Sunday, January 17, 2010

I Vant to Steal Your Character

I'm thrilled to introduce a guest blogger today. Many of you already know Pam Uphoff, aka matapam. She's the one we have to impress to get out of the slush pile at Baen. She is also a writer in her own right. So, without further ado, I'll let her get to it....

I Vant To Steal Your Character

Or at least a piece of him or her.

What? You don't drool over Erik Hakkonsen? You haven't mentally worked out Ranger's and Diesel's back story? You don't wonder what Evon Vorhalas might have done if he could have walked away and started over somewhere else?

And Professor Yates. Oh yes, I wants him. I know I'm not his type, but he such an excellent absentminded professor, I couldn't possibly write a better one myself.

Really, I am so glad I'd already written a bunch of my own characters before I met some of these people. My characters are very much my own. But sometimes I trip across a character who succeeds in being the character I was trying to write. Modesty Blaise. Harry Dresden. Bahzel Banackson.

Some times it's just a name that catches my attention. The dreaded Pierre "Le Sanguinaire" Vorrutyer. What would he be like, to have such a reputation?

An awful lot of the characters I most remember are classic archetypes. Dark Heroes, Absentminded Professors, Cool Chicks in black bodysuits, Barbarians with big swords.

Should we avoid the archetypes when we build our characters? Or take advantage of the universal recognition? Or does our personal piece of the Collective Subconscious ensure that we can't not use the old tried and true types?

And what do you do when you find someone who has already written the sort of character you're writing? Deliberately change your character? Change just enough that you don't think half your readers will think you're writing fan fic? Just curse the other writer and blast on ahead?

One of my fantasy world's magic rules are that the more magic a person is, the more in touch with the collective subconscious they are. The most powerful magicians are controlled by same. So I started listing all the archetypes and stereotypes so as to inflict them on Characters. Great fun, but the list is surprisingly extensive. Especially if you have fun with it. My favorite is the God of Just Deserts. He's got a mile wide field of Instant Karma, except when he's depressed. Then it's ten miles wide. Cities bribe him to go away.

Now, we all know that Dave not only uses, he abuses, the archetypes and stereotypes.

How about the rest of you? Which of your own creations is your favorite? Is he or she any sort of archetype?


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I think we can't escape the character cliches, because we come across them in real life. That's why they are cliches.

I like to take an archetype and give them a little twist to make them interesting.

C Kelsey said...

Cliches are extremely useful because it allows an author to instantly describe a basic character without too much work. This tends to leave room for the fun little twists. Bahzel is a good example of the classic barbarian with some twists (evil hradani who ends up being a lawful god's chosen champion). My favorite was from the game Baldur's Gate II. It had a barbarain named Minsk who was the stereotypical big hearted, not-so-smart, barbarian. And he had a pet hamster that he believed was a miniature, extremely smart, giant space hamster. The hamster was named, "Boo".

Anonymous said...


Yes, letting the reader supply all the background assumptions from their own history, is the easy part. Then you throw in a change, something unexpected, to make your character stand out as an individual.

And of course, you can make them more archtypical or less. Or bend your individuality in another direction not usually associated one way or another, with the archetype.

Anonymous said...


A pet hamster? Now that's a twist that wouldn't have occurred to me!

Chris McMahon said...

If I started picking favourites with my own characters they would start to get narky on me.

In terms of characters, I think you need to start with your own invention & try to make it as fresh and alive as possible. I don't think you should look further than your own creation to begin with.

Once the character is a little more fleshed out, then it probably pays to think critically -- and maybe change or tweak a few things to differentiate. But even if the character can be criticised as cliched, if you have really invented them from scratch, then they should still be fresh on the page.

Kate said...

It helps to know what the cliches and the stock characters are, because they all have roles in a story structure. If you're writing an epic fantasy, and your character meets a friendly elderly person, chances are pretty high that your readers will expect this person to take the role of the Wise Mentor - which is, of course, an entire farm of character cliches all by itself.

If you know the standards, you can twist them into pretzels without pissing off your readers - and still keep the freshness of original characters.

WangZheng259 said...

I don't hold with notions of a collective subconscious. My relevant pet biological/physical

theory is incompatable.

If you are planning on selling the story, the combination of characters, situations, and

execution must not be largely identical to something that has already been done, and it must be

free of intellectual property that you do not have the right to use for commercial efforts.

King Arthur, George Washington Carver, and Huckleberry Finn are usable. Marc Duquesne, Nanoha

Takamichi, or T.A. Barron's Merlin would require either permission or that things be throughly

sanitized. You must 'own' the characters enough that you can write them, even if you are

writing yet another version of Arthur, Merlin and Nimue.

