Thursday, November 11, 2010

Constructing a hero

So, today we're going to to be talking about the hero of the Untied Kingdom, and you know what that means, don't you? Yes! Completely gratuitous pictures of Richard Armitage!

Will Harker, AKA Richard Armitage

Harker came out of my desire to write a hero who was dark and gritty. A Real Man. Someone who faced danger so often it was mostly boring. Someone heaped with frustration and responsibility. Someone whose superiors are bloody idiots. Someone who "doesn't care" about his appearance, which means that mostly he cares about looking like someone who doesn't care about his appearance.

Someone inspired by this wonderful description of Lavaeolus from Terry Pratchett's Eric:
"It's been a long night, I'm having to organise everything from the wooden horse to the laundry rota, these idiots are about as much help as a rubber hammer, I never wanted to be here anyway and, on top of all this, there's you. Hallo, you."

Actually, there's more Pratchettian influence at work here. While the initial attitude was Lavaeolus (the Dicworld's answer to Odysseus), the guy Harker really takes after is Sam Vimes. Vimes doesn't trust clean shiny armour, he hates getting dressed up in silly outfits and he takes it upon himself to interpret the orders he's given to achieve the results he wants. A brief description from Monstrous Regiment:

Commander Sir Samuel Vimes
"They looked nervous...

...except for one at the back. She'd thought all the guards had gone, and while this man was dressed like a guard--dressed, that is, like a badly-dressed guard--he wasn't acting like one. He was leaning against the wall by the door,  smoking half a cigar, and grinning.

His uniform was very old-fashioned--an ancient helmet, a breastplate, some slightly rusted chainmail, and big boots. He wore it like a workman wears his overalls. Unlike the braid and brilliance in front of her, the only statement his clothes made was that he didn't intend to get hurt."
When Eve first meets Harker, she has no idea who he is: just a soldier, lounging on a hospital bed, apparently unhurt and smoking a cigarette. Harker likes annoying people, especially superiors, and he likes reminding them that he's just a working-class lad from Leicester. Occasionally, when it serves his purpose, he pretends to be just an ordinary rank-and-file soldier. Right at base level, that's all he believes he is.

Another major influence on Harker was the wonderful Capt. Mal Reynolds from Firefly and Serenity. Mal used to be a soldier. He used to have a cause. Now his main cause is irritating the all-powerful Alliance, mostly by smuggling illicit cargo right under their noses. Mal likes to think he's a man who cares about nothing and no one, but he betrays himself with every action. The crew of Serenity are his family, and he'll take care of them no matter what.

Capt. Mal Reynolds

Simon: Captain, why did you come back for us?
Mal: You're on my crew.
Simon: Yeah, but you don't even like me. Why'd you come back?
Mal: You're on my crew. Why are we still talking about this?
Harker's a man with a lot of darkness in him, but he pushes it down and keeps it hidden. He's also got a bit of a problem with authority, which was a lot of fun to write about when it came to an army man. He's lost his real family, so he's created one out of his fellow soldiers. Now he's in a position of authority, and he feels the responsibility even more. The concept of not taking care of his men is one that he simply doesn't understand.

And of course I couldn't write my old-fashioned army hero without referencing Richard Sharpe. Now, it's been a while since I read Bernard Cornwell's books, but boy howdy do I remember those TV films. Sharpe is a working-class lad who's risen through the ranks to become an officer. Plenty of commissioned officers can't stand having him around simply for this fact, and Sharpe takes no small measure of enjoyment in annoying them. But he's got where he is through luck and sheer bloody hard work. He's not afraid to fight dirty--there is in fact a lovely scene in Sharpe's Justice where he's challenged to a fencing match and instead of holding the correct en guarde position, he crouches low, ready to kill.

Richard Sharpe
I'll admit, Sharpe is one of the reasons I made Harker a northerner (the others being that Richard Armitage was at the time playing Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood, and he had a lovely north midlands accent; and that actually my whole family is from Sheffield, so the accent actually sounds quite comforting and trustworthy to me). I also learned a whole heap of interesting and useful stuff about Wellington's army and the daily life of a serving soldier from the Sharpe Companion, about how unusual it was to promote from the ranks, and even the progress of a march. There's a wonderful description of Sharpe:

"He was a big man, but not huge in the way Sergeant Patrick Harper was huge. He was 6 feet 1 inch tall, and weighed about twelve stone. This was bone and muscle, not a hint of flab. In this he was typical of virtually every infantry soldier in the Peninsula with more than a few months' active service. Their hardness, toughness and fitness far surpassed the soldiers of any modern army, with the possible exception of special forces. At thirty-seven, in the summer of 1814, Sharpe, though still hard and healthy, had a severely battered body... Stripped, an observer must have wondered how he was still alive."

That's a description that stayed with me while I was writing Harker, especially the last line which is what Eve wonders when she first sees Harker with his shirt off (she's genuinely wondering; Harker takes it as revulsion). He's not a modern soldier with body armour and remote weapons. He fights with gun and sword, and people have tried to kill him many times in his life. He's been stabbed, shot, slashed, burned, beaten, and blown up. I couldn't write my hardened, front-line infantry soldier, a man who'd survived sixteen years of active service, without battering him about a bit.

So there you have it: the ideas and influences that buzzed around in my head before banging together to create the character who would become Will Harker.

Oh, and of course there was Richard Armitage, but we'll save that influence for another day.


  1. Came over from Talli Roland's blog. Brand new follower here.

    Nice ta meet ya!

  2. Anonymous2:25 pm

    ooh Kate! *drools* can't tell you how lovely it is to see my two favourite men (Richard Armitage & Sean Bean) in the same blogpost!

    But seriously, very interesting blog, to see where you've drawn Harker from is very insightful. It's something I do subconciously but to see how you've drawn upon excerpts, as a writer, I've found very useful. The description of Sharpe, well, mmmm.... *wanders off in dream-like state*

    Thank you! L x

  3. Hi Matthew, nice to meet you too!

    Lisa, that description of Sharpe stuck with me every time I described Harker. I also took inspiration from his name: Cornwell gave him a very descriptive name, describing his mental abilities as well as his position as a sharpshooter. I deliberately gave Harker a very sharp, harsh-sounding name, and also one that has a double meaning: he's certainly a man who listens.

    But that's material for another post!

  4. This definitely sounds like my kind of hero. Delicious. Can't wait to read more about him.

    Richard Armitage and Sean Bean, I can see how they would inspire a hero.

  5. Oh yes, Debs, they're very inspiring indeed!