The birth of a minor character

Among the many rules for creating good fiction are these: that conflict must ratchet up the tension continually throughout the story, and that all characters—even bit-part players—should be fully fleshed out. They should be physically described—even if it’s only in shorthand, and have a backstory that sets them firmly in the story. Paramount, they must have a reason to be there.

And so Father Thomas Roos elbowed his way into The Luck of Two Magpies after another minor character, Father Cletus of Escomb, was murdered.

I knew nothing about him and so I resorted to my usual method for familiarization, I asked him questions. Here are his answers.

I am Thomas Roos. I was born and raised in Bishop Auckland, a wealthy market town in the Durham diocese and home to the Durham Prince Bishops’ Auckland Castle. My father and mother and their siblings were born and raised here. My closest companion as a lad was my cousin Cletus. We attended the school supported by the Church of St. Andrew in Bishop Auckland.

When Cletus was 6, his father was gored to death by a boar. When Cletus was 8, his widowed mother remarried, this time to a farmer met at market, and moved with her children to Escomb, a separation that affected me greatly. My own father was not an easy man to please, and though I am chastened to admit it, often I did bully my cousin Cletus to feel some sense of empowerment.

In time, we did both became priests. I did so to escape my fate as father’s whipping boy, but more so because I was ambitious. My cousin Cletus, who loved letters from the first time he put chalk to slate, entered the priesthood because he had no talent for anything but ‘scribe-ing.’

I met Father Justin at a synod in Durham. As I sensed the same sort of ambition in him, and in truth was impressed by his royal stature, I applied for the position as his secretary, and was accepted. Father Justin knew I was acceptable to the King as trustworthy for passing messages, but ittle did Justin know but that our King, ever suspicious of his cousins Beaufort because they were his Uncle John’s progeny, had recruited me to spy on Father Justin.

And now, my ambition may lead me to outdo Father Justin in bringing down the House of Grifon and in gaining greater favour with His Grace King Richard. I was on my way to accomplishing this when I made myself agreeable to Lady Elisa. Her trust enabled me to spend time at Grifon’s writing desk, sampling his ledgers. This is the way to bring Grifon down—not through reporting treasonous activities, but by proving the man withheld monies owed to the King. It would be a triple satisfaction. Bringing down Grifon, besting Father Justin, and gaining justice for my cousin’s murder, for I am certain that either Beaufort or Grifon ordered it.

Whether he succeeds or not, we’ll have to wait to see. As of now, Father Thomas has gone silent.

What makes a man tick

How do you know what makes characters tick? You develop a backstory for each one, and as I’m writing in the historical genre, my characters are grounded in their period, the tail end of the 14th century.

The men of The Luck of Two Magpies—William de la Coeur Grifon, earl Norburnshire; Andrew MacKay, earl Pentland; Ancel Catington, earl Middleton, and Justin Beaufort, Archdeacon of Northumbria—are all of the titled class. They’re English or Scottish, earls or royal bastard, and although each man’s lineage differs, they share general commonalities.

A firstborn male child of nobility pretty much had his future laid out for him. As inheritor of wasters his father’s title, he was introduced to his future and his parents’ expectations early on. Toys for noble boys mimicked adult weapons and tools, so that William, Ancel, and Andrew would have played with pint-sized swords called wasters and shields, and would have toy knights on horseback made of wood, tin or lead to play with, much as little boys today have miniature soldiers or jedi warrior figures. As a son of royal lineage, Justin Beaufort would also have played with these along with his brothers.

The sons of the nobility were loved and cared for by their parents. Portraits of the late 14th century and early 15th century show fathers doting on adoring sons. Yes, they had wetnurses until about the age of two whereas in the lower classes mothers nursed their own infants, but infant and childhood mortality rates were high, and parents grieved over the loss of a child. And given that high rate of infant mortality (and the fact that there was no birth control except abstinence—well, there was, but I’ll save that tidbit for the novel), noble women were expected to produce heirs in multiples. The current phrase ‘an heir and a spare’ isn’t a new notion.

medieval studentsAt home, small boys of the aristocracy learned refined manners and social mores, including proper table manners, which meant coming to board with immaculately clean fingernails as eating was an affair for hands and an eating dagger. (Forks were eschewed in northern Europe and England though they were used in the Middle East and southern Europe.) Noble children learned how to sing, dance and play instruments. Boys learned the concepts of chivalry, morality and nobility. A boy’s aspirations toward these concepts would be fueled by attending tournaments with his father and hearing stories and song of brave knightly deeds and combats.

By the age of six or seven, they would begin to learn reading and writing at home withtext book tutors, though some sons would be sent to their liege lords’ households to become pages. This was more prevalent in the early medieval era. By the late 1300s onward, most noble sons were educated at home with tutors or sent to schools, and some were sent to university at about 16 years of age, where studies of the natural sciences, philosophy and mathematics were explored.

Many were knighted around that age as well, though in some cases favored sons were knighted early. For example, Henry (Hotspur) Percy, who would become earl BeknightingNorthumberland in due course, was knighted by King Edward III just prior to Henry’s 13th birthday, and at 16 he served with the Earl of March’s army in Ireland.

Whether trained at home or away, their days were spent conquering reading, writing, mathematics and Latin as well as gaining proficiency at skills to be used in war or in the social setting of tournaments. They tilted at the quintain and watched their seniors to develop the skills of the lance and the sword, and joined in the prestigious sport of hunting to further hone their horsemanship and weaponry skills.

These boys were betrothed early on, promised to a young girl who brought a dowry, title and or lands that would enrich his title and holdings when the two married. Marriage ages were sometimes stipulated in the betrothal contracts, and while the marriageable age for a boy was considered to be 13 and for a girl 12, they often waited some years after that before entering into the marriage. 

How did this upbringing affect them when their fathers died and they inherited their titles? Well, characters are individuals, and while some experiences give them common ground, their family lives, their teachers and associates, and their own personalities play as much of a role as their training in who they become.

Next up: William.