What distingushes a character? What makes one unique? There are many different versions of

King Arthur. The ones I know of include some I've read, and some I've created. I consider all

these distinct. If a character is something I can call mine, I think it would be possible for

me to distingush it from other, similar characters. Convincing people that it is actually

distinct is partly a matter of execution.

As for my own characters, I don't have a single favorite, and the collection is riddled with

archetypes, tropes, derivitive works, and various flavors of insanity, whether cultural or

personal. A significant number of them were created to either have a twist to the stereotypes

that I found pleasing, or in order to fit a situation with such a twist. I can not demonstrate to my satisfaction that they are all cliched, but I cannot see how I could have come up with one that does not match something I've seen before in some way or another.

Reading is much easier than writing, even if you aren't me, so why write a story that you can

just as easily read? So, if I want to write it, it must offer something different from what I

have seen. Worst case scenario is that it turns out to be a terrible idea, executed poorly,

which is still a net positive as long as I am aware of the flaws, and don't let anyone else read


Some ideas and characters are not cliches because they should be avoided, and they are not

attractive enough to pull in writers who don't know better. Many cliches are cliches because they work, are easier to make work, or are difficult to remove from any story humans can relate to. Boy meets girl. Two rivals. Tribe versus tribe. The tournament. It is the cliches that are attractive bad ideas that should be avoided, especially when combined with poor execution.

Anonymous said...


Never get your characters mad at you.

I think the stereotypes are most useful for the "other" characters. The Main Character and the immediate cast all need to be a fresh and individual as possible. They'll still fall into categories. The youngster who finds himself in charge of it all, the spoiled daughter who has to grow up and cope with roughing it . . . Nah, I'm not going to do a list.

But yes, fresh and alive are important.

Anonymous said...


Yeah, I suppose this is one more case of "Know the rules first, and then break them for a purpose"

Anonymous said...


Yeah, I don't know about the collective subconscious either. But the archetypes exist in pretty much any culture. That makes them a useful tool.

That's different than using a specific historical or mythical character. Fables such as King Arthur are much more limiting than the archetype of the boy who grows up in the country and becomes king.

But if your story is going on in the back alleys of Camelot, there's a lot that you don't have to explicitly explain. I don't, in my own writing, like that much of a straightjacket.

The Six Basic Plots, or however many you want to split them up into, are a bit different. Much looser again, I think, but still with a few basic requirements for each one. And still very much in need of being fresh and individual.

In the end, I think the important thing is be aware of cliches and stereotypes. To use them, but also to check that one isn't depending too much on them and failing to individualize one's main characters. And plot. And story.

Kate said...


I'm going to be very rude here: fair warning.

Collective subconscious be buggered - all you have to do is look at the myths from a scattering of cultures to realize that there are a whole range of archetypes that are damn near universal.

The earliest myths - and the mythical structure of existing hunter-gatherer cultures - is the "just so" story which is a metaphorical guide to surviving and prospering in the environment in which that myth originated.

After that, you see the characters in the myths embodying particular virtues and prejudices - which again, are much the same in cultures which had no real contact for ridiculously long periods of time. Those are the archetypes that writers echo in their stories, and need to know about, because those same myths shape how we think and what we expect. If you introduce a naive, impulsive, but fundamentally good-hearted farm boy at the start of the story, readers expect that farm boy to become a hero and possibly rescue and marry the princess, if not turn out to be a prince himself. That's how stories work, because those are the stories we're taught as children - and the ones our parents were taught, and so forth past any kind of written history.

It doesn't matter whose version of Merlin you use: he's always going to be the wise and somewhat flawed mentor, and his equivalents are everywhere: Obi-Wan Kenobi, the various wise sages of Chinese myth, the helpful animals the hero saved earlier who appear so often in Russian myth. They all have the same basic characteristics. They help the hero when he really needs it, tend to be cryptic and/or not there when the hero wishes they were, and usually vanish from the story in some way after their purpose is fulfilled and the hero has what he needs to continue.

You don't need to invoke a collective bloody subconscious to explain human universals.

Anonymous said...


I think the theory of the collect subconscious is of dubious scientific basis (as in no evidence what-so-ever), but that's the same with half of psychology.

On the other hand, it's useful to writers. My Fantasy sandcastles may have no foundations what-so-ever, but they sure are fun.

Amanda Green said...

Matapam, sorry it's taken me this long to answer but I think you'll like what I have to say. I've heard that another Professor Yates book is about 20 pages shy of being done. It was suggested that I urge you to poke Cliff about it, tell him to get back to work and finish it. And, yes, I agree with you about Prof. Yates. He is the perfect absent-minded professor.