10th Oct 2011
My Three Favourite… Fictional Characters at age 16
Francisco Pizarro. Dr Martin Dysart. Antonio Salieri.
This trio of unhappy protagonists crossed my desk many years ago in English class. An illiterate Spanish general. A burnt-out psychiatrist. A composer in the Habsburg court.
Two are historical, but I met them in fictional form in three dramas by Peter Shaffer – The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus and Amadeus. Disillusioned antiheroes kicking themselves for bad lives, and confronted by startlingly peculiar chances for redemption; perfect for darkly brooding A-level students.
General Francisco Pizarro, leader of the Conquistadors, is on a mission to capture the city of the Incas for the glory of Spain and the Catholic Church. He’s an unusual choice as commander, being the illegitimate son of a pigherd – and illiterate to boot.
His whole life has been driven by a need to prove himself, and to his men he’s a hero. But Pizarro sees nothing worthwhile in himself. He’s disgusted by the blood he’s shed and the Catholic faith he has killed for.
His mission to find the Inca city of gold is a work of spite, proof that a pigman can win fame and riches before he dies – but even that will be scant comfort for the fear that needles his soul. But as well as gold, he finds Atahuallpa, god-king of the Incas.
Pizarro is drawn to the dignified, aloof creature. Atahuallpa has absolute belief in his nature as a god, putting to shame the Catholic priests who are hypocritical, brutal and self-serving.
The Inca king is almost Pizarro’s twin in circumstance. He was illegitimate and killed his own brother in order to take the kingdom. Self-made and brave, he is, in short, Pizarro himself – but complete.
Pizarro’s men sentence Atahuallpa to death. Pizarro fights to keep him alive, but Atahuallpa senses what his friend needs and promises to rise again if he is executed. With little other choice, Pizarro allows him to be strangled.
When the sun rises we watch in fervent hope that it will revive him, but Atahuallpa remains still. The world shrinks back to flesh, blood and murder. A lifetime’s mistakes, gravitationally condensed as tight as a neutron star. We have seen something strange, transforming and ungraspable.
At the age of sixteen, I’d gobbled a lot of powerful stories but this was the first that descended on a bolt of lightning. Possibly it was because my school was obsessively religious. We were crammed to pass divinity O level, and made to sit it again if we failed.
I got the grade as an academic duty, but was disappointed with the subject and its blind spots – including the exclusion of all religions beyond Christianity. Then along came this play, where a man who needs a god meets a man who might be one. It turns out they’re nothing but men, but nevertheless we feel the power of the infinite.
At that moment I realised I too had an unshakeable belief – in human beings, what we create and how we scare and heal each other. And most specially in the artists and writers who could give us such experiences.
Equus followed the same pattern as The Royal Hunt of the Sun. Dr Martin Dysart is another jaded, repressed soul confronted by a passionate, otherwordly innocent. His patient, Alan Strang, has blinded a stable of horses, driven by a profound, primitive worship he has fashioned for himself after a terrifying encounter with a magnificent steed. Dysart’s mission to treat Alan’s delusions and normalise him is how he has sterilised his whole life.
And Antonio Salieri in Amadeus has dedicated himself to composing music. Along comes Mozart - uncouth, rude and effortlessly gifted – and much better at being alive. True to Shaffer form, Salieri destroys him.
Writing this post, I realise how many of those lightning-struck synapses are still smoking. My just-released novel, My Memories of a Future Life, is about the phenomenon of past-life regression, where you touch into the life you lived before.
The romantic in me wants reincarnation to be true, but the scientific half can see reasons why it isn’t. The story is set in the world of classical music, a natural fit because playing a score is so intense and dictatorial – instructions like ‘amoroso’, which means ‘play it lovingly’, seemed to be like channelling the spirit of the composer. Also, music is entirely man-made but incredibly transforming—if there was ever any evidence for man being touched by the infinite, music must be it.
My narrator is an injured concert pianist, desperate for a cure. She meets fringe healers offering miracles. One of them takes her to a future incarnation, the life she may live next, where she experiences oblique flashbacks to this one.
Meanwhile, in this life, there’s a game of psychological cat and mouse that becomes more and more bizarre. In all of this, she is searching for genuine answers – if she has to do without music, how can she live?
Invented gods. Past lives. Future lives. Whatever the explanations, these are wondrous creations, and so is what we do with them. I prefer to lead my characters to freedom than disillusioned destruction, but several decades on from school I’m happily in debt to Mr Shaffer. And I think I always will be.
My Memories of a Future Life is available on Kindle and in print. It was originally launched in four episodes and if you grab them before 15 October you can get them for the launch price of only 99 cents. After that, they will go to their full price of USD$2.99. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first four chapters right here.
Roz Morris is a bestselling ghostwriter and book doctor. She is the author of Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, available on Kindle and in print. She blogs at www.nailyournovel.com and has a double life on Twitter; for writing advice follow her as @dirtywhitecandy, for bookish chit-chat try her on @ByRozMorris.