Creative Writing Tip: How to base a character on someone else’s

1420593_labyrinths_of_love_2As a writer, but especially as a reader, I love how the same stories can be told time and again as different stories. I love how the handful of plots we humans cycle through never get stale when told the right way.

I love how characters with very similar problems can appear in very different novels or plays and be very different people, and end up in different places.

I was thinking about this earlier: the archetype of the young woman in love with a guy who is head over heels for someone else. Take, for instance:

  • Eponine from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, who loves Marius. He’s in love with Cosette.
  • Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings, who loves Aragorn. He, of course, loves Arwyn, an elf.
  • Helena from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who love Demetrius, who is determined to marry Hermia. (Hermia apparently has a lot going for her. Enough to cancel out how awful her name is.)

These three texts are vastly different in genre and tone. Respectively, they represent a historical tragedy, epic fantasy, and Elizabethan comedy.

SAME SITUATION, DIFFERENT CHARACTERS. DIFFERENT ENDINGS.

These characters are also very different as individuals, despite their similarly sucky unrequited love. The shambles that are their love lives are given varying degrees of prominence. (SPOILER WARNING: some plot discussion to follow)

  • Eponine is practically starving, and her parents are lowlife thugs. Hugo hints that she is sleeping around with one of the members of their gang to try to forget Marius. Because she is her parents’ daughter, after bringing Marius and Cosette together, she lures Marius to a barricade hoping he’ll get killed. If she can’t have him, no one should.
  • Eowyn has bigger worries than Aragorn shunning her. Her uncle and brother, the rulers of Rohan, have to stand up to the forces of Sauron, and there’s a good chance they’ll be killed. Unlike Eponine and Helena, she is a trained warrior and disguises herself to go to war.
  • Helena is almost completely defined by her pining for Demetrius. She is her rival’s best friend, unlike Eponine (who hates Cosette) and Eowyn (who never has contact with Arwyn).

Wuv. Wuv is wat bwings us togethah, (Or, er, not...)

These characters are so vastly different, it makes sense to me that they would end in different ways, and they do. I can really only fathom three endings to the unrequited love scenario, and each of these woman fills one of them:

  • HAPPY WITH THE FIRST GUY OF CHOICE: Thanks to Puck’s magic, Helena ends up with Demetrius.
  • HAPPY WITH ANOTHER GUY WHO IS BETTER FOR HER: While recovering from battle wounds in the hospital (or equivalent thereof in Middle Earth), Eowyn meets Faramir, son of Gondor’s steward. They are definitely worthy of each other, and I love that they end up together.
  • THE TRAGIC END. Eponine follows Marius to the barricade, repents of having sent him there, and takes a bullet for him. She confesses what she did and dies in his arms. Probably my favorite individual scene ever written.

What a writer can take away from this

The major point I came across while pondering these similarities and differences? It is okay to base your character off another character and his or her situation.

Just put a unique spin on it. Do something different, such as:

  1. Change some character traits. Is the original a damsel-in-distress type? Make her a warrior, or more outgoing in some significant way.
  2. Consider changing the gender of the character. People react very different to a man versus a woman in a similar role or a similar situation. For better or worse, that’s a fact.
  3. Change the outcome of or the reason for the situation you’re copying. (For instance–risking a minor spoiler–I based a character in The Crimson League off Victor Hugo’s Fantine, but instead of this woman leaving a daughter with a couple of scumbag innkeepers who abuse the child, my character leaves a son–one whose existence has vast political implications–with a kind and loving innkeeper.)
  4. Put more or less focus than the original novel gives to the character and plot aspects that you’re making an homage to.
  5. Have outside forces that don’t exist in the original impact the similar situation that exists in your novel. This will always put a different spin on things!

Nothing we write, and no character we create, will ever be wholly original. What we can do is mix and match from various characters and even add a dash of ourselves to create something a bit different.

That’s really the definition of creative originality.

Have you ever based a character off someone else’s character? When do you think reusing a situation becomes cliché and boring?

If you found this post timely, you might want to check out the backlog of posts on plot for a deeper exploration of plot-related issues.

You can also sign up to follow my  blog by email at the top right of the page so you don’t miss out on future posts.

Advertisements

29 responses to “Creative Writing Tip: How to base a character on someone else’s

  1. Good to see that you’ve written a book about writing. You have a way of conveying your thoughts that’s easy to read.

    My favorite same-story-different-characters are like Zorro or Scarlet Pimpernel (Love the old Douglas Fairbanks rendition of Zorro where he does his own stunts). The hero has to pretend he’s weak, his love interest has to think he’s not worth her time, and all the while he’s saving her butt time and time again. 🙂

    • Thanks, Florida! One of my best friends LOVES the scarlet pimpernel. I really need to read it: I think I would love it, based on what I know of it. And I’ve never seen the Fairbanks Zorro, though I love old movies. Only seen Antonio Banderas. I need to look that one up, for sure! 🙂

  2. It’s amazing how one alteration on a character type can make something new and fresh. Although, I see a lot of people complaining when something is based on something else. There seems to be a sudden push in comparison, at least on the internet. I’m talking about the ‘that idea is nothing more than this previous idea with these changes’ and that apparently makes the new idea terrible no matter what.

