The Hero in “A Man at Arms”

In our previous two posts, we examined several embryonic elements as they came together at the inception of an idea for a novel. 

First, we said that we had the idea of using the historically-real letter from Paul the Apostle to the fledgling Christian community at Corinth as an “atomic bomb” of the ancient world, in the sense that its dissemination across the Roman empire could provoke insurrection and worse. That was Element #1 in the genesis of A Man at Arms.

The model for our hero?

Second, we identified this letter as what Alfred Hitchcock used to call “the McGuffin,” i.e. the item that the villain wants. In this case, the villain would be the Romans. Their aim, as the dominant military and political force in the ancient world, would be to stop this letter from reaching its destination—to destroy it and its courier.

So far so good.

We’ve got a Villain. We’ve got a World of the Story (Jerusalem and Judea in the first century CE). And we’ve got a McGuffin. 

What’s next?

How about a hero? I happen to have a character—the solitary mercenary Telamon of Arcadia—that I’ve featured in three earlier books (Tides of War, The Virtues of War, and The Profession) and whom I’d love to bring back in a fourth.

Why not him?

What I love about Telamon (and what fascinates me as he evolves of his own volition on the page) is that he seems, on the surface, to be utterly amoral (he fights, he says, only for money) yet it’s clear from his conversation that he possesses a highly-evolved and passionately-held code of honor. Who exactly is this guy? He reminds me of Bogart in Casablanca or Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales. He could be a criminal or he could be a saint.

In other words, Telamon is the perfect antipodal element to conflict with and react to the divinely-inspired content of Paul’s letter.

Charity beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things. endureth all things ….

For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know even as I am known.

If conflict is the soul of drama, then inserting the hard-boiled Telamon into a tale whose central element is a document that will become, in historical reality, the book of the New Testament called 1 Corinthians, we as storytellers could have the makings of a cracking good tale. 

To recap: in the evolution of this story (so far in its early, unformed stages), we don’t yet have a plot. We don’t have a theme. We don’t have a climax. We don’t have subsidiary characters. We don’t have any specific scenes.

But we do have a Hero, a Villain, a World and Time, and a McGuffin.

That ain’t bad.


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  1. Joe Jansen on April 14, 2021 at 3:16 am

    I’m enjoying this peeling of the onion.

    When I think of “the hero” in this story, I think, “Telamon, for sure.” But then I think of Yoda’s line to Obi-Wan: (I’m being circumspect…we’re early enough that I want to respect the “no spoilers” ethos, while guessing that most people coming to this column are likely to have read A Man at Arms already. At some point, though, it’ll be out there. “I’m watching ‘Dallas’ for the first time. So, DON’T tell me ‘who shot J.R.'” Response: “It’s been forty years. I can’t protect you any longer.”)

    I’m reading AMAA a second time — for structure and to see what I may have missed on a first read. I’m thinking of the arc of a hero. Telamon has a past. After witnessing a blinding and a grisly murder of a prisoner, Telamon is strung up.

    “Has Rome acted too harshly here?” [Severus] said. “I’ve seen you, peregrine, perform far worse in her service.”

    Far worse? Uh-oh.

    I’m also reflecting on Josey Wales, and how there are always more layers to the onion. He’d fought on the side of the Confederacy, and we know its raison d’être. But he wasn’t fighting the Union because he believed in the Confederate cause — he’d been a farmer and was fighting them because they’d massacred his family. So the Union was neither heroic nor without guilt, nor was Josey without moral grounds to fight them. The story is most interesting when the lines are blurred between hero and villain, each having a foot on the other’s ground.

    So we get to see Telamon from these different angles. Hemingway’s iceberg. “I’ve seen you, peregrine, perform far worse.” He has blood on his hands. He’s done worse than gouging out the eyes of a prisoner, or “spilling his groceries.” It’s left to the reader’s imagination to speculate on what those grisly transgressions might have been.

    And gradually, we see him change, on his arc. Maybe this is why the story of the hero so resonates across millennia. We can see each the possibility of rising above our own dissolute pasts, our own transgressions or crimes.

    Giddy up.

  2. Roy Stedall-Humphryes on April 14, 2021 at 8:03 am

    Hi Steve,
    Having read your book, ‘A Man at Arms’, though, as always, I like your word power and the fast pace of the story, sad to say, I was not convinced of the importance of the message that this small group risked all for, especially David who gave his life. To me, it was not at all as incendiary, a atomic bomb as you make out… but then again who knows, least of all me, what effect this message would have had on the Christians at Corinth or the Roman authorities at the time.

  3. Jurgen Strack on April 14, 2021 at 9:08 am

    Thank you, Steven.
    As always, I find this highly beneficial (a template and checklist for my own debut non-fiction book),
    instructional and of course, entertaining.

  4. Peter Brockwell on April 14, 2021 at 9:18 am

    Great post from the Guv’nor. To Joe’s comment may I add that Telamon, like all reported and fictitious heroes, is a representation, a caricature, and is therefore universal, and deliberately so. We each have a little piece of Telamon in us, and this is Steve’s genius of how we can each understand his motivations and qualities. Perhaps what makes one leading character different from another, say James Holden of The Expanse, from Pierre in War & Peace, is the choices they make given similar wants and needs.

