Michelle Belanger: Five Things I Learned Writing Harsh Gods
The last thing Zack Westland expects on a frigid night is to be summoned to an exorcism. Demonic possession, however, proves the least of his problems. Father Frank, a veteran turned priest, knows Zack’s deepest secrets, recognizing him as Anakim, an angel belonging to that hidden tribe. And Halley, the girl they’ve come to save, carries a secret that could unlock a centuries-old evil. She chants an eerie rhyme…
“HANDS TO TAKE AND EYES TO SEE.
A MOUTH TO SPEAK.
HE COMES FOR ME.”
As Zack’s secrets spill out, far more than his life is at stake, for Halley is linked to an ancient conspiracy. Yet Zack can’t help her unless he’s willing to risk losing his immortality—and reigniting the Blood Wars
* * *
With over two dozen non-fiction books under my belt, you’d think fiction would come easily – it’s all words, right? – but you’d be dead wrong. Maybe it’s my particular quirk, but crafting fiction is an incredible challenge, one I delight in with each new installment of my Shadowside Series. I’m Michelle Belanger. You may have seen me on TV. I write a lot of books about ghosts and demons and other spooky things. Here are a few of the lessons that I learned while writing my latest novel, Harsh Gods:
You think you have one main character? Think again.
The Shadowside features Zack Westland, linguist, gamer geek and avenging angel. Told from his point of view, the series explores the complex web of intrigue and betrayal built from the constant wrangling of his extended family – all angels, all incarnating among humanity through a variety of methods. (note: these are not your grandma’s angels).
Obviously, Zack’s my main character – except for when he’s not. When I started the first few chapters of Harsh Gods, things just weren’t moving. Sure, there were reasons. Zack had a rough time of it in the first book, Conspiracy of Angels. He lost memories, allies, and Lailah, a woman he might have loved.
Harsh Gods opens with Zack mopey as fuck, binge-gaming in an effort to keep his depression bay. And I could not get the guy to talk. Enter Lil. In the first book, she’s an avowed frenemy, only working with Zack to seek her missing sister, Lailah. Brutal, efficient, and utterly unapologetic, she doesn’t merely jump rope with the line between hero and villain. She plays double-dutch with it.
Writing Lil, I had planned for her to make appearances now and then, but I’d thought of her more as a sidekick than a main character. Boy, was I wrong. The minute she popped onto the screen in Harsh Gods, everything started moving lickety-split. Zack’s depression remained an issue – I’d be remiss if I let the guy just traipse blithely through all the crap he endured in book one without some consequences – but Lil made it work. She kept Zack on his toes and didn’t give him a chance to drag the action down by moping. More than that, she got him talking, which POV characters can do too much of, but Zack really needed the motivation to open up. After that first scene where Lil shows back up, I had to admit that I had two main characters. It wasn’t like Lil was giving me any other option.
Not every back story get seen right away.
I have a thing about side characters. Specifically, I cannot stand to have them be mere walk-ons. One dimensional cardboard cut-outs with the title, “Man with Gun” are fine in TV scripts. Maybe they’re not even fine there, but I can say for certain that I don’t like them in my writing. If my main players pass someone on the street, that someone has a story living in my head. I almost can’t help it – I resonate too deeply with Koenig’s word “sonder” from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. When a world burgeons with so many stories, there is a driving temptation to tell them all. But you just can’t – not all at once.
My best example of this is the character Sanjeet. In my notes, she started out as “random white dude sent to deliver a message,” but the instant she became Sanjeet, she grew into something else – a whole person with history and depth and a story that burned to be told (I’ll talk more about my decision to change her from “random white dude” in a minute).
There is a scene on the cutting room floor where Zack presses Sanjeet into telling her story – at least some of it. When a few points of the action changed, that scene had to be cut. Chronologically, it no longer fit. So Sanjeet’s whole backstory gets relegated to an off-hand comment about why she doesn’t really like Zack at first glance. Even that comment is obscure at best. I worried about that as I was going through the edits, because, for me, it left so much dangling. But on the final few read-throughs, I realized that it not only worked, it guaranteed that we would see more of Sanjeet in the future. Her story didn’t have to spill across the page at her first introduction like some rote recitation of a character sheet. That story was a seed planted with an off-hand line, one that should be allowed naturally to grow and unfold.
