There are no original ideas. None. They say that even when we dream, we can only dream of the people who have actually seen in real life. Even if only once. I think it’s the same way with writing.
I write mostly character-driven stories. I can put a plot down on paper, but I don’t get the passion or the drive until the character’s voice is firmly established and they have become firmly entrenched in my mind. Some voices come easily. Some I’ve had to fight for.
Kyle Hanson, from The Raventree Society, just popped up in my head, fully formed. His family grew around him as I wrote, and his abrasive nature, childish demands, and brief bursts of heroism just made sense. I didn’t have to tell that the only time he wasn’t saving the day was when his step-father was there to take that role. He told me.
On the other hand, Menrva from the Malfunction Trilogy gave me a beating before she finally opened up. My readers have pointed out that she is withholding with them too. I think she’s just a bit of an ice-queen. In some ways, she is more “me” than any other character, in others, I feel like I still don’t know her.
Yeah, I know I invented them. Shush.
One of the greatest helps in building a character voice, is having something to pattern them after. Sometimes I steal some philosophy from a historical figure, or the mannerisms of a modern celebrity, or a pieces of a fictional character’s personality. No matter who or what, I find myself coming back to certain characters time and time again.
Yes. My childhood was awash in tales of this mischievous little imp. From movies like Disney’s Peter Pan, Hook, and even Finding Neverland to the original books and a few retellings, I’ve revisited this character many times. I think the main thing I’ve taken from Peter Pan is that even the oldest among us can still connect to child-likeness or even childishness in certain characters.
Are we seeing a theme? I loved The Jungle Book growing up. I was even branded with the nickname “Mowgli” for a while, because I was a dark-skinned little monster who liked to climb and dig and play with animals. I love the whole concept of the “Noble Savage,” even if I’m a strong believer in the inherent sinfulness of humanity. I think the thing that Mowgli most taught me is that considering both nature and nurture creates a much more dynamic story. Not every person will react to the same situation or the same trama the same way. And the fastest way to make a boring character is to not ask how his/her personality will react to a formative event.
Yes. I was a “tom boy”.
Huck Finn was my hero. I never wanted to be anything but him. Care-free. Bare-foot. Causing trouble and living in the woods. He was a foul-mouthed youngster who did his own thing. And despite everyone seeming to hate his guts, he ended up being the one who was most loving of them all.
I think the greatest lesson Huck taught me, was that if a character isn’t the one shaping the world around them, I lose interest fast. Victims, getting kicked too and fro by the cruelties of the world, don’t read as well as characters who dig their own holes, even if they get the shovel from the people around them.
Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins (Treasure Planet)
You didn’t think this wouldn’t get on there, right? I mean, do you even know me? Also, I count them as one, because it’s their relationship that gets me. I love all the iterations of Treasure Island, but Disney’s Treasure Planet hit me right in the feels. That friendship between Silver and Hawkins, part family, part enemy… it’s the most beautiful thing to ever exist. I think I’m gonna spend the rest of my career chasing it.
Yeah… They are all guys. I think I’m getting why I have such a hard time writing female characters.
Prince Zuko is probably one of the best written characters on television. Am I being a bit extreme. I don’t think so. He subverted expectations. Played both the best bad guy and the best good guy. He mirrored and also contrasted Aang so beautifully.
Most authors would make a character like him skilled, perfect, powerful. While, sure, Zuko was a great fire-bender, he’s also really clumsy. He has to fight for everything he gets. Including his redemption arc, which is just gorgeous by the way.
Across the board, Avatar the Last Airbender is a beautifully done story. But I think what Zuko best taught me is to write the underdog. There are a lot of beautiful, paper thin characters out there. A lot of characters who say the right thing, do the right thing, and are far more skilled than anyone around them. But sometimes the most interesting character is the guy who loses every fight. The one who whines and complains. The one who always drops the ball.
I want to explore more characters like that. After all, I think all of us understand how it feels to be the failure now and then.
It’s kinda sad that I look back on this list and don’t see any women. Maybe that’s because the people I related to as a kid were a bit more messy and wild. Maybe it’s just the age I grew up in, where, if you included a female in your MG or YA book , she was probably really whiney and arrogant. I can think of a few of those right now.
I read a lot of classics too, with some really solid female characters. I’m glad to be adding to that list. With characters like Naomi Nagata from The Expanse, Lagertha from Vikings, Moana (her friendship with Maui is almost up there with Silver and Hawkins), and Eowyn from Lord of the Rings (who would probably be on this list, if it were a bit longer. She was one of those heroes of my childhood. I felt like she WAS me) But that is beyond the point.
I think the point is, we take the best of the art around us, to build our own art. I find that most of my characters are filling a Christ-role at some point. Hated by the people they are suffering for. It pops up a lot. Or I will find that themes from what I’m reading or watching at the moment seep into my writing. Frankenstein, for instance, in Malfunction. Or the Louisiana setting of Walking Dead and the stories from Lore in Raventree.
That is a good thing. Authors aren’t meant to stand along. Art is not meant to stand alone. I can only hope that one day, my characters take their place in lists like this.