Building Heroes (and Villains): My Process

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Building Heroes (and Villains): My Process

[Cross-posted between my blog and The Pen and Cape Society]

When I first started working on The Descendants, I didn’t really know how ambitious the whole ‘let’s write a comic book series in prose’ thing actually was. I figured I would set up my main characters, create a big, villainous organization for them to fight, throw in a few side villains and just roll with it. At the very start, I expected a cast list of no more than thirty characters with the storytelling engine taking care of how I kept the thing going.

That… didn’t happen. If you check the tags on the site, you’ll find that I’ve got about 100 named characters, most of whom at least cameo more than once after their initial appearance.

The fact is, when you’re creating a superhero piece meant to emulate the genre’s four-color roots and the shared universes therein, there are a lot of factors that make your cast list grow exponentially. For one, even with seven main characters, I found that they still needed a supporting cast and as each character grew more independent, they sprouted entire ecosystems around them. They had friends, co-workers, families—and all of those characters could be tapped for sweet, sweet B-plot.

Not only that, but the villains themselves grew more complex. While I had one big organization, the other baddies also needed henchmen, informants and all manner of other ‘infrastructure’ characters, many of whom recur simply to give the appearance of a coherent world.

Beyond that, once you get writing and hear form fans, you start to realize some characters are way more popular than expected while others are way less, so you build up the former and downplay the former and now the newly important characters needs some infrastructure too.

And amid all this, I kept getting ideas and inspiration. I wanted to give my group team-ups with other heroes, so I had to make those heroes and them make them into characters the audience cared about in their own right. This created entire new story lines apart from the main series as characters like the Whitecoat got his own villains–

–And by the way, I’ve been re-reading the Whitecoat minis and I just realized that while the Whitecoat’s primary enemy group is the Hip Sing Tong, the story makes it look like all Tongs are criminal organizations because Whitecoat refers to ‘the Tongs’ a few times. This is incorrect; most Tongs are business organizations and the only crimes they’re engaged in are the same ones any other corporate interest engage in. They’re not running around shooting scientists and making illicit arms deals. I’m not sure if I can fix that in the actual text here, but a future Whitecoat story will correct this.

Sorry for the aside, but I do like to correct my mistakes.

Anyway, the point is, even if most of the new characters The Descendants requires me to create on an almost monthly basis are civilians and non-powered folk, I end up making a LOT of supers. So many that I’ve developed a process to streamline doing so.

That process is the subject of this week’s blog, and we’re going to start with step one:

Step The First: Powers/What They Can Do

This might seem ass-backward (because it is), but when I design a character my very first consideration is their ability set. That is not just their powers, but whatever special skills and contacts they might have available. This might range from ‘firebender’ (and yeah, A:tLA has ruined me for not seeing elementalists as anything but n-benders) or ‘fast-talker who knows cops’.

Even outside of my Superhero writing, I take this tact.

Why? As you’ll see in a bit, it actually works very well as a skeleton off of which to hang the rest of the character. Once I know a character’s powers, I use that to decide what would be interesting to go with that power in terms of other characterization.

Another reason—and here’s the secret sauce to keeping this thing up for seven goddamn years—is that I don’t design powered characters as I need them. Instead, I build the rough concept of the character and fill out things like background once I need them.

Choosing powers first also helps me pick a personality. See, in my estimation, a given power, such as fire control, is going to be used differently by different people. More than that,t he actual mechanics of the power can interact in interesting ways with different character types.

For example, maybe the character can only generate explosive fireballs. A brash character might enjoy just raining death on their enemies, while a more mindful one would not only use them sparingly, but strategically. Or if they need available fire to control, maybe some characters will carry a lighter or some sort, but others would never think of it and have to improvise and/or go without.

One of my favorite methods of character design is to give powers to a person who is bad at using them (a shapeshifter who can’t act), or someone who has the best possible (but not stereotypical) mindset for that power (a teleporter who developed his short-range ‘ports into a martial art).

Speaking of which, we now move to step two:

Personality

For me at least, how a character will be placed in a story doesn’t have as much of an effect on how I develop their personality as what would make them interesting given what they can do and who they’re connected to. At this point, however, they aren’t connected to anyone, so I depend mostly on power and gender at this phase.

Oh yeah, this is where the character tends to get their gender under me. It might shift as I need, but I find it easier to get their mannerisms and voice down in my mind’s eye once I’ve assigned them a gender. Ideally, that would be ‘gender identity’, but I’ve yet to hit upon a character for whom their physical gender and gender identity differed. Not to say I won’t it just hasn’t happened yet and I’m not educated enough to try at this time.

And no, if you’ve read my work, deciding a character is female or male doesn’t make a heck of a lot of difference to where I end up going with them, but it does help me solidify my knowledge of them from a creative standpoint. Occasionally, it becomes important, but not at this point.

Now there is a wist here when I write The Descendants, because it’s a scientific point that statistically more females than males gain descendant powers. If I’m feeling lazy, I actually will use an online dice roller with 66% being female if they’re a descendant. There are a number of characters, particularly in the Liedecker Institute series, who are the gender they are because of that dice roll. Try and guess which ones: I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised!

