The Accidental Mr. Thomas Wilker
I’ve got a post up at Tor.com about what it feels like to say goodbye to Isabella, and there’s an interview with me at Goldilox. Continuing on from yesterday’s post (and this time basically sans spoilers), there’s someone else I’d like to talk about . . .
Tom Wilker is the best accidental character I’ve had in a while. Maybe ever.
What do I mean by “accidental”? I mean that I did not, at the outset, plan for him at all. I don’t think he was even in the first thirty thousand words I wrote, before I set the book aside for a few years; I think I added him in when I came back to the story, because I realized Lord Hilford would of course have some kind of assistant or protégé along for the Vystrani expedition. Jacob was too new of an acquaintance to occupy that role; therefore I invented Mr. Thomas Wilker.
But of course if he was going to be a part of the expedition, then he needed to have an identity beyond “Lord Hilford’s assistant.” I’m pretty sure the idea for his background came from The Dragon Seekers — which sounds like a stereotypical fantasy novel but is instead a nonfiction book about Victorian paleontologists. Specifically, I was inspired by Mary Anning, who achieved remarkable things despite having two strikes against her socially: her gender (female) and her class (working). I already had the gender angle covered with Isabella, but I realized it would be potentially fruitful to include someone from a lower-class background — someone who faced challenges that were similar but not identical to hers.
And so Lord Hilford’s assistant, a character of convenience, became a person. But even then, he was supposed to be a person of limited significance: a source of friction in the first book, but after that . . .
Well, after that. It made all the sense in the world that he and Isabella should work together in Eriga during the second book, because Lord Hilford was funding their expedition. I had the vague thought he might be around in the third book, but I knew Lord Trent was on his way; I figured that by book four, I would have phased Tom out.
Hahahahah NO. In hindsight, that plan died during the witchcraft ceremony in The Tropic of Serpents. There was no way I could put the two of them through that kind of bonding experience and then write Tom out of the story. (He became Tom to me, too, as a consequence of that scene.) I don’t think I quite realized what I’d done until I was partway through Voyage of the Basilisk, but yeah . . . at that point he was in it for the long haul.
And I am so, so glad of it. Friendships between men and women — platonic friendships, where neither has any romantic interest in the other — are among my favorite narrative tropes. Nor am I the only one to feel that way, judging by the number of reviews, reader emails, and in-person comments I’ve gotten that rave over how wonderful it is that they don’t ever hook up. Tom and Isabella have each other’s backs without question, and I think it would be fair to say they love each other, in the way of true friends; but they are not in love.
All that, from the pragmatic thought that Lord Hilford ought to have an assistant.
(Poor Tom. In the history books of his world, he’s probably remembered as “Lady Trent’s assistant.” It’s the fate of many female scientists to have their own work and discoveries downplayed, relegating them to secondary roles in the stories of their much more famous male counterparts; in this tale he is playing the female part. Even though Lady Trent herself would ferociously defend his contributions.)
There are narrative decisions that change a story so profoundly, you can’t really envision what it would have been like had you decided differently. There’s one of those in Warrior; it’s the moment when Satomi says, “Wrong.” I have no idea what the climax of that novel would have looked like had my subconscious not spoken up in the middle of that scene. And I have no idea what the Memoirs of Lady Trent would look like without Tom at Isabella’s side.