Focus on Characters: Sam of The Steamship Chronicles

Samantha Crill, or Sam as she prefers, first came to me many years ago, but I balked at the story. I couldn’t see how to be faithful to her nature while offering a character who connected with readers. You see, her first incarnation was feral.

If you haven’t read The Steamship Chronicles, at this point you might be wondering just what kind of feral I’m referring to. Let me introduce you to the concept of a Natural. Naturals are people who, around puberty or sometimes earlier, gain an amazing, and terrifying, ability to hear the cries of some mechanical objects. Those cries act like compulsions on Naturals, forcing them to change the mechanicals into whatever the mechanical objects desire with no thought to the human owner.

Hence feral.

When I wrote the prequel Safe Haven, Sam was not the main character, her sister and Officer Henry were. I thought the trouble with Sam being feral wouldn’t matter as much, but when I started writing her parts, I learned what I’d failed to understand before.

She’s not always feral. Most of the time, she’s a precocious child with a strong affinity to all things metal.

You see glimpses of the feral nature when she has a bout and falls into a fugue state, though, and for the longest while all I knew of her was within those bouts. Thanks to Safe Haven, I understood she’s only feral while under the demands of a machine.

I thought I had it all figured out and could start writing Secrets, the first book of The Steamship Chronicles. But, I still struggled with the entry point.

Secrets begins with Sam thrust into the greater world away from her family and in circumstances that would make the strongest of us shudder. Sam is far from the strongest, and her gift is affected by her emotional state. I was back where I started with a feral character, only this time she would be the lead. I worried people would have trouble connecting with her and so the story fell apart.

She might have been fascinating in a distant observation sort of way, but my characters want to be the type of people you like to spend time with. A feral Sam would have triggered all the same fears that drove the hatred of Naturals in my steampunk world, making my readers sympathize with the wrong side.

This is why Nat, her co-lead, came to be more than just another sailor Sam encounters. I’ll introduce him more thoroughly in another week or so, but his whole existence came around because I needed a character my readers could connect with. He grew from that point.

Then, even before I’d written the first word, Sam’s nature changed even more. I still managed to show the feral state demonstrated by the Natural Henry captures in the beginning of Safe Haven, so the reader is fully aware of the possibility and risk, but Sam herself became something different as she fights her nature for control.

I’m the type of writer most writers hate. Just kidding, but…I don’t decide how my characters are going to be. They come to me already fully clothed in personality and history. Sometimes, they even bring the main points of their story. Others times, like with Sam, I have to figure out what is going to happen, and only then will they tell me how it does.

That’s not to say they don’t change from that initial idea, as Sam demonstrates quite dramatically. That’s part of the reason I let characters like her simmer, sometimes for years, before I understand how to tell her story.

I described Sam to several of my writer friends, all of whom were fascinated and encouraged me to write the story. But, until I could find that connection, I didn’t try to shoehorn a feral character into the story. It would have broken The Steamship Chronicles beyond repair.

If you want to see how Sam’s tale came about for yourself, the eBook of Secrets is free at all online stores. Click the link to your preferred store on the book’s page.

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