The Painted Veil

As those of you who’ve seen my updates on Twitter and Facebook will know, I’m currently trying to name two new secondary characters. I got some great feedback, so I thought I would extend the discussion here. As I’ve blogged about before, I find naming characters both fun and at times frustrating, because the right name has so much to do with making the character come to life. And of course the same name conjures up different images for different readers, which is why I love getting different people’s reactions.

The characters in question are an estranged married couple. She’s aristocratic but a bit of a scandal now thanks to the public disaster of her marriage. Impetuous, clever, witty, a once heedless, romantic girl turned cynical. Sort of a combination of Ellen Olenska, Barbara Childe, and Kitty Fane with a bit of Caroline Lamb thrown in for good measure. He’s also very well born (wealthier than she was), a classical scholar turned soldier. A serious young man who fell desperately in love and had it all blow up in his face. A bit of Jack Bristow from Alias, a bit of Lord Damerel (though he hasn’t become a rake), a bit of William Lamb.

Possible names for her:


Possible names for him:


Possible surnames:


Any favorite names? Any names not on the list you think would be good for one or both characters? (I’m very open to new suggestions).

Do names have a lot to do with the image you form of a character when reading? Writers, how do you go about naming your characters?

Be sure to check out the new Fraser Correspondence letter I’ve just posted from Charles to David.

It’s at the heart of the conflict in Casablanca, Tristan & Isolde, The English Patient, Anna Karenina, Notorious, Brief Encounter, The Painted Veil, and countless classic love stories. And yet for many readers, it’s a deal-breaker, particularly when it comes to genre romance.

As a reader and a writer, I don’t dislike infidelity or adultery plots per say. Infidelity is an uncomfortable subject but uncomfortable subjects can make for good drama. It can definitely be a challenge to give a story a happy ending after someone’s been unfaithful. Of all of the stories I mentioned at the start of the post, only Notorious has a conventional happily-ever-after ending. The others have unhappy or bittersweet endings. If the marriage survives the infidelity, you need to believe that the couple can get past it, that it won’t happen again, that the betrayed partner won’t constantly blame the unfaithful partner (which is pretty mucht he conversation Steve and Miranda have with their marriage counselor in the recent Sex & the City movie). If the unfaithful lovers end up together, one can find oneself sympathizing with the betrayed spouse. (Notorious pulls it off by making the spouse a villain, albeit a complex one who genuinely loves his wife).

Of course the terms of the marriage and the expectations go into it affect the level of betrayal. In my historical romance, Rightfully His, there’s a subplot between the heroine’s sister and her husband who have a society marriage in which both have lovers and they get along quite amiably. However, in the course of the book, they realize that they love each other and the terms of their marriage change.

I write about betrayal a lot, so when I write about infidelity, I like to explore how it compares and contrasts to other types of betrayal. In Secrets of a Lady Mélanie has undeniably betrayed Charles in a number of ways, but I deliberately left it ambiguous as to whether or not she committed adultery. I actually was explicit about it in an earlier draft of the book, then decided I wasn’t sure myself so I left it open to question. I figured out the answer for myself a bit later, and at some point, when appropriate, I’ll work it into a subsequent book.

They do confront the issue of infidelity and their different expectations going into marriage, in a scene in The Mask of Night:

You didn’t intend to be faithful when you married me.”
She regarded him with that scouring honesty with which she confronted uncomfortable questions. “No, I didn’t. But then I’d never hold my own behavior up as a model of anything.” She smoothed a crease from her skirt. “Did you? Intend to be faithful?”
“Yes, as it happens. But it was hardly as though I had a very active career to abandon.”
“And you take your promises seriously.” In the warm wash of candlelight, Mélanie’s gaze had the bruised look he remembered from last night. “Fidelity hasn’t been a word in my vocabulary for a long time. It might have been once. When I was a girl playing Juliet in my father’s theatre company. Before—”
“Everything else.” Before she’d been raped by a gang of British soldiers, seen her father and sister killed, been left penniless and homeless.
“Being raped was the least of it,” she said, in the low, rough voice he’d learned to recognize from moments when she dredged up long-buried truths. “I could have got past that, I think. It was losing everyone I cared about, fighting for survival. I had to claw my way back to a sense of purpose. When I did, so much I’d used to value didn’t make sense anymore.”
“There’s more than one kind of fidelity, Mel. You’ve been remarkably faithful to a number of things.”
Her gaze fastened on his face. “Charles, you know that I—“
He looked into the scarred, beautiful eyes from which he’d never been able to hide things. He found he didn’t want a declaration based on duty or guilt. “I know you,” he said.