    • That’s a fantastic point: I have noticed that too. I have heard people slam Harry Potter for that, which I think is absurd. No one else created Hogwarts, even if there are similarities between Rowling’s books and Lord of the Rings.

      I think it’s a little unfair. We are all inspired by the things we love, and I don’t think authors set out to “rewrite” something else. the creative process is always a mix and mash of all the things that go into who we are. The characters we’ve loved are a part of that. This attack tendency is also strongest when the comparisons are really strong: as in, there’s less change. And I guess that makes sense.

      • I wonder if it’s backlash from so many ‘based on a true story’ or ‘inspired by’ stories. It happens a lot more with movies, but I think it’s created a ‘nobody is being original’ mentality. The truth is that people are spending so much time see what’s already been done that they’re missing the differences.

        • they really are. That’s exactly what they’re doing: focusing on the similarities instead of focusing on what gives richness and something new to the text

  3. Love triangles are a timeless plot idea and will continue to be used by authors today and years from now. In my current WIP, I am working on a triangle of sorts and one of the members is half dragon!

    • that’s really interesting! I’ve only seen half-dragons in Robin Hobb. Have you read her books?

      • Can’t say that I’m familiar with her work. Technically it’s a weredragon but I wasn’t sure if I could use that word since the first I heard it was in an article from Dragon Magazine of TSR, INC. The people who made Dungeons and Dragons RPG system.

        • ah, gotcha! that’s a really cool idea, I think! Makes me think of Lupin in Harry Potter (though he’s a werewolf, of course. much more standard). I would never have thought of a weredragon for my work. I never though to put dragons in Herezoth for some reason. Classic fantasy fare, though. Tons of fun, always. I love reading about dragons.

        • I’ve always believed that any fantasy story should feature a dragon at some point. In fact, book 3 of my trilogy has a chapter titled…”In Every Fantasy Story there should be at least one dragon. This is my dragon…”
          It worked out great for the story too!

          As for the weredragons they are dragons most of the time that transform into human and, according to the article, always female. Of course I broke that rule by introducing a male weredragon who has trouble coping with the human form.

        • I really like that spin on it that you put. Sounds like fun!!! And hahaha…. that chapter and title sound amazing 🙂 🙂 🙂

  4. Great post! I’ve read Les Misérables, The Lord of the Rings, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so I can see your point.
    Eowyn is one of my favorite characters. I hadn’t thought about basing a character after her, but your post has sparked an idea.

  5. Excellent post! Thanks for the fodder!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it! This post was years in the making. I’ve always LOVED Les Miserables and Eponine especially, and the connection between those three characters hit me for the first time as a freshman in college.

  6. Great stuff as usual.
    Thanks Victoria

    • glad you enjoyed it, Doug!

      • I did thanks. My book writing has slowed a bit because I’m trying to get some work done on a children’s ministry business start-up.

        While I got you…
        I watched some of the ‘Downton Abbey’ T.V. series. (It’s very good!) My daughter wanted me to watch it.

        They do a great job of fiction writing in that series.
        It’s like watching a video writing lesson
        Lot’s of surprising twists and they even kill off some popular heroes to stir emotional responses from the viewers.
        I have learned the book writer needs to try to do those things too.
        Twists, turns, surprises and kill off a hero if you need to keep the story moving.

        • twists and turns are wonderful. It can be hard not to make them feel gimmicky, but when they work with rather than against the story and feel somehow natural–making the reader ask “how did I not see this coming?” there is nothing better.

          I have heard tons of good stuff about Downton Abbey. I know it’s on Netflix and I need to watch it at some point. I’ve just been watching so much Netflix lately, haha…. a bit too much. But I LOVE Maggie Smith. She is amazing!

        • I think they have done a very good job with the twists and turns. They are well placed in the drama. I think they work well. I have been able to ‘predict’ a couple things that I thought might happen, but I wonder if it’s because I am more in tuned to them since I have been studying writing.

          Whenever I watch something I am looking for the things I have read about good story telling

          My daughter had the series on DVD so I got some needed rest this past weekend and watched a lot of them.
          If you have time I think you probably will enjoy it.
          Is Maggie Smith the writer? I thought I saw another writer, but maybe that’s the difference between book and series…if there is a book.

          great to talk ‘shop’ with you.

        • Maggie Smith is an actress…. she’s the old lady who I think plays some kind of matriarch in the series…. she also played Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter series.

        • Oh yeah, I know who you mean. She is very good in those roles.

  7. In the rerun of Battlestar Galactica, they changed a main character from a man into a woman. Made one brilliant character. 🙂

    I think it would be harder to write the same story when starting at a similar point, than it would be to write a different one. There are just so many endless variables in each story, and even a little change can change the outcome dramatically.

    • I totally agree…. and i feel being different and writing a different story is what’s called for in most cases, Hollywood reboots aside. What author wouldn’t get bored retelling the same story s/he’s heard already? You would really have to strive to keep things in line to write the same story.

      I had never known that about Battlestar Galactica! That is amazingly awesome. Makes me think of Sherlock casing Lucy Liu as Watson.

  8. Great post, Victoria. I don’t typically base any of my characters on particular characters from other stories, but we are all influenced by what we’ve read and liked or disliked. Once I have written about a character, it’s fun to think of which characters from other stories my character shares traits with and how my character differs from those characters.

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s