Noah Lemelson is a short story writer and novelist who lives in LA with his wife and cat. Lover of Science Fiction, Fantasy, New Weird, and Punk. He received his BA in Biology from the University of Chicago in 2014 and received his MFA in Creative Writing from the California Institute of the Arts in 2020. He has had several of his short stories published in both print and online magazines, such as Allegory, Space Squid and the Outsider’s Within Horror Anthology. Visit his website here to learn more about him and his upcoming book.
I’m not into the whole Chosen One thing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to toss a hot take that all Chosen One narratives are bad. Like any trope they can be done well. But it has been done, and done, and done, and done some more. When I sat down to write The Sightless City (then “Untitled Lazarus Roache Project”), I wanted to tell a story about comparatively normal characters, not heroes chosen by gods or destiny. But normal does not mean boring. Too often books allow their protagonist to become dullest character. It’s a genuine challenge to make sure your point of view character is not just some window with legs, but a full and complex human being (or fantastical human being equivalent).
My strategy to make my POV interesting was to make each protagonist flawed in some significant way. They would be united in their opposition to Lazarus Roache, but I wanted each of their struggles to be individual and internal. They had been wronged, but they were not passive victims, they had active flaws that got them into their situations, and make it more difficult for them to escape.
To both explain what I mean, and to give a hint at how to write realistically flawed characters, let’s talk about the self-narratives. We each have a narrative about ourselves, explanations for what we have done, what we are doing, what we will do, and why. Often identities are a big part of this, labels either given to us or chosen by us (often a bit of both). These self-narratives give us a sense of who we are, and influence our future decisions, but they aren’t necessarily “true.” I’m not saying they’re always “false” either, obviously. It’s just that self-narrative are, like everything in society, constructions, ideas that are sometimes based on facts, sometimes on emotion, but often come from a blurry mix of reality, emotion, and expectation.
Marcel Talwar is a war hero. He fought to free Huile, giving up his leg and losing his friends in a fight for freedom. This is the identity he was given and one he embraces fully. But there is another narrative, another possible identity. Marcel Talwar is a war criminal. He caused thousands of brutal deaths. This alternative reading of his actions, as factual as his other identity, is abhorrent to Marcel. He does not actively consciously consider this possibility, and I don’t explicitly call him out on it in the book, but on some level he is aware of this darker narrative. This other interpretation does not make him question his war hero status, quite the opposite. He is so utterly convinced he is a war hero because the alternative possibility is so horrid. This leads to a massive emotional block preventing him questioning from his own decisions and the outcomes of those decisions. This is a significant character flaw. Marcel is a good person, in that he tries to be a good person and do good things, but he can be blind to reality when that reality threatens to unravel his self-narrative.
Sylvaine also has her own issues with self-narratives and identity. She is a Ferral, a beast-person, discriminated against her whole life. Ideally, she might find pride and security in her identity, and create a positive self-narrative, but she is unable to. Instead, she seeks to reject her Ferral-ness and prove, to the world and herself, that she is something more. This self-defense mechanism has found its focus in Ætheric Engineering. Ferrals are stereotypically considered primitive and simple. Engineering is the exact opposite of that, civilized and intelligent. She believes subconsciously that if she can just become an engineer, that will prove she is not just a mere bestial Ferral. She believes it will prove, to the world and herself, that she is deserving of respect and dignity. That’s not to say her interest in engineering is not genuine. She does actually love engineering, but her obsession is colored with a desperate self-loathing brought on by years of bullying and discrimination. Of course, this is what makes her inability to control æther so devastating, it’s not just the death of a dream, in an assault on the identity she is trying to claim, a cut into an old and deep wound. She keeps trying again and again to become an engineer, each failure just building more self-loathing, and as her desperation grows, as does her willingness to make questionable decisions if she thinks it might make her a real engineer.
Of course, its not just enough for these characters to have flaws, to have contradictions in their self-narratives, but these flaws need to manifest as actual conflicts in the plot. (I mean you could have a fully internal narrative, that might be interesting, but genre conventions for fantasy mean that at some point, something in the world has to change in meaningful and usually violent ways). So in comes Lazarus Roache, who, unlike the protagonists, is not trying in the least to be a good person. He is able to manipulate the protagonists not through simple threats or bribery, but by playing on their self-narratives, and their desperation to be the person they think they are.
So then the tension of the story becomes two-fold. 1) Will my protagonists defeat the villains. And 2) Will my protagonists be able to work through the inner contradictions own sense of self? But these two conflicts are interconnected, failing to stop the villains can push them deeper into holes of their own psyche, while these flaws can in turn prevent them from effectively fighting the villain. To resolve the external conflict, they have to overcome their internal ones, and those are often much more complex and difficult to face. And I think, also more interesting to read about.