At least 70% of your world-building will never make it to the page, and that’s OK.
With my name on titles like The Dictionary of Demons and Sumerian Exorcism, you know I like my research – possibly a little too much. For decades, I’ve immersed myself in the study of angels, demons, and beings that dance the line between, reading with the eye of a mythologist, rather than a theologian.
For the Shadowside Series, this manifests as worldbuilding.
I like worldbuilding. A lot. Inventing languages, crafting pantheons – blame my days as a game master for Vampire: the Masquerade and D&D. There are whole mythic cycles I’ve written about the angelic tribes as groundwork for the Shadowside books, and these explore key details like when the tribes arrived, what cultures they influenced, and how immortal spirits can take form in the physical world in the first place. Their names, their powers – even the fact that they arrange themselves in tribes – all stem from my study of Biblical and related history.
And no one but me needs to have access to that material, because Zack is ignorant to all of it. He has to be, for there to be relevance to the conspiracy at the heart of the series. The Shadowside books earn their label of Urban Fantasy, especially with how thoroughly some plot-threads are wound up with the city of Cleveland, but the books are also mysteries, and Zack’s quest to solve those mysteries is the real drive behind the action.
All those tales of the tribes’ mythic past – it’s tempting to find some way to squeeze them into the books. But they don’t need a place in the spotlight. They’d clutter the action. Who wants to read a book that looks like the Bible got gene-spliced with Encyclopedia Britannica, anyway? It’s taken me until Harsh Gods to fully make peace with leaving them out. The stories are things written for me. As the writer, I need to have all those details in my head. They are architecture and foundation. But the best way for those details to come out is not through unwieldy info-dumps but through light brushstrokes adding light and shadow to each character.
Just because it’s obvious to you…
This lesson played out as a fun exchange with my editor. There is a scene in Harsh Gods where several minions of the Big Bad have gotten their hands on hunting rifles. These rag-tag snipers are stationed high up on a tower, and they don’t expect company to ambush them by dropping out of the sky. Too bad for them – on the Shadowside, Zack can fly. As our hero pops back over to the flesh-and-blood world, a couple of the rifle-bearers get off their one shot, then Zack closes the distance and they resort to using the rifles like clubs.
That scene made perfect sense to me. My editor did the digital equivalent of spilling red pen all over it, dropping comments into the document asking why they didn’t try shooting a second time. And at first, all I could think was, “They’re single shot rifles. How the hell are they supposed to reload in the time it takes Zack to get into melee range?”
Which gets us to my first mistake: I assumed, because I knew about this type of rifle, the answer would be obvious to everyone else. I don’t consider myself any kind of expert on firearms, and yet, growing up in rural Ohio, I’ve had a good deal more passive exposure to gun culture than many, and certainly more exposure than I ever realized. Living in the States, it’s hard not to absorb at least some gun-knowledge through sheer osmosis, but I also associated closely with an uncle who was a police officer and a great-uncle who had a suspicious number of stories about the Irish equivalent of the mafia in Cleveland. They both talked guns, often. As a little kid, I didn’t think I was soaking up this information, as they were rarely talking to me, but exposure was enough. And because the knowledge was acquired passively, I failed to realize that it wasn’t common to everyone.
My second mistake was failing to write even one line that demonstrably showed the reader why the characters made the choice to abandon their guns as firearms and instead wield them like clubs. As writers, we make countless decisions to steer the action, but unless the reader sees some evidence for the characters’ decisions, reasons clear to us come across as muddy, erratic, or pulled fresh from our sphincters.
Rightfully, my editor called me on it. Which leads to my third error in this extended object lesson. My initial response at getting called out was to bristle, rather than thank Steve Saffel for looking out on my behalf. It is incredibly easy for writers to become blinkered to the gaps in their work, and this is why editors and beta readers are essential. Someone with distance from the manuscript is far more likely to catch those omissions, so we can go back and show clearly how things in the story got from guns as firearms to guns as fancy sticks.
