Why it Sucks to be a Character in a Novel

An Orthogonal Universe Blog welcomes Mara Sanghid, who is the protagonist of An Ember in the Wind and this week’s guest blogger — despite the notable handicap of not really existing.



First of all, let’s get something straight. I exist. Maybe I’m not a person. I don’t have a 401K or a mortgage or a tangible presence in the physical world. But I exist in some form, right? If I do my job right, you connect with me. But let’s talk about that job . . . and why it really, really sucks.

You know that “fear” that some people have — they’ll say they fear we are all living in someone’s dream, and if that person wakes up, then reality as we know it ceases to be? Everyone else looks at that person kinda funny.

That’s my life. If someone puts my book down, then poof, I cease to be. Even now, I’m worried you’ll look away and start browsing pictures of funny things cats do. And it’s like I’m Hoth or Han, or whoever that guy from Star Wars was that was friends with the Alf look-alike. Suspended in literary carbonite — yeah, that’s the life.

But that’s not even what I’m griping about. Okay, it’s not that bad. I mean, it’s not like I’m usually aware of not being. It’s just kind of trippy when one minute I’m outdoors, then blam, I’m indoors, then blam again — I’m being knocked down to the floor by a cat. What would you expect if you lived in a world that could be sold for two bucks in a second-hand store?

There’s just a certain stigma to being a character. Ever hear of “privacy”? Everyone thinks they can read me like a book. It’s off-putting.

Let me tell you something about the writing process. It’s hell. Freaking. Hell. Imagine being born, but conscious enough to realize what’s going on. And all too often, entire pieces of your being are wiped out. Just like that. I still have nightmares about the “backspace” key — or “that button which shall not be named”.

I bet your mother didn’t delete your arms and stick them on your butt because they “seemed to fit better there.”

But that’s the sort of thing that can happen when you’re a slave to the whims carefully and logically crafted thoughts of a cruel overlord who can revise what you say at random kind and loving author.

I haven’t even gotten to the worst of it. Revision makes my life a nightmare. It’s like being stuck in puberty forever — a teenager constantly changing identities. For all I know, tomorrow I could have sprouted three ears because it improves the “flow”, whatever that means.

And don’t get me started on typos. If you make a typo, you just feel silly . . . maybe even ridiculed by strangers. The horror! But in my world, all hell breaks loose.

Do you have any idea what it was like when the woman next door gave birth to a sun? Of course not. You live in a world that makes “sense”, because you have things like “physics” that aren’t subjected to the whims of Mr. Butter-fingers who had one too many cups of coffee.

“Yeah, I’m talking to you. What are you going to do about it?” asked Dork.

Hey! What — my name isn’t Dork! It’s Dork!


Change it back! Right now! I’m Dork! Dork!

Okay. Fine. I’m sorry.

See what I have to put up with? I’m such a dork.

No! I didn’t say that!



I don't think he'll see me here. Help me!!!!  Is there an opening in movies? I could at least be -played- by a person with a physical body.

Mara Dork

Subtle References

I sometimes cringe a bit if I go back and read some of the short stories I wrote for my 2002 fiction writing class. I think a few of the stories could be re-worked into something decent, but I learned two things about myself then:

1. I’m not particularly fond of so-called “literary fiction”.

2. I had a bad habit of being too blunt with references.

There’s an art to making a statement about some idea, event, person, etc. Political allegory is a good example, and I might be better at it if I had strong political opinions. I’m sure I haven’t mastered that art, but I like to think I’ve improved in 12 years.

I think some of the best stories are the ones that are not tied to a particular time period, idea, etc. They’re the ones that can be interpreted in multiple ways.

Of course, I also like to poke fun at the world around me. Anything is fair game, although the odd thing is I find myself poking fun at ideas, people, etc., that I respect more than the ones I don’t.

Such is the case with Epictetus’ The Handbook, which was the basis for The Philosophy of Many Hands. You can find the parody here, if you’d like: { PDF }   { about }   And here is the real version (although my own copy I worked from is a slightly different translation).

I actually found it to be a useful practical philosophy, which was the intention of the writer. It was a guide to daily life. I can’t say it really impacted my way of thinking, but it at least gave me a way to word it.

The upcoming An Ember in the Wind is full of lots of little allusions, references, and nods. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before the significance of the color schemes in the illustrations. Mara is always shown wearing Wolfpack Red, while the buildings in her city are Carolina Blue. (called Locana Blue in the book).

Anyone familiar with North Carolina would recognize these as the colors of North Carolina State University and The University of North Carolina. While my wife was still a grad student at UNC, we lived in Chapel Hill. It’s easy to feel like an outsider when you’re an NC State student in UNC’s home town. So I put my character in the same position. I think it works okay.

“Locana Blue”

And then there’s the very first Ember illustration. The puppets picture. Actually, I’m going to keep that one to myself for now.

But for anyone who has read A Foundation in Wisdom, here is John Bartlebee’s route. It’s the route my wife and I took a couple times when we’d drive to Tulsa, OK for Christmas… a city which has the following avenues that would ring a bell: Sheridan, Mingo, Elm, Peoria, Utica, Aspen.

On sites like DeviantART, people like to ask where others draw inspiration from. I’ve generally resisted the urge to share mine on a public forum, because I can imagine my answers being disappointing and not at all helpful. In A Foundation in Wisdom, shortly after crossing into Virginia, John becomes obsessed with the clouds – scrutinizing his every turn closer and closer with every passing mile. Who could be ominously watching him from above?

Here’s the inspiration.