When I was a kid, I played with Lego a lot. I’d build the sets I owned with their instructions, and have them sit around for awhile. Then I’d smash them down and build my own thing — usually a sprawling castle of some kind. And then I’d populate it with little Lego men of my own design, mixing up all the different sets to make a cool cast of characters. There would be the King, and he would have an awesome Captain of the Guard. The castle Wizard of course, who probably wasn’t a traditional Merlin-type. Other groups of warriors — the four person team of Fire, Water, Earth and Air knights; the lone dark knight; Robin Hoods and Aragorns; whatever cool combinations I could come up with using all the different pieces I had.
And then I started playing Dungeons & Dragons, and loved just making new characters with their cool abilities and trying to come up with unique things each could do/have/be.
So to me, that’s where a lot of my influence is when I’m coming up with characters for stories. The first thing I think about isn’t flaw, theme, development, love interest, voice. It’s usually what’s cool about them, what’s fun. When I wrote the Nexus, I wasn’t deciding characters because I needed a mentor for Derek growing up, the character who could be redeemed, the love interest with a complicated past. It was somewhat incompetent cat-person ranger, the demon fireslinger villain, the steampunk mechanic/airship pilot. I created a group of cool abilities, a video game cast, a D&D party. It was only after I had those first ideas that I started matching them up with the story elements.
And I certainly wouldn’t include a character just because of a cool concept, if they didn’t fit into the story. If I couldn’t match a required/interesting story element with them, a character flaw, potential development, something they can provide for the protagonist, etc., I would change them or not include them. But they were separate entities: cool character + story concept. Connecting lines from two lists like those gradeschool quizzes.
Maybe that’s why I struggle with character and voice sometimes. I’m struggling a bit with that in Shadow of Death. I know the journey I want for my main character, even one or two secondary characters. But there’s another secondary character or two that I have some ideas for, but just hasn’t solidified in my mind beyond his basic concept and his direct role in the story. Yet I want to see some scenes from his point of view — which means he needs a strong voice, and strong motivation and character.
My next step for Shadow of Death, then, before I start writing, is to try to develop these characters more. I’m going to try writing a couple short trains of thought from their point of view, fill out answers to some basic questions about their backgrounds, things like that. I need to find their voices before I can go on.
I’m still worried I haven’t succeeded with character in The Nexus. A threw a lot of stuff into the second draft that wasn’t anywhere in the first, and I don’t know if it fully meshed. Are my characters interesting? Likeable? Does anyone care what happens to them?
I don’t know. But I do know that a 16-year-old modern day western martial arts geek, his wild talent psychic sister, a somewhat bumbling cat-person scout, a sorcerer with a lot of street smarts but less book smarts, a teenage steampunk engineer girl with an airship, a gay angel out of favour with heaven, and a demonic villain who doesn’t really want the end of the world, make for a cool party.