As you’ve probably deduced from my previous posts, I am currently writing a trilogy about Lord High Commander Solar Macharius and the great crusade he led at the start of the 41st Millenium. It’s something of a daunting task portraying the conqueror of a thousand worlds so how do I propose going about doing it?
Well, not by telling the story from his point of view, that’s for sure. Macharius is a military genius and I am not, despite what I may occasionally claim across the gaming table and when leading another doomed defence of Iceblood Tower in Alterac Valley. As a rule, it’s pretty easy to write about characters who are tougher than you, better looking than you, stronger than you, more confident than you and more attractive to women. All you are doing is putting a lot of male wish fulfilment fantasy down on paper. It’s actually pretty hard to write about characters who are smarter than you, at least from the internalised points of view that I prefer. Being a man who believes in taking the easy route in everything, I ruled out showing the story from Macharius’s point of view pretty early on. This meant finding a Doctor Watson character to relate the tale.
Oh yeah, I decided to do the story in first person because, well, I could. I liked the idea of taking a close look at the 41st Millenium from the point of view of an ordinary man, and I am a big fan of Glenn Cook’s Black Company series which struck me as being an excellent model for what I would be attempting here. It has an ordinary soldier’s view of world-shatteringly epic events told with humour and cynicism.
(If you’ve ever fancied reading a military fantasy about hard-boiled mercenaries in a world ruled by what is essentially a collection of Dark Lords, I recommend you rush out and buy Cook’s books immediately. If I recall correctly, the first three books of the series are available in a collected omnibus. But I digress…)
My initial idea, to be honest, was to tell the tale of the Crusade through the eyes of an ordinary Imperial Guard soldier, and skip having Macharius in it at all. Eventually the sheer stupidity of setting a story in a milieu dominated by the epoch’s greatest general and hero and not using him as a character became evident even to me.
So I had to sit down and think about Macharius and how was I going to fit him in. I mean what is a conqueror of worlds like? Ruthless, charismatic, used to getting his own way? That all goes without saying. In general, our more recent historical examples have not been admirable or likeable men, and I find at least one of those to be a necessary quality in my central characters in longer works. I have to live with these guys in my head for a year and a half while I am writing the books so it’s a good idea to, at least, not be actively nauseated whenever I come to describe them. (I make an exception for Grey Seer Thanquol because I find him funny and he’d probably send Boneripper around to tear my head off if I said anything different. And did I say funny? I meant brain-blastingly awesome and possessed of god-like charisma.)
I tore through the Imperial Guard Codex to see what it said about Macharius (and to make sure nothing had changed since the last edition I had read…hey, it happens, I’ve been caught out that way before).
What does it say? A visionary. A brilliant and callous strategist. A brutal conqueror and ruthless soldier. So far, so good. What’s this? He split the Iron Wall of Kallistan with a word?
That strikes me as being a somewhat unbalanced power for a character who potentially might take to the tabletop in a 40K battle. I mean splitting the walls of a Hive with a word would probably cost a lot of points. I decided the more over the top bits of description in the Codex were hyperbole. There would be no splitting walls with words in these books unless the words spoken were "Detonate that thermonuclear destruction charge, sergeant".
Surely this sort of thing must be part of the legend that sprung up after Macharius’s death, tales that clustered round his name in the way that they clustered around Alexander’s. So in some shrine on a backwater world in Segmentum Pacificus there is a cult of Macharius. Its members really believe Macharius split the walls of Kallistan with a word, and they write complaints on Warhammer 40K forums when somebody suggests anything different. Sorry, I meant they burn all unbelievers. Or maybe both. My remarks here will probably have people with pitchforks and torches crowding around me at Gamesday so I will find out.
There is obviously a core of truth to the stories, some seed that could grow into this mighty myth as pointed out in my reference to demolition charges above. It’s an idea I may be able to work into the story so it gets filed away for future reference. For purposes of my story, Macharius is a man. He may be stronger, tougher, more attractive to women and smarter than me, but he is a man. How could I make him anything else? He is a great hero of the Imperial Guard and the Imperial Guard are the very epitome of ordinary human courage facing the cosmic horrors of the 41st Millennium. Macharius needs to exemplify that, not undercut it. This is the real reason for ditching the wall-splitting.
Well, we know something about Macharius now. We know what he did. We know what some of the people around him wrote about him in their histories. But what was he like? In these books, he is going to be an actual living, breathing character who walks on and says things and does something more than shoot people. The Biblical language of the Codex does not tell us too much about him. I mean we need to be able to believe in him, be surprised by him, taken off-guard by some sudden, unexpected thing, the way we are with real people.
Fortunately, as was immediately obvious to a classically educated man like myself, Macharius is based on Alexander the Great, one of the more appealing great conquerors in history. That was a good starting point. So it was time to renew my acquaintance with Alexander. Out came the military histories and Robin Lane Fox’s excellent biography. (Yes, it’s part of my job to read books that I would read for my own amusement anyway. Cool, isn’t it?)
Let’s see– he inherited his kingdom from his father Philip– not strictly necessary for my purposes. Macharius is an Imperial General, he will come by his army in a somewhat different way. On the other hand, Alexander had a strict and powerful father who died young leaving a legacy of achievement for the son to compete with and eventually surpass. We’ve seen similar things in our own time with the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner. There might be something there to work with. Hell, the Imperium has the most powerful father figure of all-time in the Emperor, I can certainly do something with that. So the fleshly father died young and Macharius transferred his filial loyalty to the Imperium. It would certainly explain his powerful feelings about the Imperium and re-uniting it. Anyway, this is all getting a bit Freudian so we will draw a discrete veil over it and move on…
What was Alexander like? Good-looking, fit, extraordinarily tough, a general who led from the front and cared for his soldiers. This can all be lifted straight but its not really all that surprising. The habit of a general leading from the front seems hyper-unrealistic to anyone familiar with modern warfare but it was still happening as late as the Victorian era. I can live with it and it gives me another insight into Macharius’s personality. He likes to fight. I don’t mean he likes moving troops around on a map either. I mean he physically likes to fight, he enjoys it in the same way Tyrion does in Blood of Aenarion. He takes real pleasure in it. That tells you something about the man.
Alexander also had a habit of talking to ordinary soldiers and asking them how they felt, how things were going, what the state of the army was like etc. That’s a quirk that I can definitely use. It’s a point of contact between him and the narrator as well.
Alexander had a very dark side. He killed a friend and officer in his army by throwing a spear through him after a drunken argument. He regretted it afterwards but he still did it. He apparently burned down a palace in a fit of drunken rage at least according to some stories. That can go in as well. He has a temper and he likes to drink and can drink too much at times. There is a weakness that has an almost Slaaneshi ring to it. Doubtless there will be rumours…Alexander’s mobile court was full of constant intrigue. The bureaucratic and military hierarchy of the Imperium is just the same. The rumours can be spread by Macharius’s enemies to discredit him but there is a core of truth to them as well. It’s the same as the tale of wall but used for darker purposes. And there were many assassination attempts on Alexander– all good dramatic stuff for a history of the crusade.
So we have a picture of the man starting to emerge: powerful, ruthless, driven by forces he does not quite understand, with a murderous temper when drunk. He comes to power in an age of chaos with the Imperium in turmoil and sets about restoring it for the glory of the Emperor and to grab some for himself. He is a product of his times in some ways, being born into a fractured Imperium with a dream to renew it. So far, so good, but I am going to need more.
At this point in my quest for role-models to use when describing a Great Conqueror I came across a very unusual one by a strange coincidence, but this post has already reached 1800 words and I have work to do so I’ll describe that another day…
TO BE CONTINUED