The Big Idea: Django Wexler
Genius is a very interesting topic, to be sure, but when it comes to writing a novel, is it in itself enough to make it all work? Or does there need to be more than “genius” to go on? Django Wexler considers this thought, as it applies to his latest work, The Thousand Names.
I am fascinated by the idea of a military genius.
It comes up a lot in the history books, especially those not specifically concerned with military details. “Napoleon was able to lead France to victory over all of mainland Europe because he was a military genius,” or “Alexander the Great’s genius in battle helped him crush the much larger Persian Empire,” or “The genius of Robert E. Lee helped the South hold off superior Union forces for five years.”
This always bothered me, because it’s not clear what exactly that means. In the historical wargames I’ve played since my college days, the generals get assigned statistics, but what does Napoleon do so well that he gets a +3 on his attack roll, compared to +1 for Kutusov and -2 for poor Karl Mack? Does the average foot soldier know that he’s part of some brilliant maneuver, and fight all the harder for it?
When I started to get seriously into history, I went looking for answer, but the search was frustrating. When you read the maps and campaign histories, it all seems so obvious. The enemy is strong here and weak here, so you circle around and strike him from behind—presto, you’re a genius! There was no magic, no dramatic moment when all is suddenly revealed.
But then, if you’re surrounded by the infamous “fog of war,” with nothing but a scribbled report from a scout and a bad map to go on, it probably doesn’t seem that simple. It’s hard to see the difficulties and the confusion from a map, but a good historian can make you feel it. And it was after reading a particularly good history (David Chandler’s The Campaigns of Napoleon) that I thought, “Okay, I want to write that.”
The first thing a genius requires is a situation dire enough to require their attention. My novel, The Thousand Names, opens with the Royal Colonial Infantry hanging on to the edge of a former territory now in open rebellion against the throne. Outnumbered many times over, the beleaguered troops expect to be evacuated. Instead, they’re sent a new commander—our genius, Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich.
Writing from the perspective of a genius is difficult for your average non-genius author. It’s much easier to write from the perspective of the guy standing next to him, a technique I picked up from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by way of Timothy Zahn. In lieu of Watson or Pellaeon, I had Captain Marcus d’Ivoire, now Janus’ second in command, and Winter Ihernglass, a young woman masquerading as a man, trying to hide amongst the infantry.
What started out as a way to give Janus someone to explain things to (“My God, Holmes, how could you know that?”) surprised me by turning into something a lot deeper and, I hope, more interesting. The military genius can’t do everything on his own, I discovered. In the end, he’s only as good as the men who carry out his orders, or refuse to, or do their best but get things wrong.
If you go back to the history books, you find that the relationship between a commander and his men is crucial, and different generals vary a good deal. Napoleon was so charismatic that his contemporaries ascribe him nearly hypnotic powers—opponents would go to meet him in a rage and end up as his obedient subordinates. He was an expert politician as well as a general, and a master of the dramatic gestures that could win a man’s loyalty forever. On the other hand, the taciturn and aristocratic Lee was initially detested by his soldiers, and it took victory after victory before they built a confidence in him that came close to hero-worship.
Janus doesn’t have Napoleon’s mesmeric ability with people. He’s abrupt, arrogant, and occasionally temperamental, which puts Marcus in a quandary. More than anything else, Marcus is a good soldier, which means that he believes in the chain of command and his duty to his superior. It helps that Janus’ plan to take the fight to the rebels seems to be working. But he also has a duty to the men in his regiment, and the question he has to answer is whether his new commander is brilliant, crazy, lucky, or some mix of all three.
For Winter, on the other hand, the problem is a bit different. Isolated from her fellow soldiers by her fear of being discovered and tormented by a brutish sergeant, she has responsibility thrust into her unwilling hands. When she shows a talent for leadership, she has to deal with the problem of what it means to receive loyalty and trust, and the crushing weight of the expectations of men who look to her to get them out of a bad situation.
The more I wrote (and re-wrote, and re-re-wrote), the more this question of loyalty and trust became the center of the novel. Planning out the brilliant maneuvers on the maps was fun, but what I learned from the campaign histories is that the geniuses don’t succeed because they make up incredibly complicated plans that nobody else can understand. (Indeed, that’s an almost certain sign of impending disaster.) Instead, they won because they did simple things well—the right simple things, at the right times—and because, through charisma or brotherhood or fear or greed, they inspired the soldiers who followed them to go above and beyond.
That inspiration is what doesn’t get shown on the maps. I wanted to try to capture what it was like to stand by the shoulder of one of the great commanders, for someone who didn’t know yet that he was great. I wanted to follow the growth of a relationship that would lead one man to put the kind of faith in a leader that soldiers put in Napoleon or Lee.
In 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia with something like half a million men. Less than twenty thousand Frenchmen returned, and even fewer survived the desperate campaigns of 1813 and 1814 before France’s defeat and the Emperor’s abdication. But less than a year later, after Napoleon’s escape from Elba, he called for a new army to defend France. Incredibly, a lot of those same men signed up, in spite of everything they’d been through and everyone they’d lost along the way.
That’s what loyalty to a leader means, out at the sharp end. That is, ultimately, what makes a military genius. And that’s the Big Idea behind The Thousand Names.