It’s been a while since I last wrote a “Behind the Pages.” This stems, in part, from a desire for variety but also from my increased focus on the characters of “A Whisper in the Sand” and its sequel. As much as I might wish otherwise, retaining everything in my brain isn’t possible so things give… requiring refreshers even for the author.
But I wanted to come back to this series and the people in it. After my article on “Individuals, Society, Change, and Story” it seems only appropriate that I look again at character. So this week, we’ll talk about Vitarria who serves as one of the critical anchors to “Tears from Iron.”
**********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.**********
I’m a discovery writer and that means that I don’t know everything going into a story. Some things hang in the balance. However, I always knew Vitarria’s fate. She lived to die. This was even true in my first draft where Belarrin wasn’t a t’Okaedrin at all, but rather a Wildman captured by the t’Okaedrin. In that earliest version, Vitarria was his love interest who died in the raid that saw Belarrin captured. Yet, I think, the transformation of Belarrin the Wildman to Vistus the t’Okaedrin brought a greater complexity to his character arc and his struggles. The loss of Vitarria in “Tears from Iron” is very different and, I’d argue, more poignant than the loss of a loved one. It is a different kind of tragedy and that difference is critical.
Why, though, must she die?
Vitarria is a personification of kindness, gentleness, goodness, and innocence. It is a place she claims second only to Talikae and even this is arguable. I think her death has affected more readers than any other. It may not be the most tragic because we don’t get to know her well, but it may be the most shocking. And, as I’ve just stated, it is the death of innocence. While we probably mourn Bridionis, Nalsuntha, and Mirnadd, for example, they were warriors. They were good men, but they were also hard men born out of battle, killing, and all that entails.
Thus, the first reason that Vitarria had to die is to establish clearly and without guise that the story will be a hard one. Her death, along with Parvik’s, proves the brutality of the world. In one of my early articles I talk about the “Authorial Promise” and I wanted no doubt in my readers’ minds about the story I was telling. Tragedy had to happen early and it had to strike home. It couldn’t just be a tertiary character. It had to be someone that mattered. It had to hurt.
This death and the brutality of it also opens the question of Vistus’ fate. I wanted to the reader to like him and be drawn to his genuine nature, but I also had to prove just what kind of a man he was. In this context, under our modern sensibilities, rule of law, and conduct in warfare, he was established as a murderer. He executed prisoners of war. Such an act raises many questions, not least his own fate. Murder is evil. He shouldn’t get away with it. What will Vistus’ own fate be with such blood on his hands? Will he ultimately die as a form of allegorical justice for his crimes? “Live by the sword, die by the sword”… and “eye for an eye”… as the expressions go. I’ve mentioned in past articles that I didn’t have an answer to this myself as I wrote the story. It was only after I was mostly through the novel that I determined Vistus’ fate. This was an uncertainty that was important to me and the death of Vitarria establishes that trepidation as we press into the unknown future.
Along the same lines, I had to establish that the path of the story wouldn’t be easy. In conversations with people who’ve read the novel, most have confessed to some surprise that Vistus didn’t turn against his Syraestari masters from the beginning. The story quickly established that Vistus is on the wrong side of the war, thus many readers expect our hero to turn coat as soon as he gets among the Scions so he can become a champion of the oppressed.
This is too easy and I’m happy to say that everyone I’ve talked to about this has concurred even as it surprised their expectations. The book is hard. It is about desperate war in a desperate world between two peoples on the brink of extinction. It is about old memories and tragedies weaving into new ones just as new and old lies intermingle with new and old truths. I have to prove that Vistus is firm in who he is. He isn’t some wayward child tossed about by the winds. He doesn’t have some sort of preternatural link to higher truth. He must learn the hard way. He isn’t an idealist, either. He is a man living a hard life, fully indoctrinated and resolute in all he does. Such a man doesn’t change cheaply. It must be hard and it must be true.
Vistus is a good man, though. I hope that is clear amid the fog and turmoil. He means well and wishes good even as he performs acts that repulse us. The key is that his motives are always well-intentioned, even if the act is the opposite. But this article’s focus is Vitarria, so let’s return to where we started when I described Vitarria as an anchor. It is her death and her irrefutable innocence that becomes a chain around Vistus’ neck. She is the first pivot point, the first chink in the glass of the reality that Vistus has constructed for himself of the world. She is the beginning of the long path and is the first hard misstep. If she had lived, Vistus’ t’Okaedrin “armor” might have remained intact as it did for Obaudes, the other infiltrator. Her tragedy and his critical role in it, haunt him.
There is an important lesson in this for ourselves. Innocence starts the road to salvation. Vitarria couldn’t save Vistus. It was beyond her. But by her kindness, even to her enemy, even to the one who she knew with absolute certainty would be her death, she nudged him onto the path of redemption. Even though she didn’t see the end, she remained upright in the face of evil. She did not repay evil with evil, she lead him toward the ultimate good.
If Vitarria hadn’t died with forgiveness in her heart, but rather cursing him like the other prisoners, would Vistus have been saved?
Probably not. She would have validated everything he’d been taught about the Scions. Giving into such hate wouldn’t have saved her. On the contrary, she would’ve doomed her sister and hundreds of other Scions to death… not to mention the enslavement of all those generations that followed after.
It is an interesting challenge. Because of the prophecy, Vitarria knew Vistus would kill her, but she didn’t fight against it. She didn’t fight against him. She didn’t even fight to save herself. She chose to live with the knowledge and not let it change who she was. Could you do that? I’d like to say I could, but it is probably a lie. I wish I had that strength.
I will conclude for all those who are torn up by the death of Vitarria by confessing that it breaks my heart, too. Tears fill my eyes every time I read the scene. Yet the realization that her death matters and that it leads to greater things gives me hope in the end. I hope it gives you hope to. Hope is one of the reasons I write.