The Pirate Who Just Won’t Leave

Royal Street by Suzanne Johnson

By Suzanne Johnson

Every author has one in the closet: the throwaway character who just won’t go away, the one-scene wonder who tries to hijack the story and refuses to be relegated to a walk-on role. When the stubborn minor character is a historical figure and one is writing fantasy set in the modern world, things can get interesting fast.

New Orleans and some of her legendary citizens played a starring role in Royal Street from rough draft onward—the book title comes not only from NOLA’s famous Rue Royale, but also pays homage to the city’s royalty. Louis Armstrong, Huey Long, Marie Laveau, and Tennessee Williams are all larger-than-life Louisianans who epitomize the enduring spirit and character of the state’s larger-than-life city after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Each made his or her appearance in the book, served a purpose, and moved offstage with grace and good humor.

Then there’s arguably New Orleans’ most famous citizen, the early 19th-century French pirate Jean Lafitte, who double-crossed the British Royal Navy and threw in his lot with Andrew Jackson to win the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 in exchange for presidential pardons for past crimes.

Jean Lafitte appeared in one scene of the first draft, in the book’s opening, playing the role of a Jack Sparrowish piratical parody. And then he demanded more.

In self-defense, I read a biography to learn about this stubborn man, thinking to expand his one scene a little and pacify him. Then I made an author’s biggest mistake—or the most fortuitous mystery of authorhood, depending on how you look at it: I fell in love with a character. He seduced me as surely as he tries to seduce my lead character. Who is a wizard. In modern New Orleans.

You see the problem here.

Jean Lafitte, I was to quickly learn, is the type of historical figure who needs no augmentation. His past was shrouded in mystery before he appeared on the scene as a young man of 24 in New Orleans, his final demise left to speculation sometime around his fortieth birthday. He was smart, handsome by all accounts, held as many as a thousand pirates, gypsies, and ruffians under an iron rule, and was quite morally ambiguous. Jean Lafitte liked to win.

Now, six biographies later, I have given in, and Le Capitaine has won another victory. Jean Lafitte has shaped the direction of the Sentinels of New Orleans series, carving a “technically undead” niche for himself and his fellow celebrity New Orleanians of the past in an urban fantasy that might otherwise have taken a different path.

So, what do you do when a minor character has delusions of stardom?

My recommendation: give in, and run with it. And in case you really go overboard: eBay has some great Jean Lafitte action figures for sale.

Related link: Stories set in the world of Royal Street can be found at my website.

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