Ashes of the Ancestors is all about the different ways we relate to the past, and I created the characters to reflect that. If you’ve read the book, then you’ve probably worked all of this out by now, but for the curious, here’s a guide to what the different characters represented to me.
And because this includes some characters I had to cut at an early stage, it’s also a chance to meet more of the ghosts, to see what could have been…
As the story’s protagonist, Magdalisa has the most complex relationship with the past. At the start, she’s trying to preserve it out of a sense of duty, but by the end, she learns not to be held back by it. She’s what I wish we could all ultimately be: learning from the past but not beholden to it.
Adrana wants to wipe away the past, in the most true and literal sense, demolishing a place where the past is preserved and wiping out a ghost living there. That’s understandable, because her past is a place of deep hurt. She represents a lot of people for whom the history we tell doesn’t contain much good, and who see history used to oppress them and hold them in place.
Olweth wants to profit from the past. She’s Victorian adventurer archaeologists. She’s trashy historical theme parks. She’s bad Hollywood movies that don’t give a shit about historical truth. The past for her is only as important as the money it can bring in.
Our friendly neighbourhood warlord wants to learn from the past, but not in a good way. He doesn’t care about questions like “who got hurt?” or “what were the consequences?” He just wants to know how to fight a better battle.
Chryssania represents the romanticisation of history. She’s a glamorous, saintly ruler, the sort who’s often held up in real life as a grand source of inspiration. She’s history with the grubby bits rubbed off, all the dirt and misery wiped away so that we can focus on something shiny. That makes her dangerous, because her glamour blinds people to the rest of the truth. She discourages Magdalisa from embracing change, just like these glamorous pasts can discourage us from exploring new possibilities for the future.
Serafios represents a desire to make up for the past. The ghost of a former crusader, he now recognises the terrible nature of the things he did, and he wants to make amends. Unfortunately, he’s powerless to do so, except by refusing to cooperate with the jackasses of the current age.
Is Serafios the noblest ghost, because he’s trying to fix things? No, because he’s still the guy who did those dreadful things. But at least he acknowledges them, at least he allows for regret and for justice.
Eras, the new ghost on the block, represents resentment of the past and of those who came before, in particular resenting the burdens they pass down. She resents the older ghosts, because she thinks they didn’t have as hard a time as her earning their fame and immortality. She’s resented in turn by Adrana, for the things that Eras did.
Sometimes resentment is justified. Sometimes not so much.
Ah, poor Fotio, the ghost of a whore who somehow wound up as my favourite character. Fotio represents ignoring the past, as shown by how the other ghosts, especially Chryssania, ignore him. He’s the messy, unfortunate parts that many people would rather not think about, but he’s also people not caring about the past at all. Poor Fotio.
And now for the ones who didn’t make the cut…
The ghost of a self-important bishop, Vetreas was meant to embody people being held back by history and the past. An arch traditionalist, even more consciously wedded to history than Chryssania, Vetreas would have discouraged Magdalisa from asking questions, expressing herself, or embracing change. He was the worst ghost, and the one Magdalisa would have most struggled with.
Vetreas made it into an early version of the start of the story, but writing that scene made me realise that a large cast was slowing things down. I took what he represented and rolled it up in the romanticisation of the past that was Chryssania, because those two things aren’t the same, but they were close enough for a novella.
The ghost of a poor woman now serving the other ghosts for eternity, Ilippa symbolised the need to interrogate history. As well as raising questions about the past through her very existence, she would have talked to Magdalisa at key points and encouraged her to question her assumptions about the past.
In the end, there wasn’t space to explore this thread, and I think that the story is stronger for her absence. The existence of a ghostly servant would have undermined the significance of the living priests, and the inclusion of a second low status ghost would have made Fotio’s position less distinctive and powerful in the narrative.
How we interrogate history is a whole theme of its own that I should probably write a story about sometime.
The ghost of a scholar, Zenovini would have shared her knowledge of the past with the others, symbolising the way that we learn from history. But looking at how the story panned out, she was clearly redundant. The whole of the Eternal Abbey was there for people to learn from the past, it didn’t need another ghost for that.
Of course, these aren’t the only ways of relating to the past, or the only aspects of that relationship you can read into my characters (death of the author, and all that). Maybe you found something else in one of the characters, or thought I missed an important angle on all of this. Let me know over on one of the social spaces.
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