua doesn’t remind me of anyone I know, but he reminds me of someone I could have known. A pragmatic and chronically-stressed grad student with a pleasing, delicate balance of self-deprecation and superiority to his manner. A good friend who goes the full range from utter exasperation at your shenanigans to total commitment to your newest escapade. A bit of a goof who remarkably finds himself surrounded by even bigger goofs and is forced, to his own secret horror, to be the sensible one. And, most of all, a young man who has potential, who knows he has potential, and is both terrified and excited at the prospect.

I have taught and trained Joshuas. I’ve studied with them, done research with them, drunk wine and beer and coffee with them, and, sometimes, opened the paper a decade later to read the startling news of their elevation to some prestigious post. Well, not that startling. Joshuas tend to do well, almost in spite of themselves, and as such often end up as minor characters in fiction, which prefers heroes that are more inclined to angst and drama.

And so, for my first foray into Tremontaine, Joshua’s voice invited me in, lovingly illuminated the characters of Rafe and Micah, dropped a few trenchant opinions about Diane, Duchess Tremontaine, and made it clear that he would be a part of Rafe’s schemes and Micah’s development. But Joshua is no mere facilitator of heroic arcs. He has his own life to live, and opportunities to test his suspected potential are most welcome. Much may unfold offscreen, as must happen for a minor, but he is no automaton of plot, to be dragged out and animated when things need to be shoved in a particular direction, then tucked back into the cupboard to sleep until the next hero-crisis.

The care that goes into minor characters like Joshua is one of the many things that make Tremontaine amazing. From the opening chapter of Swordspoint, it was clear that the author fully grasped that a world cannot simply be built (with history, geography, genealogies and tech/magic) like a clockwork machine. It must be populated with lives—big and small, central and peripheral—to give it a soul. And it’s a beautiful, complicated, sinning, saintly marvel of a soul that Ellen has breathed into Swordspoint and, by extension, into Tremontaine.

When an author of that calibre invites you into the world she created, to eavesdrop on the Joshuas and record their words, you must say yes, especially if the prospect both terrifies and excites you.

  • Ellen Kushner

    Thank you, Karen. I love you for understanding this. And I love the way you write ALL the Tremontaine characters, great and small.

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