Behind the Pages: Chostir

  • Post category:On Isfalinis

Periodically, I’d like to bring insights on what brought various aspects of “Tears from Iron” and the world of Isfalinis to be.  As a reader, I’ve enjoyed some of Christopher Tolkien’s books on the writings of his father.  Similarly, I’m one of those viewers who enjoys the special features that often accompany movies or TV series.  For like-minded readers, in these articles I’ll share some of the ideas that motivated me and brought facets of my story to life.

**********WARNING! This article includes significant spoilers.  I strongly encourage that you only read this if you’ve finished “Tears from Iron.”  This article doesn’t give away the heart of the story, but it includes several reveals that may diminish the pleasure of discovery as you make your way through the novel.**********

Chostir started as a throwaway character.  She was a means to introduce the Kalilaer (and the reader) to the harsh realities of life under Syraestari rule.  In the same way, she provided Belarrin with the first real glimpse of the troubles endured by those less fortunate humans living on the ‘other side’ of favor in the Kayrstaran Empire.  But that was her only role.  A human being punished, met and then passed by.

But I’m a firm believer in economy of character.  Movies and TV shows use this same concept but with a different motive:  cost savings.  Once a character speaks, that actor has to be paid more.  Thus they focus speaking roles into a few hands.  In novels, the reasoning is less financial.  Rather, epic fantasy is one of those genres that tends toward large casts of characters.  The inclusion of more individuals provides a means to display a vibrant world and convey a complex plot.  As an author, I ask you to recall a large number of characters.  Yet I know how easy it can be to get lost in all of them.  For that reason, it made sense for Chostir to reappear.  You’ve already met her so why not use her again if it makes sense?  Thus, it turns out that Chostir is a worker in Belarrin’s smelting camp.  This reuse also helps with character building.  For obvious reasons, secondary characters don’t receive as much page-time as the heroes and heroines, but they still deserve to be complex beings and, perhaps, even to evolve.  The initial encounter with Chostir on the Boards sets the stage for an interesting person to make the setting, the plot, the themes, and indeed, Belarrin himself, more real.

In my first draft, Chostir was male.  I made the change because when Belarrin arrived at the smelting camp, there was only one named female character (Idysha).  This paints a very inaccurate picture as the population is closer to fifty-fifty.  The Syraestari prefer mixed gender camps because they want their Kalilaer to have children who can then be raised as future t’Okaedrin and Pi’aernoth.  So I faced two alternatives:  introduce a new character or alter an existing one.  Economy of character again came into play.  The camp itself has about thirty inhabitants, but to name them all was a recipe to frustrate most readers to little useful purpose.  Such a saturation would probably also diminish the impact of each individual.  I already had five smelters, not including Yrpel and Wiersa who arrived with Belarrin:  Regund, Zoltha, Idysha, Fritten and, of course, Chostir.  In those five characters, I felt I had captured enough personalities to bring the Kalilaer to life so rather than adding another one, I changed Chostir.  This was done before I’d written more than a few pages of the smelting sequence.  Chostir proved to be a perfect choice.  She grew into the role and rose to become one of my favorite characters.

In the smelting camp she presented several unique opportunities.  She provided a source of internal strife to humanize the situation (the frustration she caused Fritten).  She was a source of pity for some and scorn for others.  After all, some might condemn her as a slacker who didn’t pull her weight.  Chostir was captured in her early teens and, fifteen years later, she is in many ways, still a child.  Her early-age enslavement stunted some of her maturity.  Her coping mechanisms are old stories and songs that form an idealized paradise in her mind.  Yet this ‘escape’ is a source of frustration to those around her either because she gets distracted or she simply won’t stop talking.  But Chostir is a wounded soul.  As she spends more and more of her life in the camp (over half of it by the time we meet her), she faces the inescapable realization that her dreams are just dreams.  This brings about a sense of abandonment.  In her despair, she lashes out and sometimes these self-destructive behaviors result in punishment on the Boards.  This is the only way she knows to prove that she’s still alive and has a will of her own.  She has, I think, the soul of an artist.  But she lives in a world with no room for artistry.  It is a subsistence existence where every measure of strength must be poured into survival.  There is little room for artistry and dreams.  I think she also may represent a segment of our world today suffering from disillusionment and a lack of hope.  Yet perhaps she yearns for hope anyway, even without knowing it.  For her, this longing begins as a weakness but becomes her greatest strength once she finds a reason to hope again.

In most stories, mine included, the primary functional purpose of secondary characters is their impact on the protagonist(s) and the plot itself.  In this capacity, Chostir serves several key roles.  She gives the opportunity for the reader to see the human side of Belarrin as he ‘solves’ her conflict with Fritten in a mutually productive way.  This shows that Belarrin isn’t just a strong-man or a guardian, but has wisdom, cleverness, and the capacity for mercy.  Once Belarrin and the surviving members of the smelting camp join the Scions, Chostir slides further into the background, dwarfed in many ways by the strong warrior personalities of the rebels.  I actually used this realization in the novel in a conversation between Belarrin and Chief Kitiger:

[Belarrin said,] “She has learned how to endure as no one else I’ve known, living beyond hope and faith, voicing the questions we’ve all felt.  But despite that, she has never lost her dreams.”

“Dreams?” Kitiger chuckled.  “I cannot remember the last time I had time for dreams.”

Belarrin nodded.  He couldn’t either.  “Maybe we should start.  Dreams are where ideas begin.  What kind of a people can we be without dreams?”

Chostir proves him right. By this point in the story, she already had an idea on how to make their spears stronger with Belarrin’s sorcery.  Why?  Because she has the unique capacity to see the world beyond what it is. To think outside of prescribed lines.

Yet perhaps the most important aspect of Chostir is that she’s the only named character in “Tears from Iron” to have suffered on the Boards just like Belarrin does.  It is a bond that drives her to make her daring sacrifice near the end of the story.  Indeed, it is that bond which gives her one more unique claim.  She is the only human to directly rescue a t’Okaedrin from the prison of his own mind.  It is the culmination of a character arc that began with a fervent and, perhaps, half-crazed desire not to lose herself into the despair-filled quagmire of slavery.