    Let’s also remember that the more distilled the hero, the easier they are to understand and to defend or disavow. All mythical and literary heroes are more appealing than they might otherwise be because we don’t have to know about them spending sixty hours a week fiddling with spreadsheets, or managing to balance the care of children with that of elderly parents, while running a house and working full time.

    Not sure how I ended up at that point!

    “Lads, let’s not overthink it. Just get out there and have a enjoy yourselves!” (a near quote from one of my favourite books).

  5. Mike on April 14, 2021 at 1:47 pm

    Speaking of the hero, and the art of crafting a strong protagonist….

    I still find myself wondering about Telamon’s character arc and how it impacts the greater story.

    I finally finished Man At Arms, and was sad there were no more pages to turn. I thoroughly enjoyed the book – but I still find myself comparing the character to the common (and generally shunned) trope of the Mary Sue.

    The best explanation of the concept I’ve come across can be found here:

    Clearly, Telamon doesn’t fit the precise mold of a Mary Sue – his incredible skill and emotional resilience are explained by his hard life and a brutal philosophy; this is apparent even to those unfamiliar with his appearance in earlier works. Nor am I suggesting that such a trope is necessarily a bad thing – the fact that the readers can see some shadow of themselves in the character seems like a good draw.

    Ultimately, I liked the story for Telamon’s involvement while I disliked The Last Jedi for the very reasons mentioned in the link (though I could not have articulated it so well).

    As I work on my first novel, I’m hoping for any discussion on this concept and it’s proximity to the character Telamon. I’m finding it difficult to thread this needle.

    • Ernie on April 14, 2021 at 6:17 pm


      • Mike on April 15, 2021 at 6:10 am

        Which part?

  6. Joseph Ciccarone on April 14, 2021 at 6:54 pm

    “That ain’t bad.” Love how Steve mic drops at the end. Thanks for the no spoiler alert, only half way through AMAA. So good!

  7. Yvonne on April 15, 2021 at 6:57 am

    I am really loving learning about your writing process and am so happy you are sharing this with us! I’m always intrigued how writers’ ideas develop and evolve — it’s fascinating to me. I’m really enjoying “A Man At Arms”, finding myself unable to put it down, and being able to learn how you went through the process of this book while I’m reading it is really cool. Quick question: Can the McGuffin work if it’s something intangible, like love or respect, for example? Also (correct me if I’m wrong), I thought I remembered you saying before that Telamon is a character that’s personal to you, and if I have that correct, I’m super curious (if you’re comfortable sharing) as to why this is…he’s my favorite character. I greatly admire his resiliency, bravery, strength, and Stoicism.

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  9. hermany on April 21, 2021 at 2:37 am

    Telamon is the perfect antipodal element to conflict with and react to the divinely-inspired content of Paul’s letter.Tout comme un cow-boy occidental, chassant, mangeant, dormant, faisant l’expérience de la vie primitive,

  10. David Tindell on April 25, 2021 at 8:50 am

    I believe AMAA resonates so strongly among its readers for the very fact that we have a hero, Telamon, for whom we can cheer. He’s not a perfect man, by any means; he has performed what we would consider atrocities in service of an empire in which he does not believe, he is selfish and perhaps vain. Yet when called upon to serve his fellow man, he does so without fear, as when he saves the travelers’ caravan from the bandits early on.
    Why do superhero movies have such big followings these days? Because, I think, they give us heroes. They are imperfect, can be conflicted about what their duty is and where their loyalties lie, but in the end they do the right thing, even at great cost. Look at the arc of Tony Stark as portrayed in the Iron Man and Avengers movies. In the beginning, Stark is interested only in lining his own pockets and feeding his own massive ego. At the end, he makes the ultimate sacrifice to save humanity, not just his fellow humans on Earth, but countless billions on other worlds threatened by the existence of Stark’s enemy. These are times when many of our heroes have failed us–politicians, business leaders, even many scientists. We want to find someone who can lead us out of this mess, inspire us to work together to solve our problems, and shape our destiny. Telamon is such a man, as Steven writes him. No wonder we like him so much.

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  17. AhmedMalik on July 14, 2022 at 2:10 pm

    Its dissemination across the Roman empire could provoke insurrection and worse. That was Element #1 in the genesis of A Man at Arms.

  18. MarkNeil on July 14, 2022 at 2:11 pm

    Its dissemination across the Roman empire could provoke insurrection and worse. That was Element #1 in the genesis of A Man at Arms.

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    This is precisely what I was looking for!

  20. Dean Ewing on August 3, 2022 at 1:50 am

    I am so grateful that you are sharing your writing process with drift boss us since I am truly enjoying learning about it. How writers’ ideas develop and change fascinates me, and I find it intriguing. I can’t put down “A Man At Arms” because I’m loving it so much, and it’s incredibly great to be able to follow along while you wrote the book.

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  22. 2048 on October 25, 2023 at 2:11 am

    These initial elements serve as a strong foundation to build upon, and as you work on the plot, character development, and thematic exploration, your novel will take shape.

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