Character Spotlights are a (bi)weekly Wednesday series where I talk about some of the characters from the novels I’m working on, or have already completed. They’ll just be little snippets of their lives so that you can get to know them a little, and hopefully one day read about them in a published book! For the next five weeks of October, we’ll also be doing spooky-themed Spotlights, so prepare yourself for witches, vampires, the underworld, and demons!
This week, we’re taking it back to the Pen boys, who were one of the first novels I ever blogged about while I was writing, and boys that I hold near and dear to my heart. James is the darkest and the angriest of them, and for good reason! His parents did try to kill him, after all.
The birth of the Pen boys altogether was a really fun experience. I’d been writing the same novel for 12 years before I abandoned it to Mason, who we met last week, and then, after that kind of fizzled out, I wasn’t sure what to do. Mason was about 80k words long, which is way too short for a YA urban fantasy novel, but the high fantasy I’d been working on for 12 years was really bad at teaching me about how long novels should be. When I came up with the idea for Pen boys, I’d climbed up some rocks with one of my friends, Erin, and was sitting there, watching the waves come in from the cold ocean, and wanting so badly to just create something. “I want to write about teenage boys and magic,” I said quietly. Erin didn’t look over at me. She just kept staring out at the ocean with me as she asked, “What are their names?”
And that, really, was the beginning.
Over the course of the weekend, we would drive up to NY to see Anastasia on Broadway for my birthday, and for the entire eight-hour roundtrip, we talked about the Pen boys. Who were they? What were their names? What made them so special?
Oliver Hollands, we decided, would be the main character. He was sad, broken, and lost. He needed friends.
His first friend would be Jasper Marlow, a loud, raucous, fool of a Took kind of kid. He like to explode things and play with dark magic. Their leader was Harrison Eldridge, wealthy, but not obtuse, always wearing colorfully patterned clothes, and generally smiling. And the last? Well, if I’m being honest, I was recreating the Marauders a little, so I needed a Sirius Black.
His name? James Goddard, son of demons and with a soul so black, it was dripping in venom.
Everything about him screamed danger—the wicked curve of his jaw, the bruise blooming across the bridge of his freckled nose, even the sharp corners of his scowl.
There are always rich families in the world. But in the quiet, hidden layers where magic existed, rich usually meant one thing–darkness, decay, death. In the early days of magic, the old families, the first ones, were wealthy beyond imagination, and many of them came by that wealth through the selling of souls, deals with a devil, and terrible things that went bump in the night.
As the world progressed, and as dark magic became something taboo, the old families stopped openly practicing it. Eventually, they stopped practicing it altogether. As it happens, there are always a few who stand firmly in the shadows–Marlow, Arkwright, Goddard. But they were among the first, and thus the most powerful, families, and the others did not step in their way. If they kept to themselves, what was the harm?
Years went by. Nothing treacherous happened. A few demons were summoned here or there. A few were kept on and relegated to family demons, ones bound over the centuries to a surname. Small sacrifices were made. No one outside of the magical community heard a single bloody thing, and so the shadows remained.
But as modernity swept through, as technology advanced, as light and life became more and more prominent, something treacherous did happen.
A young girl was born, the first of a new generation of Goddard children. Ella–dark of hair and eye, olive-skinned, and overflowing with joy. Even as a toddler, she smiled like a Grecian goddess, commanded other relatives with the ease of a queen, and balked at nothing. When she was informed that she’d have a little brother soon, she tossed her long dark hair over her shoulder and beamed. “Good,” she said, “I need a king.”
Her parents were beside themselves with delight. This would be the dawn of a new horizon, their two little royals. The Goddard name would ring strong again. The shadows would breathe and expand once more. All was returning to their roots.
The night of birth was an auspicious one. The moon was full. Nary a cloud was in sight. Stars littered the sky. Shadows rose.
Flames leapt as a boy was born.
The mother waited. The father frowned.
“He’s not breathing,” little Ella said.
The family whirled into action. They’d called old relatives to them, other families that still worked in the shadows. Darkness swelled around them. “I will not lose him!” the mother screamed even as the baby continued to lie silent, still.
A demon was raised.
A deal was made.
The baby took its first breath, and was blanketed in shadow.
