So as I mentioned last time, I’ve been tinkering with the AI bots over at MidJourney. Mostly, for fun. But I’m also using them to create images of the characters and of some of the locations in my fantasy novel, City in the Mist. It’s a hit-and-miss process, mostly because I’ve yet to fully understand the correct textual prompts, but I’ve already discovered that it’s better to keep things short and sweet. It seems that the more information you feed in, the more likely you won’t get what you want. Dodgy politics aside, Mies van der Rohe was right, Less really is More
My latest creation is a rendering of my novel’s main character, Leila al-Talab. She’s 17, preternaturally curious, well-educated (thanks to her father, the town librarian) and has a tendency to speak her mind. Even when she probably shouldn’t. She’s the kind of person as likely to answer with a ‘why’, as she is to say ‘yes’. She’s also the kind of person who would rather die than not speak her mind. Or ask a question. Or, frankly, to disagree. Luckily, she thinks almost as fast as she talks, which at least means that even though she almost inevitably has something to say, it’s also usually worth saying. In Book 1 of her Chronicles, this particular trait doesn’t matter, or at least, not enough to pose a danger to her life. As the series progresses though, I’m not sure that will always be the case.
I’ll admit that I have a soft spot for her. Yes, she’s impetuous and opinionated and occasionally, irritating. Born 700 years later, she would have been the kind of child who lives to ask the dreaded car trip question: “are we there yet?” But she’s also empathetic, insightful and considerate – sweetness wrapped in spikes.
I picture her as a 13th Century Arab Andalusian combination of Angela Davis, Zheng Yisao and Hedy Lamarr – spunk, sass and substance. I also like to imagine that had she ever met Eleanor of Aquitaine (at least the version portrayed so memorably by James Goldman in The Lion in Winter), who lived at almost the same time, that the two women would at least have intrigued one another. Although knowing Leila, she would probably also have had some pretty choice things to say about Eleanor’s involvement in the Second Crusades.
But I digress.
When we first meet her, Leila is doing what Leila does – acting in a manner unbecoming in a young Andalusian woman. At least as far as the men of the town are concerned. However, she is also doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. Could she have handled the situation more delicately? Definitely. But delicacy is not one of her strongest suits, especially when she can’t see the point. If she had a modern theme song, Ophélie Winter’s Je Marche a l’Envers might almost be it.
Her aversion to nicety – a loaded and much-abused word in which like Leila, I have never believed – perhaps also makes her seem young for her age. Or rather, it makes her seem young for her age at a time when many women were already married and often even mothers by their mid-teens. But Leila is not most women, either of her times or even of all times. She is strong-willed, fearless and smart, yes. Shamefully, many more women than are ever given credit for these qualities, are too. But she was also born into the right family, one prepared to nurture, not neuter. Would she still have been Leila without Ja’afar, Karima and Maher? Most likely. But as a 13th century woman of common birth, she would have had to struggle much harder to hold on to what makes her special.
But despite her education, unusually tolerant upbringing and uncommon skills, she is as unprepared for the world outside Khabrona as she is for the world into which she later stumbles – though being Leila, she doesn’t allow that to get in her way. Bull in a China shop may not be accurate as a description, but she does have a tendency to charge headlong into things.
Her willingness to question everything is a reflection of a deep seated sense of what is right, as well as a sentimental nature. For all her desire to escape from her suffocating town, Leila is deeply attached to her family – and in particular of her father – and protective of them. She may not be as close to her mother as she was, and she may be estranged from her brother in part through fault of her own, but she still cares what they think of her, even if she would never admit as much out loud.
This love of family is a driving force. Combined with her unwavering determination to set things right with her brother and her innate curiosity, it is what propels her on her journey and later, what keeps her going when things stop making sense.
As a character, she is modelled on several people in my life (always be careful around writers). There’s also a bit of me in her too – especially her unquenchable desire to know why. That trait made me a journalist, and it’s why Leila is prepared to risk everything to get answers. The resemblance(s) stop there, though. Leila is no pale imitation. She is very much her own woman, with her own path to pursue in life, and I can say without hesitation is that it is entirely thanks to her determination to live life on her terms that City in the Mist is the book that it has become, and not the historical comedy I originally sat down to write.