Behind the Face of a Hero

Behind the man of honor and justice.

When I first started writing Iron Will Rust back in Germany of 2005, I knew I wanted the hero to be a grand-master with a rapier. He had to be incredibly talented with proven experience. Here is a sketch my long-time Art Director friend Steve Ogden whipped up for Lazzaro! I think Steve captured that fatherly look that’s a blend between hero, champion, and instructor, while making sure that any sign of torment is far below.

Where did this character come from? How do you create a protagonist? In this article, I’m going to go back in time to twelve years ago and perhaps even as far back as forty years ago to search for the answers. Commence boyish childhood flashbacks!

Lazzaro had to be the kind of man that could go toe-to-toe with Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné, Robert E. Howard’s Conan, or R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden, but at the same time, be a man from history – a real man. He had to have skill with a blade as opposed to physical stature.

He had to have intelligence and wisdom as opposed to despondent reliance on the removal of souls of others, as we saw with Elric and his black sword, Stormbringer. He had to have a normal life, punctuated by good, by family, by devotion, and by hard work, not by a brutal childhood frequented by matriarchal upheaval with a lot of spare time in caves for epistolary Spock-like musings on the meaning of racism and friendship. (No offense Drizzt!) No, my hero would never be that memorable, that fantastical, or that unique. I love grand fantasy, but I wanted my cast of characters to weave with real history, dramatically.

 Lazzaro had to be a hero with fatherly instincts in direct conflict with his unwavering belief that he must punish evil and that it is his responsibility to do so as gratitude for his gift of swordsmanship, as if God gave him the task of the angel of justice. Something a literature class might say is a character flaw.

 A flaw perhaps pointed out by Cyril as they crossed the Alps in the chapter, Decisions.

Even so, I cannot take the chance. I have thought about this during this journey across hell. I know that he wants me. I just do not wish to see my family his prisoner or hostage for his death game. He knows he is no match for me. He never fights with honor.”
“Lazzaro, honor has nothing to do with winning.”
It was then that Lazzaro came to realize something. His stubborn honor and his sense of justice guided him his whole life. He lived to bring pride to his father; he honed his skills with his rapier to win with honor. Cyril’s words pained him and at first. He wanted to ignore and push them aside, but the truth hit him like an ironsmith’s hammer in the chest.

Lazzaro is a honorable version of an an old AD&D character of mine, but instead of wielding the diabolical ego lusting sword, Blackrazor, pilfered from White Plume Mountain, he needed a blade that spoke of craftsmanship, honor, prestige, and elegant power. I never wanted my first novel to be in an imaginary world, I wanted my characters to live in the real world with imagination. At the same time, his weapon of choice needed to put the Sword of Kas to shame and make Twinkle look shabby.

He held the silver basket-handled rapier in a traditional ready stance. The gold cross-guard sported a pair of eagle claws, each with outstretched talons scattering the sunlight into a dazzling array of speckles on the ground.

Lazzaro's life is built around fencing. Rapiers are lightning fast, thin swords, not thick brutish claymores used to cleave men in two. In the year 1515 when Francis the I invades Italy by crossing the Alps, the rapier was still a relatively young civilian weapon of less than 150 years old. Mastering a weapon against an enemy when neither of you are wearing armor, meant the blade itself is both a device of offense and defense. Footwork and parrying is king.

Lazzaro needed to be a master. The kind that inspired the Bolognese swordmaster Antonio Manciolino to jot a few techniques down. To give Lazzaro that foundation, I fabricated the Prova dei Campioni or “Test of Champions,” an annual fencing tournament in Genoa, Italy. The best-of-the-best fighters would go against one another, not in a fight to the death, but to disarm, finish, or wound. Think of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) which I am a big fan of, and what it means to mixed martial arts. The Prova dei Campioni was the free-for-all meaning anyone could enter and use any martial weapon. The winner won a cash purse and a magnificent commemorative sword.

Isabella looked at the case next to her, unclasped the latches, and tilted the top open. Inside, an ornate silver short sword rested like an entombed king, its jet-black scabbard glistening with oil. Its cross guard styled as a falcon with its wings spread outward, each feather hand-etched in minute detail. Vertically along the blade were the numbers one, five, zero, and two. It was the prize awarded to the winner of the Prova dei Campioni fencing tournament and it was a gift to her by the winner – her husband.