The parents waited, and they watched, and something they had not expected began to happen. Little Ella had witnessed the death and resurrection of her brother, and something had cracked inside her that night. She was still a queen, still walked like a Grecian goddess, still commanded those around her, but now, a little boy slunk in her shadow, clung to her hand, peered up at her before he spoke. And when anyone came near little James, Ella was there to step in front of him, to keep him hidden, to keep him safe. When he woke at night, screaming and twisting with nightmares, she was already running down the hall to him. When the moon disappeared in its newness, she was there to hold him as he sobbed through his fear of the dark. When her father’s hand rose to strike him, Ella’s magic unrolled in furious, devastating waves.
“You will not touch him,” she said to them, her little girl voice like a peal of thunder. “He is mine, and you will never hurt him again.”
For, in her mind, watching an ugly, monstrous thing bow over her brother and pull breath out of him, watching that demonic thing gift her brother life through death, watching what her parents had done in order to keep him, Ella saw pain, saw agony and something terrible, saw what they had sacrificed just so they might have an heir.
“You should have let him go,” she spat at them in her teen years. “You should have let him die, and just tried again. What you did to him is unacceptable.”
“You wouldn’t have him if it weren’t for us,” they reminded her.
“And that would have been a mercy.”
For what Ella let no one see was the darkness that crept through her little brother. He rarely smiled. He hid from children his own age. His nightmares were terrifying things when described. There was a demon lurking inside of him, and she would do her utmost to save him from more.
And so, it was with hope in her heart that Ella watched her little brother skip home one day. She was holding his hand, and his tiny arm swung back and forth as he hopped and skipped. “What’s got you so excited?” she asked.
And for the first time in six years, James flashed her a small, unsure smile. “I made friend today,” he said. Ella squeezed his hand, her heart stuttering, willing him to go on. James’ smile grew a little. “His name is Harrison,” he said quietly. He was still skipping, and Ella could have howled with joy. “He’s Spanish, which he said is kind of near Greece, so our ancestors were probably best friends, too, and he never wears black, it’s so weird, and the other kids call him obnoxious, but he didn’t cry when his soccer ball popped, just shrugged and asked me if I wanted to find ice cream somewhere, and it was really fun.” He’d started talking faster, the way little kids do, and Ella soaked it up.
Maybe, she thought, maybe this was it. Maybe between her and this Harrison, they could save her brother from the demon inside.
Harrison Eldridge was a beacon of light for James. He wore floral and worked relentlessly to get James to laugh. He let his older sister paint his toenails and threw James headfirst into the ocean before he had a chance to sulk. He held James’ hand when they first met Jasper Marlow and showed him that two could be three and still survive.
And with each breath that tried to consume James in shadow, Ella and Harrison were there to keep him afloat.
“Keep him safe,” Ella made Harrison promise as they started their first year at Penhallam as boarding students, “Keep him away from the Arkwright’s. Help him sleep. Don’t let him stop smiling.”
“I’ve got this,” Harrison said, and then James was with them, and Ella exhaled relief as Harrison hurled James into a headlock and planted a smacking kiss on his cheek. When James surfaced, he was rolling his eyes, but he was also smiling, and Ella felt like it was going to be okay.
James was going to be okay.
It didn’t matter what shadows haunted him, what darkness their parents had raised him with. She and Harrison had suffused his life with enough light that he wouldn’t drown in the demon.
And it worked.
As the years passed at Penhallam, James didn’t branch out beyond Harrison and Jasper, but he didn’t fall into seclusion, either. He continued to smile. He learned how to sleep without nightmares sometimes. The demon was always there stirring, but James had learned to combat it with light. He could breathe easy. He was safe.
And then, without warning, Ella was gone.
It was that James had walked through the night last week, bleeding and cracking open at the seams, crawled into Harrison’s bed, and asked him to help him forget the sound of his sister’s spine snapping.
Well, that wasn’t painful at all. Yikes, I forgot just how dismal James’ story is sometimes. Every time I write one of these Character Spotlights, I want to dive back into the world for the characters, but this one especially, man. The Pen boys mean so much to me, and I love them more than I can even describe. Oliver is like this little second beating heart inside of me, and Harrison is someone I see everywhere in everything, and Jasper is like a laugh waiting to bubble up in the weirdest of moments, but James? Damn. He’s who I dream about, in the darkest part of the night.
What do you think, though? Would you fall for James’ dark, brooding eyes, with shadows drowning him and a demon just waiting inside?