Always question familiar tropes.
This is the story of how “random white dude” became Sanjeet. I told you I would get to this, but I saved it for last, because it touches on an issue weighing on a lot of peoples’ minds right now: diversity. Let me be clear, this is not a call for people to play Diversity Bingo, and if you do that just because you think it earns you points as a writer, it’s the equivalent of giving compliments with the expectation of earning affection. As a writer, you should consider diversity because the world we live in is diverse, and good fiction is woven from the stuff of reality. This is also a consideration of how popular culture molds our imaginations without our ever being aware of it. And for me, that revelation came together in a galvanizing way through the character of Sanjeet.
Before outlining the action of a book, I often scribble notes – character sketches, snippets of key scenes, the occasional bit of storyboarding. During this process for Harsh Gods, when I knew the story started with Father Frank reaching out to Zack for help, I ran into one big problem: in book one, Zack not only lost his phone, he also lost any memories relevant to things like his email. Any of his old contacts, outside of Remy, Sal, and Lil, have no way of getting in touch with him. More specifically, they could be calling and leaving emails, but unless they knew his address and boldly walked up to the front door, Zack wouldn’t even know thy existed.
As the action opens up, Father Frank is busy with Halley, so he needs to send someone to collect Zack. And in my notes, this person is first given the name Mike Beale. He’s as interesting as cardboard – his sole existence was as messenger boy. Of course he had a little back story – lay person at the Church, helps Father Frank out now and then. THE END. I wanted to get this Mike dude in and out of the action so fast, I considered having him get knocked on the head during the book’s first fight scene.
That is boring. Boring and lazy. And shortly after writing those notes, I saw that.
So I asked myself, “Who is this character really? Why does he have to be a guy? For that matter, why does he have to be white? Are there reasons? Do those reasons have anything at all to do with his character or the plot?”
None of Mike Beale’s projected qualities had any bearing on the plot.
I realized, in Mike Beale, I had conjured the clone of every bit character seen on practically every show imaginable. That television cliché – the extra who walks on, says maybe one line, probably gets whacked, and then only appears as “random white dude” in the credits – had wormed its way so thoroughly into my imagination that when I groped for a non-essential character, “random white dude” was the first thing my brain spat out. Mike Beale existed from sheer ubiquity, like the O of a condom worn into the leather of a wallet.
I didn’t want that. Specifically, I didn’t want a character to exist simply because it was easier than considering an alternatie. So I returned to my series of questions.
Who is this character really?
Someone helping Father Frank.
Does he have to be a guy?
Nope. No reason.
So why not a girl?
Sure, no reason she can’t be.
Why is she working with Father Frank?
Maybe she’s his secretary – and I stopped myself right there, because that answer, as much as “random white dude,” came purely from familiar portrayals. In that moment, I got a conscious glimpse of all my media front-loading. I don’t mean anything as heavy-handed as propaganda. That requires too much effort. The main reason we see the same tropes again and again is the simple and very human refrain, “But that’s how we’ve always done it.”
Except that’s no answer at all. If we fail to check our assumptions, nothing will ever change. And the world has changed around us, regardless of how it is currently portrayed in sitcoms, in movies, and in far too many books.
So, I asked the character, Who do you want to be? And I got Sanjeet, this kind of shy college kid with Hipster-framed glasses, long black hair, and an event in her past that drove her to seek self-defense classes – only she couldn’t afford to keep going, because she helps support her little brother. Father Frank volunteers at the dojo, so they worked out a trade. She’s not Catholic like Father Frank. She’s Sikh, and as part of that, she keeps this image of the warrior-saint Mai Bhag Kaur in her car to remind her that she can be both strong and brave.
All of that, because I asked, “Why this random guy?” and was open to answers that went beyond what was familiar to me. Sure, Sanjeet required more research. She’s only a bit character, but her presence meant some cramming on the Sikh faith – whether or not she’d approve of an exorcism, how she might respond to Zack because of her beliefs, and exactly why she has known violence in her past. But now, that character jumps off the page. She’s given me a story that demands to be told. And I’ve learned that easy answers lead to familiar places, but there’s a point where familiar stops being interesting.