Playing around with a character’s alternative history

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I got mugged by a story last August. It was completely and totally innocuous–I was working on the last book of the main Martiniere Legacy series, Repairing the Legacy. After a funeral in the same cemetery where Gabe’s parents and sister are buried, I had Gabe and Ruby laying flowers on Saul, Angelica, and Louisa’s graves–then speculating about what would have happened if that plane crash hadn’t occurred when Gabe was twelve. Ruby thinks they wouldn’t have met–Gabe disagrees, and tells her why.

A casual scene, right? Nothing to get excited about, right?

Um. Well. My brain went to work on that story and, well, A Different Life–What If? is not only up to 85k words, but it’s serializing on Kindle Vella, with release first on Kindle Unlimited this spring and then wide in the summer.

Just that one change–the survival of Saul, Angelica, and Louisa–brought about some huge characterization differences. I also subtracted the indentured servitude theme that is key to the main Martiniere Legacy series–in this alternate world, indenture didn’t happen. Martiniere mind control techniques weren’t devised. Philip Martiniere never rose to power within the Martiniere Group but simmered along, succumbing to his psychopathic side and expressing it through some nasty and decadent behavior.

Gabe is broken in a very different manner in A Different Life. In the main series, Philip not only takes control of the Martiniere Group after the death of Gabe’s family when he is twelve, but Philip immediately starts beating and drugging Gabe to reduce his resistance to the Martiniere mind control programming techniques. Gabe doesn’t learn until much later in life that Philip is his biological father and Justine his half-sister. He has no significant sibling support for those six years with Philip because Justine is too young to help him.

In A Different Life, Gabe has had younger sisters all along. He is Saul and Angelica’s petted and somewhat spoiled son, albeit with high expectations, until both he and his cousin Joseph are informed of the devil’s deal surrounding their conception. Due to the feuding between them which threatened the survival of the Martiniere Group, the twin brothers Saul and Philip reluctantly agree to raise each other’s sons to the age of sixteen. The twist? Their wives bear the other brother’s son, conceived through artificial insemination. This piece is common to both the main series and A Different Life. So Saul’s son Joseph is born to Philip’s wife Renate, and Philip’s son Gabriel is born to Saul’s wife Angelica. The notion is that this will keep Saul and Philip from attempting to further harm the other–except that Philip keeps sneaking around trying to destroy Saul (therefore, the plane crash that orphans Gabe at age twelve in the main series)

In the backstory of A Different Life, Joey and Gabe learn the truth about their fathers on Joey’s sixteenth birthday (Joey is the younger of the two). Philip immediately takes custody of Gabe and institutes a program intended to break Gabe to his will. It’s pretty hideous, and there are scenes I’ve visualized that will never be written. In some ways, Gabe in A Different Life is more fragile than the main series Gabe as a result. The main series Gabe learned survival at a younger age, before his teen years, including learning to drink hard to minimize the impact of Philip’s mind control techniques on him. But sixteen-year-old Gabe in A Different Life has started to mature under the influence of the much saner Saul, and everything comes as a shock to him. He’s been raised to expect he will follow in Saul’s footsteps and take control of the Martiniere Group. Then he learns that Saul is not his father, while the uncle he has grown to despise is. Furthermore, Gabe has to endure Philip’s household for two years in order to be eligible for that role in the succession–all determined by the edicts laid down by his grandmother Donna.

(Yes. This is twisty and complicated. I kinda like writing twisty and complicated things.)

The Gabe of A Different Life is not as hardened as the main series Gabe at the same age. He hasn’t had to defend himself against mind control, and he still had the hope of escaping Philip even during that hellish two years. He still has certain illusions about the world, fairness, and equity that his main series counterpart never developed. He’s not as sexually sophisticated as the main series Gabe–well, kinda sorta, because of what he experienced in Philip’s household. When he meets Ruby, he’s coming off a significant relationship with Miranda Cathcart-Rogers–that ended when he discovered her in bed with Joey. He escapes his demons by working until he collapses from exhaustion, to the point that it concerns his family. He’s a driven man, but the concern that drives him is worry about climate change, not trying to thwart Philip Martiniere’s abuses of indentured workers like the main series Gabe.

Anyway (if people haven’t gotten bored of all of this by now and stopped reading), it’s been interesting to take one of my characters and explore the impact of a different pathway upon their development. Certain traits are similar to both men–noble goals, a strong sense of right and wrong, high energy and intelligence, a fondness for horses, and protective instincts toward those he loves. The differences in behavior, however, are fascinating. The Gabe of the main series has learned to lie effectively, including to himself. A Different Life’s Gabe doesn’t have that skill. He never needed to develop it, and is much more open with Ruby as a result. Main series Gabe is hard enough to kill raiders attacking him and Ruby on an interstate highway without a lot of reaction. A Different Life Gabe reacts viscerally to the need to order an opponent’s death.

Ultimately, while the two Gabes share a lot of defining characteristics, that one change in their backstory leads to two very divergent stories. Could I have explored this concept by not reusing the characters? Possibly.

But it’s been a very interesting and effective exercise. I don’t think I would have learned as much from writing A Different Life–What If? with different characters.

It’s given me a lot to consider about the worldbuilding process, and how particular change points in a character’s history can lead to two very different stories.

Might be kinda useful since my next big project focuses on a multiverse Weird West story.


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