I’ve been thinking for a while that it would be fun to have a little blog mini-series (much like the one I did a while back on why I like vampire novels) taking one of my characters each day and explaining what combination of literary characters, historical characters, celebrities and people I know came together to inspire each of them.
Obviously, these post are going to be of most interest to people who’ve read some or all of The Cavaliers Series, but I’m hoping that they’ll also be of interest to my fellow authors and anyone interested in the craft of writing. Plot is my biggest fascination, but characters come a close second, and personally, I think the question of how authors create their characters is an intriguing one.
I’m starting off today with Augustine Piso, and then I’ll continue with Lord George Stewart, and Adelaide Piso (nee French) over the next couple of days. I’ll see how it goes beyond that, but I’m willing to take requests.
And finally, what this series really needs is drawings of the characters. There’s barely anything book related that would make me happier at this moment in time, but I have zero drawing ability. Can anyone draw or knows anyone who can draw or knows of a service where people will draw authors pictures of their characters? If so, please tell.
Age: Born in 99 BC, turned in 54 BC. Appears to be in his mid-forties.
Place of birth: Etruria (just outside of modern-day Florence)
Maker: “The Maker”
Offspring: turned Adelaide French. Is proud of the fact that he hasn’t personally created any other vampires, though all of the Cavaliers regard him as a father figure of a sort.
Current Role: Chairman of Meridian and Lamb, a major investment bank. Head of the Cavaliers. Various shadow roles in Government and the media.
Special powers and talents: enhanced versions of all the usual vampire talents, both physical and mental. In addition, able to break other vampires’ mind control, exercise some degree of mesmerism over his fellow vampires, and, most usefully, can’t be killed without using all three of the Piso Treasures and following certain specific procedures.
BACKGROUND AND INSPIRATION
There’s a certain type of character that I always secretly rather enjoy. It’s the character who is pretty much unbeatable. Who, when another character challenges them to a fight or to a battle of wits, you just shake your head in disbelief and wonder that they are playing at. Sometimes, they are heroes. Other times, anti-heroes, or full-blown villains. The most famous example is probably James Bond, but others that you might have heard of, off the top of my head, include Jack Bauer from 24 and (in slightly different ways) all of Captain Carrot, Commander Vimes and Lord Vetinari from the Discworld books. In short, it’s someone you really don’t want to end up in a fight with.
When I started Oxford Blood, this was basically what I wanted Augustine Piso to be. The uber-vampire. Physically, mentally and psychically stronger than everyone else, with the addition of centuries of cunning. I wanted him to be the absolute, unquestioned ruler of the Cavaliers, and to be unchallengable. In both Oxford Blood and Screaming Spires, he faces an attack, and more or less shrugs it off. Whether he’s facing Archie, a scheming young vampire who thinks he’s found his one weak-spot, or the centuries old power of the Visigoth Twins, he deals with the situation calmly and efficiently.
Oxford Blood: You played your little game well,” Gus continued. “Playing on my emotions and using the fact that no vampire can break another’s spell. You just made one tiny mistake – assuming that I’m the same as all the other vampires. I’m more powerful than you can imagine. I can break your mind control as easily as you can break a human’s neck. It’s not just that I have centuries on any of you – I was made by the first vampire, who was more demon than human. And in the end I killed and drained him, and all of the others he’d made.”
Screaming Spires: “Don’t you dare touch my daughter,” Augustine said commandingly from outside the window. “I may not be able to come in right now, but after this I’ll destroy you both.”
Apart from this seemingly unassailable power, Augustine’s key defining feature is his age. Most of the Cavaliers, regardless of their centuries, appear to be in their twenties. Augustine, despite the fact that he could presumably make people see whatever he wanted them to see, defaults to looking in his late forties or early fifties. The first time he appears in the books, he’s described as, “good looking, in a George Clooney sort of way.” In essence, he seems older and more rugged than most of the vampires he commands, but no less sexy for that.
I don’t usually go in for rugged (slightly effeminate pretty boys all the way for me) but everyone needs a bit of variety in their lives. As the line above suggests, George Clooney was one major visual inspiration for Augustine, and his general air of suave sophistication also suits the character. The other side of his character – the harder, fight to defend your family at all costs side – was inspired by Russell Crowe’s character in Gladiator (one of my all time favourite films, even if I prefer the evil emperor to the honourable protagonist), who shares a certain degree of historical background with Augustine.
The final inspirations for Augustine were, bizarrely, some combination of Rupert Murdoch and Peter Mandelson. Augustine doesn’t just have physical strength, he pulls all of the strings behind the scenes. He controls newspapers, dominates elections, has all of the establishment bent to his will. He is an exaggerated version, but I’m fascinated by the political power that some people wield today.
Tom didn’t know exactly how many of the major newspapers Augustine actually owned. Even the most determined auditors couldn’t penetrate his network of holding companies. The Cavaliers’ ability to feed the papers stories about their politicians, the fact they could pay serious bribes, and the number of members working as editors meant that there wasn’t much notable difference between those that were directly in his control and the ones that were nominally independent. They all printed whatever he wanted. And if all else failed, there was always mesmerism.
“Get me the Home Secretary on the phone,” Augustine barked at Rupert.
