Over the years, I’ve been asked to speak on how to make believable heroes or some similar such topic. Writers are always wanting to know how I created Zarek, Acheron, Nick, Nykyrian, et al. Heroes who are so multi dimensional and imperfect, yet gripping (boy, does that sound arrogant, or what? I swear, those are not my words- I am quoting others verbatim) that they seem real.
I’ve spent way too many hours trying to perfect a formula to help all of us. In the end, I’ve decided it’s magic…
I really don’t know how it happens. I always think I know every character going into a book, but they do things that constantly mystify and amaze me. I’ll think that a hero is going to be dark and then he ends up hysterically funny (Caillen, Solin, Fang, Vane, Dev). Or that he’s going to be really, really funny and then he’s dangerous and serious (Dante, Savitar, Lochlan, Wren).
And then there are those who are particularly poignant. The kind who have humor and at the same time, wrench your heart and gut every other time they speak. The ones who have the most tragic of pasts and yet they are trying to be human while not always succeeding. They’re unexpected and unforgettable. Most of all, we women want to wrap them up and keep them safe even though we know they are more than capable of and willing to kill any and everything that crosses their path.
Those characters are a very rare breed. Like lightning hitting a tree in the same spot twice in ten minutes.
But lightning did strike again with The Guardian, which is what got me thinking on it anew. Sometimes it’s just a matter of living with the character so long that you learn all the horrible details of his life (Acheron, Nykyrian, Syn). Other times, they were designed to be walk on characters you planned to kill off (Zarek, Nick), but they turned out to be so vibrant and lethal, yet vulnerable that I was driven to learn as much about them as possible. And in the end, I couldn’t let them go.
Then there are those like Seth who you think you know them going in and yet they surprise you on every page. Every time I went into a scene, I thought I knew how he’d react and he never did what I expected, yet everything he did made total sense for his background, and it stretched him as a character to a level that made him so real I still expect to see him on the street. Nick was/is that way, too. As is Simi. I never know what they will say or do. I just go with it.
The one thing that I think really helped was all the philosophy, history and psychology classes I took in college. More than any English/Lit class, they helped my writing by enabling me to understand humanity. Why we do what we do, and how we form our personalities out of our experiences. In particular, Pavlov, Jung, Camus, Kierkegaard, Hobbes, Maslow, Plato and Rand really honed my skills of delving deep into the psyche. While I don’t always agree with their opinions, that, too, helped as it forced me to analyze why I differed with their conclusions. What it was in my background that made me feel differently.
And that at the core, is what I use when writing. That and my personal belief that while we all follow a set pattern of behavior hardwired by both nature and nurture, there is always an anomaly or quirk that makes no sense given our pasts. Or the hypothesis I used for a paper in a college psych class: Our individual personalities are defined not by our consistencies, but rather by our inconsistencies.
Case in point, I was raised around nothing but Y chromosomes. I played quarterback and running back (though I did get to be a cheerleader for one year- only because my sister feared my male sports tendencies). I can flush a radiator, rebuild a carb, change my own oil and run with the best gearheads out there. I love heavy metal, thrash metal and brain melting punk (among other music genres). I have knocked a Golden Glove champion unconscious (not TKO) in the ring. I worked IT as a programmer and trainer for years. I throw a baseball so hard and accurately that my bud who is a coach for a major SEC university will not toss a ball in the backyard with me. Can out shoot my military trained hubby. As a rule, I can’t stand girl movies- give me horror or a shoot-em-up any day. Collect comics and manga, and do a whole slew of what most people think of as “male” things.
Yet, I, who wore boy hand-me-downs and cleats or combat boots all my young life and who once sported a mohawk, am very girly. VERY girly. I love makeup, high heels (the higher the better) and skirts. The only thing that makes my heart race faster than hearing a V-10, V-12 or Hemi V8, is a designer handbag or shoe sale. Seriously. I can’t stand squealing of any sort, but I love a good purse to carry (I can hear hubby groaning in agreement). And I’m obsessive about my fingernails and toenails. You will never see me without them polished to perfection or with either chipping, unless I’ve been very, very ill. I won’t leave the house without makeup. I live to crochet, cross stitch, quilt, sew, and while I can hammer on the drums, I love to play the flute and violin. Likewise, my Bauhaus or Godsmack is known to be followed by Opera or Grieg or even on occasion Dolly Parton, or Japanese Pop. I love drinking tea out of both skull and crossbone mugs and the cutest little dainty tea cups you’ve ever seen.
And there is a reason for every one of those.
It was by analyzing my own idiosyncracies that I was able to turn that outward and understand what motivated and drove my characters. Those weird quirks that make them real, breathing people. Why Acheron hates to have his neck breathed on and won’t let anyone stand behind him. Why Nykyrian won’t remove his sunglasses and lives to cook. Why Syn loves art and knows so much about medicine even though he’s an assassin. Why Nick still has a part of his soul even though he was born to be absolute evil. Why Seth and Zarek can’t stand to be touched (for different reasons) and why Seth wears war paint… why Seth hates the swallow tattoo on his body- things that make them vulnerable and that contradict what you expect.
Those are the very things that breathe life into the characters. It’s what breathes life into us. It’s why the same tragedy that turns one person into a serial killer, can make their sibling a war hero. Why one person becomes a driven entrepreneur while another, with an identical background, becomes a drug dealer.
The thing I love most about writing is the ability to explore what makes a person choose one life over another. What tiny or major event shaped them into who and what they are, and how events, big and small, can forever change them or make them willing to change and grow as people.