Skip to content

The Drifter

Last week, Jacqui and I were breaking down the problems with a speculative draft I’ve been working on –– not Black Sun, but something else entirely. Without getting into too much boring detail, we zeroed in on the characters, and how they weren’t strong enough to carry a book. Fortunately, the solution wasn’t difficult (it was already on the page), but it nevertheless got me thinking about the importance individual characters can play when developing a series. The best example I can offer: the unassuming drifter, Smith.

While the ideas for His Majesty’s New World had been swirling for years –– the inevitable product of studying history, while at the same time writing science fiction –– the plot was tough to pin down. By December of 2006, things started to come together: the b’ys of the Newfoundland Regiment turned up to assume control of the narrative, and Emily and Caralynne arrived to create conflict. It seemed like we had enough for a series…

But… no. Something was missing.

The problem was timing. In December of 2006, I was writing The Jupiter Patrol while editing The Genesis Equation, and though it’d be a stretch to say either book had much in common with an alternate history story set in 1919, there was one theme I needed to avoid repeating: having the primary viewpoint be that of a military character. There was no question Major Waller and his comrades from the RNR would play a major role in the story, but a new perspective was essential.

Fortunately, thanks to a tip from my father (Iceberg CFO Peter Tam) about genuinely classic western novels, I found something clever to steal for inspiration. I’ll speak to my affinity for Louis L’Amour books in another note –– trying to elaborate here would make this far too long –– but there’s no doubt that being introduced to subtly sophisticated characters like the Sacketts opened my mind enough to consider a whole different direction.

That’s when Smith rode in.

The new world drifter wasn’t based on any preexisting western protagonist –– on the contrary, we discovered quickly that his humble and straightforward personality came from a real hero much closer to home. But his manner and his demeanor were straight from classic westerns, and characters who we often dismiss today (probably because we lack the context to understand many of the subtle cues that reveal their sophistication). So when western enthusiasts ask me to compare Smith to someone they’ve seen on screen, I usually suggest Britt from The Magnificent Seven combined with the real Canadian Mantracker:

Smith was very much his own man, and thank God he turned up when did. His Majesty’s New World immediately became about him, giving a story that owed much to H. G. Wells an enormous counter-balance. His presence allowed us to wisely compare British, Canadian, American and Newfoundland cultures –– to explore their many differences, and recognize their profound similarities. As I’ve said before, and will say again, finding common ground matters to me, so I’m very grateful to him.

Small wonder that Alex, who had been waiting around for her own story, decided to step into the role of his daughter when he continued on in Champions. Hard to pick a better dad –– or a better human character –– than Smith. Not that he’d ever say so.