The Years That Followed characters: Alexandros and Yiannis
The characters that populate The Years That Followed all have their roots in Greek mythology: and what I love most about ancient myths and legends is what they tell us about ourselves.
Never mind the battles, the heroic feats of endurance, the territorial struggles – drill down underneath these narrative surfaces and we find psychologically acute insights into what it means to be human.
To love. To hate. To feel sibling rivalry. To experience betrayal and loss and grief.
The ancient tale of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra appealed to me on many levels. It is full of emotion and drama and suspense. I wanted to reimagine it, to tell it from a twenty-first century perspective, and so The Years That Followed was born.
I had a really strong instinct to tell, not the well-aired story of Agamemon’s deeds at the battle of Troy, but instead the story of the woman who became his wife. I started with that time-honoured writer’s question of ‘What if?’
What if we were to hear Clytemnestra’s voice – a most unusual event in mythological tales. What if we were to learn from her own mouth of her anguish at Agamemnon’s sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia? What if we were to hear her story, exploding the silences that so often surround the lives of women in the ancient world? And what if we were to learn from her what it means to be part-villain, part-victim?
It was a challenge I couldn’t resist.
But of course, I could not tell Clytemnestra/Calista’s tale in isolation. In the myth, she is a mother, a sister, a wife, a lover – and so she had to be in my version, too. This meant that I had to create the original family that nurtured her, the children she gave birth to – and the men that she loved.
King Agamemnon, he of the Greek myth, was a man of his time – brutal, ambitious, physically adventurous. The ancient tale tells of how he captured his bride, Clytemnestra, killing her child and taking her from her father’s house by force. A twenty-first century reader might have problems with a character devoted to rape and pillage and human sacrifice on the scale that Agamemnon embraced – and so I had to interpret his behaviours in a way that a modern reader would find credible, if uncomfortable. In this way, Alexandros was born: Agamemnon’s up-to-date alter ego.
In my novel, The Years That Followed, I’ve made Alexandros the youngest of four brothers – the baby.
Psychology identifies those characteristics that we often display to the world, depending upon where we are placed in the family. The oldest is often super-responsible, for example, the second child often feels displaced, and so on.
The youngest, it seems, can feel – even into advanced age – that they have to fight to be taken seriously, to have their voice heard and their point of view valued. Taken to extremes, the youngest can feel marginalised, slighted – and deeply resentful of what he or she perceives to be the privileged position of their older siblings.
Alexandros’s constant complaint is that his father and his brothers in the family shipping business do not take him seriously enough. Yet, despite these complaints, Alexandros is often not competent in the work that he does: his sense of grievance and entitlement is so great that he expects advancement in the family firm by right, rather than by virtue of hard work.
He tries the patience of his parents and, in particular, of his oldest brother, Yiannis.
But I needed Alexandros to be a more complex character than that: acting like a spoilt child would not be enough to sustain the drama and the passion of an ancient story retold for a modern reader. And so I gave Alexandros a deeper, darker side to his nature.
In the novel, Alexandros craves control – just as Agamemnon does in the Greek myth. Specifically, Alexandros craves control over Calista, the much younger woman who becomes his wife. When that need to control becomes pathological, Alexandros turns violent. He becomes a domestic abuser: feeling fully entitled to use his fists if his wife dares to displease him.
He continues to exert his will on those around him: he controls through fear and yet, he can be a loving and attentive father. Human psychology is never simple.
As modern readers, we are no strangers to domestic violence. In fiction and non-fiction, in our daily news and on our television screens, we see ample evidence of men like this: men who believe they have the right and the entitlement to force women to bend to their will.
Men like Agamemnon and his modern day counterpart, Alexandros.
Mythological tales teach us that violence and rage and the craving for power do not belong to any particular age. They are, unfortunately, part of the dark side of human nature.
Set in myth: Greek mythology is still well present in Cyprus, where Alexandros and Yiannis live, in places like the “Aphrodite’s Pool”.