Lazzaro’s reputation is wide spread. Much in the same way, one might know of sports hero such as Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, or Conor McGregor, except he lives in a world of no media, no sponsors, with only word of mouth notoriety. He has no vanity nor is there a need to maintain a marketable image. Instead, he is a silent winner, competitor, living his life for his family and his passion. When Cyril Levesque, part of the Sforza dispatch/spy network saves Lazzaro’s life, their first meeting is rough around the edges until that respect arrives from reputation. Lazzaro's fame works for and against him throughout the book.

We will arrive long before Alessandro will even reach Genoa, unless he has left Marseille already. Does he know exactly where your family lives?”
“I do not think so, but he could find out in Genoa easily. Our wine is popular and I have an excellent local reputation.”
“A wine maker. Great.” Cyril’s voice dripped with sarcasm.
“I also hold twelve Prova dei Campioni medals. Do not judge me by my domestic trade.”
“Hold on. Did you say your last name was Dominici?”
“Yes.”
Cyril laughed. “I cannot believe it. I am in the presence of the Lazzaro Dominici, the Grandmaster of Prova dei Campioni? Well please forgive my terse words and lack of respect. I fought with you in 1505 and you beat me in less than eight moves. You are a tricky one indeed.” Cyril exhaled breath out his nostrils in three quick jets as his smile squeezed in mirth.

Forty years ago, maybe more, what was it 1977? I was 12-13. I first started reading fantasy novels in middle school (Late 70s.) I grew up on paperbacks printed on coarse yellow paper that would tear if you so much as sneezed on them, and of course, they all came used from someone’s hole-in-the-wall used bookstore in Tallahassee, Florida. I could never afford a new hardback from Dubey’s Book Land, but it was always fun to gawk at the hardbacks. Note how in the adjacent photo even when the shop is closed, the damn lights are on full blast behind museum glass. All part of the plan to torment little kids.

Beyond paperback novels, I absolutely loved the Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian, consumed as fuel for First Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons adventures. As the neighborhood Dungeon Master, I loved every hero, but as any DM will tell you, the real drama is in the evil, after all that’s the side you’re technically on – the bad guy’s. The players are the heroes, fumbling about, flubbing simple puzzles, picking locks, hiding in shadows at the sound of bats, double guessing themselves, over analyzing what spell to lob next, paralyzed in indecision, stepping on trap triggers, and rolling saving throws – badly. There is a level of childcare necessary when ensuring your group feels challenged and that comes from how well you direct the bad guys, preying on you player’s weaknesses, forcing them to face their fears, so success is something they savor.

Our connection for the hot off the presses AD&D stuff was none other than Little Folk’s Toy Store. (Again that evil glass wall of torment) A fella named Tom, an ex-Marine, had already put up with us Shannon Forest war-rats buying World War II Tamiya models for five years, so when he added a new shelf with Dungeons and Dragons and Traveller stuff, the world changed forever. My $5 a week allowance was nowhere near enough cash!

I was not always the DM. I played through The Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, Glacial Riff of the Frost Giant Jarl, Hall of the Fire Giant King, Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, Descent into the Depths, and the eternal classic, The Vault of the Drow, all with a different neighborhood buddy acting as DM. Our group of middle school/freshman high-schoolers played religiously. Those adventures stuck with me forever.

During those early days on AD&D, you developed a character that would be your own personal take on a hero, perhaps inspired by the novels or comics you read. Although the Lord of the Rings jumped in popularity after Ralph Bakshi released the animated version of the first book and a half, our heroes we nothing like the reluctant and relatively useless sniveling Frodo. You have to face it, the hero had a ring of invisibility and never used it offensively. Sheeesh WTF! As young boys, we loved over the top heroes who were bad-asses and could kill shit. Natural 20s critical, double damage, loot, drool! We loved Conan taking on packs of baddies, Elric’s Stormbringer plunging deep into the heart of nightmarish beasts, and years later, an appreciation for that lone drow’s scimitar skills, although he was too emo for us because we were in our twenties by then. But still, you have to give R..A. Salvatore credit! His tales are absolutely FUN and all his characters wallop face.

I think Lazzaro Dominicio and Alessandro Dumaine (Hero and Villain from Iron Will Rust) are a blend of both a player’s hero and the DM’s evil. Funny how the little kid inside secretly has influence of our imagination. There was something magical about that era, that is worth hailing for its creative influence, imaginations toking flames, and endless adventure.