Today I thought I’d take a look at some of my favorite characters, and see how I can use them to improve my own writing. This post may contain spoilers, so be careful!
- Benjamin Tallmadge, TURN: Washington’s Spies
This character is actually based of the revolutionary war hero of the same name, and the same revolutionary war hero that my Benjamin is based upon, which probably accounts for why I love him so much. Now I’ve only been watching TURN for a little bit, but he has easily become one of my favorite characters. Incredibly brave, and at times a little reckless, Ben usually is the one who takes action into his own hands, whether its starting a spy ring, or laying a trap to catch traitors. But that isn’t why I’ve come to love him. Ben makes mistakes. A lot of them. He doesn’t follow orders. He doesn’t know when he is asking too much. He guides himself by his own innate sense of right and wrong, rather than George Washington’s instructions. Even if I’ve never had to start a spy ring to save my country, I can relate to him. Ben wants to do what’s right, and he’ll stop at nothing to make sure that it gets done. And, like a lot of us, Ben wants validation. He wants George Washington to be proud of him, but that doesn’t always happen. For all the times he’s succeeded, there’s been a time where Ben has gone too far, and plenty of times where Washington almost fires him. In the end, Ben is like all of us. Desperate to prove himself, learning as he goes through life, and just wants to do the right thing.
What we can learn from Ben: Just because your character is in an unimaginable situation- he’s an alien trying to blend in among humans, or an assassin just wanting to make enough money to scrape by- doesn’t mean that reader can’t relate to him. By giving these characters fears that we all have, readers are able to see a piece of themselves in your character, even if they will never experience the same situation.
2. Mary Woodhull, TURN: Washington’s Spies
I’m sorry for another TURN character, but the show is really good, and everyone should go watch it. As much as I love Benjamin, Mary is my favorite character on the show. Once a staunch loyalist, she soon loses her loyalty to her country, and decides that her family is more important than choosing between King George and the Congress. With her patriot spy husband, Abraham, constantly putting their family into danger, Mary quickly adapts and starts to cover up his crimes, and she begins to take matters into her own hands. When a British officer starts to terrorize her town, Mary is the one who tries to shoot him, and even if she misses, she does incapacitate him for a couple of days. But don’t think she’s doing it for the patriots. In the process of shooting the British officer, she uses a patriot spy, one of her husband’s best friends, as a decoy, sending the redcoats after him, so she would have her chance. On top of it all, Mary does all of this for little to no credit. Her own husband didn’t even know that she shot a British officer to protect him, and the patriot spies still see her as Abraham’s interfering, loyalist wife.
What we can learn from Mary: Play with your character’s loyalties. What happens when they’re not loyal to a side, but one person? How does this change their actions? How do other people view this character? Or, instead of one person, try a character whose only loyalty is towards their family. Mary will do anything to keep her son and husband safe. Does this make her dangerous? Or is she less of a threat this way?
3. Carlton Lassiter, Psych
In Psych, Lassiter is usually the one who squashes the main characters’ plans, which can make him come across as a grumpy old stick-in-the-mud. But trust me, he has his redeeming qualities. Lassiter, or more affectionately known as Lassie, puts himself fully into his police work; is always looking out for his partner, Juliet; and he’s been hurt, just like the rest of us. Lassie always fully applies himself to his job, and always strives to do a good job, and while sometimes it seems like police work is the only thing he cares about, he is truly passionate about it. To me, Lassie views his partner, Juliet, as more of a little sister, and while this dynamic can sometimes be problematic (suggests that women need a man protecting her), their relationship is truly very sweet, and Lassie doesn’t want Juliet being hurt like he was by his ex-wife. Also, while it can seem that Lassie is incapable of loving anyone or anything, he does find love and get married, which shows a side to Lassie that hadn’t been seen before.
What we can learn from Lassie: Even if a character is usually at odds with your protagonist, that doesn’t make them wrong or evil. Make sure this character is well-rounded, with both flaws and redeeming qualities, so they don’t come across as one-sided. Also, if this character is one sided, it reflects poorly on your protagonist, since it can make them look perfect and Mary Sue-like if everyone who disagrees with them is bad.
4. The Eleventh Doctor, Doctor Who
The Eleventh Doctor is my favorite doctor for a reason. While he comes across as kiddish and immature, he really feels quite guilty over his past lives. He struggles with coming to terms with his past actions, and truly is running away from his mistakes, until he is forced to face them. This inner darkness is something that separates Eleven from his counterparts, and what makes him my favorite character. He isn’t completely consumed by his guilt though. He’s silly and awkward, and extremely compassionate, almost sometimes to a fault. But it’s the combination of he silliness and the darkness that make Eleven so interesting. His occasional angry outbursts are somewhat terrifying, and they’re something we haven’t seen from the other doctors, but they’re always sandwiched between episodes of goofiness, which makes him lovable as well.
What we can learn from Eleven: All characters need balance. They can’t be all bad, all good, all silly, all serious. It’s impossible to pick one trait to define a person, so you can’t do the same with your characters. Maybe you have a silly character, but they need to have a personality trait other than silly. Take a note from the Eleventh Doctor and give your character a conflicting personality trait so they don’t come across as one-sided and unbelievable.
5. Eowyn, The Lord of the Rings
In fantasy, a genre where many woman are saved by men and don’t do much else, it is refreshing to see a character such as Eowyn. Loyal to Rohan and her unle, King Theoden, Eowyn wants to fight to save her homeland, but isn’t allowed to because she is a woman. She finds solidarity in Merry, who is also unable to fight because he is a hobbit. In the end, she is the one who slays the Wraith King, one of the most powerful villains in Middle Earth. Sadly, J.R.R. Tolkien’s female characters really aren’t very developed past their love interests (Eowyn and Arwen both serve primarily as Aragorn’s love interests), but Eowyn shines the most out of all the female characters. She is guided by her emotion, and though does fill the stereotype of a disgruntled princess, she will to anything for her home and her people.
What we can learn from Eowyn: Women can be just as effective as men in battle. Eowyn kills the Wraith King, something that no man can do. We can learn from Tolkien’s mistakes here. A character can be a love interest, but that shouldn’t be their only defining quality. Think about it. If you like someone, it’s usually because of their personality. They’re funny, smart, kind, just like love interests in books should be, but hardly are, especially in older fantasy. Also remember that people in real live have other interests other than their romantic partners- consider hobbies, schooling, a career, and a family for your character. Also, be careful about just making your love interest useless in all other aspects. If they have no place in the story, other than being a love interest, you need to rework your story, or get rid of the character all together.