How do you feel about infidelity in books? Is it a deal-breaker? If not, what you think makes it work in some stories? Does it make a difference whether it’s the hero or the heroine who is unfaithful? What the terms of the marriage are? Whether it’s a story about a couple overcoming one or both partners’ infidelity or the story of a pair of unfaithful lovers? Do you think Mélanie was unfaithful to Charles after they married? Why or why not?

I just posted a new Fraser Correspondence addition, Mélanie writing to Simon about the love affairs at the Congress of Vienna (where fidelity appears to have been in short supply).

I recently returned to reading Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, which I had started last summer and then put aside (I sometimes hit moments when I’m writing when I just can’t read anything). I was drawn back immediately by the richness of the writing and the sharp emotional details. I was also struck by comparing and contrasting the book with the recent film, which I also liked. The major events are the same, but the emotional arc is quite different (though Kitty Fane does grow and change in both). It’s rather as though someone were to film Secrets of a Lady with the same basic plot but have the story end with Charles and Mel realizing they’d never really known or loved each other but staying together for practicality.

The other the thing The Painted Veil got me to thinking about is one of my favorite literary tropes–marriage in trouble plots. They’ve always fascinated me, long before I started writing about Charles and Mélanie. That’s why, when I cite influences and inspirations for the Charles & Mélanie series, in addition to the more obvious ones like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Scaramouche, Dorothy Dunnett, and Dorothy Sayers, I mention Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, and Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson books.

Reading The Painted Veil, I was pondering the fascination of this plotline. The intimacy of marriage ups the stakes in the conflict between two people. Percy’s devastation at Marguerite’s seeming lack of trustworthiness is all the great because she has just become his wife. Betrayal, I think, is one of the worst things that can happen to a person. How much worse is it when that betrayal comes from a spouse? Years of living together also gives characters a knowledge of each other that recent lovers wouldn’t have. In The Real Thing, the hero has a wonderful speech about knowing one’s spouse, in a way that goes far beyond carnal. That knowledge can be used for good or will. George and Martha know just how to push each other’s buttons. So, for that matter, do Maggie and Brick.

Particularly in an historical setting, marriage makes it difficult for two people to walk away from each other, no matter how poisoned their relationship has grown. There’s a fascinating tension in two people pretending to be a couple to the outside world, while being estranged when they’re alone. Think of Percy and Marguerite keeping up appearances to the beau monde yet unable to communicate in private, Maggie and Brick maintaining the charade of their marriage (or at least Maggie trying to) in front of his family. Kitty and Walter Fane sharing a bungalow in a cholera-infested town, seen by most as a devoted couple who’ve risked infection so as not to be separated.

Unlike most of the other couples mentioned in this post, Kitty and Walter actually know each other very little (hence much of the tragedy). But even they share a history. With any married couple, there’s a past to explore–how they came to be married and why, what they both expected, how that expectation compares to the current reality. And history is something I love to explore as a writer, whether it’s historical events or the personal history shared by two people.

Do you like marriage in trouble stories? Why or why not? Any favorite examples to suggest? What do you think makes them work?

The Fraser Correspondence takes a new turn this week. To go along with some research I’m doing for a possible project, I’ve gone back to 1814, when Charles and Mel have just arrived at the glittering Congress of Vienna. This week’s letter is from Charles to David.