When you write a novel, identifying your hero and heroine is the easy part. If you write thrillers, like me, identifying your arch- villain is pretty straightforward too. A lot of writers like to give physical descriptions of their characters, others say it doesn’t matter and include very little. Either technique is fine, so long as it works for the reader. A reader must be able to identify who is who. And as well as the major characters, that has to apply to the secondary characters too.
Now, a secondary character cannot have the same page space as your hero/heroine/villain. In a visual medium like film or TV, it’s a straightforward process. How many times have you watched an action movie where the hero has several sidekicks? You’re unlikely to remember them all by name, but you use a physical identifier. Think of the climax of Star Wars, where Luke Skywalker was trying to blow up the Death Star along with his squadron. Die-hard Star Wars fans will, I’m sure, know what every single one of those characters was called. For the rest of us, we could pick out the carefully constructed physical differences of each of those pilots: the fat one, the dark-haired one. We could recognize them as individuals. And we had to, because knowing who was being picked off added to the tension and made Luke’s situation even more desperate.
So far, so Lucas. What about us writers, who only have the written word as our medium? And what about this writer, who has five knights and has to make sure readers can tell one from another in quick time? Well, happily, one of them is my hero. I knew I could be pretty sure that readers would be fine to identify him.
What of the other four? This proved a lot harder to do. It’s quite a high number, but they all have to be there and they all have to have a handle so readers can tell them apart. So I looked around for some famous foursomes that I could base them on, to help me lock in on them.
There are a surprising number of Famous Fours out there, but not all of them provided a good starting point. I tried the Beatles. Could they translate into four medieval knights? John Lennon, yes. George Harrison, probably. Paul McCartney (who, ironically, is a Sir!), probably not. And Ringo Starr…. So I sacked that idea. Sex and The City gals? No, no, no and no. The Fantastic Four? Better, but too fantasy based.
Then I found them, my Four. The Four Evangelists, who wrote the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Now, I’m not saying for one second that they as human beings could be in any way similar to four brutal murderers. But in Christianity, the four evangelists have been represented for hundreds of years by symbols. Matthew is represented by a winged man, or angel. Mark, a lion. Luke an ox and John, an eagle. This gave me a great starting point for the physical appearance and characteristics of my four other knights.
Sir Reginald Fitzurse, my arch-villain, has ‘fine features’ like Matthew as an angel. That is, of course, the only angelic thing about him. Sir William de Tracy is Mark’s lion: loud, muscular. Even his red hair and thick beard give a nod to a lion’s coat and mane. Sir Richard le Bret, with his ‘huge, hulking frame’ is Luke’s ox, with the associated huge strength but not a huge amount of intelligence. Sir Hugh de Morville is John’s eagle, with his ‘scrawny calves’ and spare frame.
They are, as Thomas Becket says in chapter three, ‘a shameful crew’. But they’re also a murderous crew. They take Becket’s life in the most horrific way, and then have their sights set on Sister Theodosia, a young defenceless nun. Only my fifth knight, Sir Benedict Palmer stands in their way.
And what does Benedict look like? Dark hair and broad build. Naturally. He’s my hero!