As 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).
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:
- Change some character traits. Is the original a damsel-in-distress type? Make her a warrior, or more outgoing in some significant way.
- 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.
- 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.)
- Put more or less focus than the original novel gives to the character and plot aspects that you’re making an homage to.
- 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.