[NOTE: Apparently I posted this on FA, but not here on the blog, as a friend just pointed out. Oh well. Here it is now. Sorry!]
And now, Niki.
I have something of a reputation for cross-dressing male foxes now, it seems, so apparently it only takes two to make a reputation. And that one short story. Whatever. Niki was different, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
As I mentioned in previous posts, when I decided to create a parallel story to Sol’s, I started out with “cross-dressing dancer at Moulin Rouge who has to hide his sexuality.” The name “Niki” just came to me; I can’t recall deciding on it. But “Niki” was a good gender-ambiguous name that could be short for Nikolai, and so Niki became Russian, just like that, a dancer pursuing his dreams and fleeing an abusive home life. He roomed with a painter, of course–what is the point of writing about bohemian Lutece if you don’t have a painter–and his roommate is a fanatical “art at any price” sort of person. That is what Niki thought he was, too; after all, to pursue dance, he left his family and friends, all the people who cared for him.
But as it happens, perhaps it was not art Niki was seeking. He finds himself unable to dance anywhere but in cabarets (though admittedly the Moulin Rouge is a pretty good cabaret, if you’re going to have to dance in a cabaret), earning extra money with private performances and becoming the practical one in his marriage-of-sorts with his roommate.
(Niki and Henri, in my mind, don’t have sex and don’t think of each other as “boyfriends” or anything like that. They are just partners in life. Perhaps the story of how they met would have been an interesting one to write… as it happens, the book is a ways from 1,000 copies so I don’t know that there will necessarily be a bonus story. Although I did just write an extra story years later for “Shadow of the Father,” so you never know.)
When I started to write Niki, I found an odd thing happening. His first appearance is dressed as a female dancer, and somehow he kept that femininity throughout the book for me. Maybe that’s just a question of him being less aggressive, more emotional, more romantic, but it was strange in that often I would find myself thinking about him as a her. I just had to make sure the pronouns remained masculine. I think it made him a well-rounded character–at the very least, it made him really interesting to write.
A lot of people seem to latch onto Niki in the book. The fact that he’s trying to help Sol makes him sympathetic; the fact that he has nearly no control over his life, no good choices to make, also engenders sympathy. The last scene with him and Jean was one of the hardest to write, both from an emotional standpoint and because I wanted to walk a line with it. Niki was desperate, yes, putting more faith into a long-shot hope than perhaps he should have, but he also believed that he could redeem Jean, that there was good there as well. And so in that final scene, though we see it objectively, Niki becomes ever so slightly the unreliable narrator as well. It hurts him to leave Jean, even though he knows he has to.
The other thing I thought of with Niki was the line from Othello, “He loved not wisely, but too well,” also about a character who comes to tragedy. And that is where Niki aligns with Sol, and maybe why he chooses to help the young wolf. Like Niki, Sol craves love desperately. His parents aren’t quite as abusive, but then, Sol isn’t growing up in the late 1800s in Siberia. Kids still do get thrown out of their homes, but the world is much larger and there are places they can go, friends and other family. In Petrograd, when Niki faced the choice of staying to join the army or leaving to be a dancer, it took much more courage than Sol’s attempt at running away did. But their situations have enough similarities that I could justify Niki being drawn to Sol, and that is really what is at the heart of the book.
(But don’t worry, Sol isn’t going to start wearing dresses.)