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Author Tom Fox On Choosing Your Central Characters

DominusTom Fox, author of Dominus, shares his thoughts on what qualities make for powerful central characters. Outsiders, iconoclasts, observers, or protectors—what kinds of characters do you think drive the most powerful stories? Let us know in the comments!

There comes a point in every writer’s work, or “process,” when decisions have to be made about just who the central characters of a book are going to be. Will they fly solo, or will there be a team? Will they be the macho type filled with back-stories of skills and experience, or ignorant and accidentally thrust into strange surroundings? Or will they be frail, broken? Will they be loved, or hated?

I knew from the outset that I wanted two protagonists in Dominus: no solo hero leading the cause alone, but a partnership of sorts. I wanted to be able to explore some of the key themes of the book—deception, reality, faith, doubt—from different perspectives, so it seemed natural to create two characters whose own backgrounds would allow different approaches to be taken to some of these central questions.

I also knew from the beginning that I wanted one of those characters to be an ex-priest. Rather than try to portray the clerical life (and the Vatican curia) in black-and-white terms of good or bad, I want to play with the nuance and honesty that would come from a man who’d once felt a calling to give his whole life to it, but (for the reasons revealed in the book) starts to doubt, deeply; even enough to leave—yet who never looses a sense of awe at the very place he could no longer call home. In Alexander Trecchio, I think I’ve managed to capture a touch of that complexity: his brokenness, his doubt, yet at the same time his driving belief in human goodness, etc. And making him take up journalism as an ex-priest seemed a natural step for me: what better way to keep tabs on the group you’ve left, than to be in a profession that does nothing else?

But even as I knew I wanted an ex-priest as one of the duo at the heart of the book, I also knew I didn’t want him as the main voice. I wanted a powerful female character to be at the book’s centre: a woman with drive, strength, strong conviction and abundant skill, who also has her own challenges and flaws. Creating Gabriella Fierro as a police officer was a perfect way to bring these two things together: it’s work that demands an interior strength, conviction, as well as rough-and-ready talent; yet it is also a traditionally male-dominated role and one in which even the most talented woman continues to face additional challenges. I liked the idea of Gabriella being a woman who holds her own in this environment, and ends up being able to teach those around her far more.

Writing Gabriella as the power capable go-getter of a police officer with driving religious belief, alongside the belief-shattered, resigned figure of Alexander, worked out to be a really wonderful pairing. Yes, journalists and police are most often at each others heels rather than partnering together—but I think that’s true, to a degree, with Alexander and Gabriella as well. But precisely because they challenge each other, provoke each other, they’re able to help each other move past their limits and on to things that end up being far greater and more consequential than either of them could have imagined.

Tom Fox’s storytelling emerges out of many years spent in academia, working on the history of the Christian Church. A respected authority on that subject, he has recently turned his attentions towards exploring the new stories that can be drawn out of its mysterious dimensions. Dominus is Tom’s first novel.