The Piso were a real Roman family, but I borrowed their name and not much else. Augustine’s first name, bizarrely, comes from my Grandfather. He was one of ten children in a sprawling, northern, Catholic (hence the ten kids!) family. They were miners and steel workers, but their religion demanded that they be named after saints. Most people in the same situation satisfied themselves with James and David. For some reason, my great-grandparents really went to town. As well as Augustine, the family included Leonardo and Rosaline. Although the tenth child (and I swear this is true) was called Brian – I’m not sure whether they were Monty Python fans ( I think it would have been too early), or had just ran out of steam by then.
The funny thing is that, until he died, I never knew my granddad had such an exotic name. Everyone referred to him as Austin, and I love the contrast between such a staid, English-sounding diminutive and the fifth-century, Italian saint’s name sitting behind it. Incidentally, my Grandma was called Beatrice, like Dante’s true love, and insisted on being called Beattie. It must have been love at first name exchange.
In the prologue of Oxford Blood, Augustine appears as the leader of the Cavaliers, obviously a vampire, obviously terrifyingly powerful, and referred to by his full name. In the first chapter, Harriet refers to her absent stepfather. He’s rich and somewhat mysterious, but she has no idea he’s a vampire. In the original draft, Harriet’s name for him was Austin, and I loved the contrasting names and the way it created an ambiguity around whether or not Austin and Augustine were the same person.
This borrowing of the two versions of my Grandfather’s name freaked my family out a little too much, so I eventually changed his nickname to Gus, the other obvious way to shorten the name. This had all the same fun elements, but for me, also brought a new connotation into play. By that point, I’d started working for the Civil Service, and at the time, the head of the Civil Service was called Gus O’Donnell, or, as officials tended to refer to him, referencing both his initials and his status as probably the most important person in British Government after the Queen and the Prime Minister: GOD.
So for most of the first two books, that was Augustine (Gus) Piso – named after a strange combination of my granddad, my ultimate boss, and an obscure Roman family. Inspired by one celebrity rugged hunk and one celebrity smooth “grey-fox.” A character that I always enjoyed writing about, but who was ultimately something of an archetype – the unassailable leader. In my plans, he was never going to be defeated (or the whole archetype would be undermined) but he was not going to get a romantic happy ending. Because fundamentally, Augustine was a character I admired, and who was essential to the plot, but who I didn’t really care about.
And then I made a mistake. All of the books have prologues from a different point-of-view and on a different timescale to the rest of the story. And I thought it would be fun to have a prologue about Augustine as a slightly more fallible (though still pretty badass) human meeting his arch-enemy Fea for the first time and, ultimately, becoming a vampire. A quick 1000 – 2000 word affair to give a bit of background and get Ivory Terrors off to a rousing start.
By the time I’d managed to stop writing Augustine’s story, it was about 15 000 words long, and I was utterly in love with his character. It was far too long to use as a prologue, but I divided the story up and spread it through the book. It’s one of my favourite parts of Ivory Terrors. Actually, one of the Augustine scenes, where he is turned and forced to kill his wife, is one of the bits of my writing I’m the proudest of and most satisfied by. Almost everything that happens in “The Tale of Augustine Piso” from him being turned by a vampire who had never been human, to him killing his wife, to him creating the Treasures and sacrificing a child to destroy his maker, had been referred to in earlier books. But somehow, writing them as actual scenes, happening then and there and from his point of view, give them so much more emotional resonance. Compare:
Oxford Blood: “You remind me of the first person I ever killed. Outside of the battlefield at least. She was my wife. I was made to drain her in order to complete my transformation, and I couldn’t forgive myself for centuries. Perhaps letting you go will be some kind of recompense.”
Augustine pressed his lips together until they burned. He wouldn’t do it. He couldn’t do it. At worst, he’d die. At best, they’d bring him another sacrifice. But he would not hurt Antonia.
His body spasmed.
“Your muscles are dying,” the Maker said calmly. “You’re suffocating from the inside out. I really would drink now, if I were you.”
Still he tried to resist, and still Fea held his head in place. He was slipping out of consciousness, and he could take it no more. Against his will, his fangs extended and pierced Antonia’s neck. The second he got the first taste of her blood, he lost all control, all sense of who he was. Nothing existed for him except the blood. He drank in a dark, conscienceless frenzy, until there was nothing more to drink. Only then did Fea release his head.
“Welcome to your new life,” she whispered. “You’re truly one of us now.”
“Antonia, wake up. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do it.”
Desperately, he bit down on his wrist and let the blood trickle into her mouth.
“It’s far too late for that,” the Maker said.
Augustine jumped to his feet. His hands gripped Fea’s throat almost before he was aware of having moved.
Augustine was meant to end up alone, to make the point that just because a pair were together in a past life, it doesn’t mean they are destined to be together in this one. But somehow, after we’d been through so much together, and after I’d really come to appreciate just how much he’d loved his wife and how his whole life had centred on avenging her and waiting for her return, I just couldn’t do it to him. It’s rather surprising when you consider how I treat some of the other characters at the end of Ivory Terrors (including my absolute favourite character, of which more tomorrow), but I guess I deliberately made a character who would always win. As it happens, in a battle of wills, he’ll even win out against the author.