Like powers, personality is something I get fixed early because it then helps me form a picture of them in my head of this character. Personality not only informs clothing style (and the all-important costume if they’ve got one), but their hair, and how they carry themselves. I’ve also got my own pet tropes here, like tall, skinny shy folk and small people with tons of confidence.

Which leads us into…

Description

Powers and personality have a big effect on the basics here. If the character has a lot of physical mutations, it might just dictate everything about their physical appearance or just small parts. Once I have the first two pieces in place, I often have a good idea of what this person looks like.

Here is where one of my trademarks comes into play: I like mixing power sources and so I will often give a magical or mutant character some sort of technological device to improve or control their powers. The idea isn’t just to mix powers, but to show that nature is haphazard and not always perfect in giving someone a power and just like people use tools to augment our other abilities, people with powers will do the same.

It’s at this point that a character will develop what in my mind is their iconic look: costume or street clothes, a certain hairstyle, and any accessories they normally have on them.

Once that gets established, we move into what for many would be the tricky bit: race.

Okay, so there is an entire blog post right here about characters and race. Personally, I find there are too few non-white folks running around, especially in the dense metropolitan settings Superhero Classic takes place in. In the past, I like a lot of writers just sort of defaulted to white (even though I’m mixed race) because that’s how fiction has been a long time.

Again, there is a whole other post here, but I’ll say this: While I would like other authors to think a bit harder on why they’re using this default, I’m not going to fault them for not thinking about it without prompting. I am, however, disgusted when I hear writers make up excuses for this and actively exclude other races, often claiming they’re fighting against ‘political correctness’ or saying the non-white reader should ‘use their imaginations’. That’s crap and we as a people shouldn’t let folks get away with acting that way.

For me however, it’s partially about accuracy as it is being inclusive. The Descendants takes place in 2074. By 2030 is not before mixed race people will be a majority at least in America, where my story is set. I didn’t know that when I started so there are actually no mixed-race people in my main cast, but as I created more characters, I also became more diverse in the direction most works don’t even consider.

But it’s still more important to be inclusive and here’s why: It’s superheroes. While the genre is larger than its four-color roots, I still feel that at the core of the superhero is a person who if you can’t at least look up to and wish to be like, they’re someone whose struggles and goals you want to identify with, someone you can live vicariously through as the right wrongs and do good. This while they are also capable of things you will never be able to replicate. They are our new, shared mythology.

I’m not saying a superhero has to be like you to evoke those feelings, but when none of them are, or the ones who end up stuck on the fringe, it’s not hard to feel a bit left out. When you know you’ll never really be like these people for all their fantastic elements, it’s rather painful to see that you’re not ‘part’ of it for very real differences that dis-include you from other things in real life.

Therefore, when I get a character to this stage, I take a long, hard look at them and say ‘Is there a reason for this person to be a specific race?’. There are some in-universe reasons for some people to be a given race for me. Given the nature of descendant powers (experimentation during WWII), there are some power sets only certain groups of people will have been exposed to. I won’t say which because SPOILERS, but once I put a power in place, there are some people whose ancestors had to be in a concentration camp, or had to be from East Asia, or had to be a black American soldier, or had to be a college student during the MKULTRA experiments.

If they don’t have to be a given race, I try to imagine the character in said iconic look with different hair, different skin tones, different facial features until I come up with a look that I feel is best. Which, given that I’m working in prose is a little silly, but my writing process is so visual, it comes in very handy.

Again, it might sound ass-backward, but one has to keep in mind that I’m not trying to write about the ‘experience’ of being a member of that race, I’m writing about that particular character who has had the specific experiences I’ll be giving them. Plus, it’s 2070 in-universe, who’s to say what a ‘typical’ experience for any given people is at that point?

In fact, the character’s power, personality and description are what then inform their…

Background

Due to the nature of the genre and the exponential expansion of the cast list, I have gotten into the habit of giving every named character a background. It just makes thing easier for the occasion where I decide to bring them back later in an expanded role.

Backgrounds are something I only start to develop when I put a character into play though. They build on the fly as I say ‘this person is in situation X—why? I backtrack and flesh out why a person like the one I designed is now where they are when they first appear in a story and how that will affect their actions.

It’s during this that little proto-supporting casts come into being. I’ll decide that a given soldier is more cautious because he just got a video of his kid at home, or some crook is extra nervous because they’re already in trouble with the boss.

Often with the actual superheroes and villains, I develop their origins alongside this process. Notably, one of my better-known villains, Vincent Liedecker has kept growing in his backstory with every appearance to the point that I’m not applying his ‘background’ motivations to his present actions, creating viable continuity.

For me, these don’t usually start was complex stories. I’ll start with one or two key points in their past lives, say a motivation or a former friend or love and run with it, bouncing that idea off of the things happening in the actual story to explain in my own head why they do what they do. A lot of this is invisible to the readers, but I like to think that the results are deeper characters without a lot of exposition.

But this all depends on the step that’s simultaneous with building background…

Context

Here’s the deal: all of what I’ve mentioned before is not set in stone until the moment I set it up in digital ink. In the end, I might tweak everything in order to fit the context in which I need the character to appear. A favorite character of a lot of my readers, Kareem started out as largely a concept ‘mentalist character trapped in his own body’. I had pretty much nothing else for him but the fact that he was Iranian. When I sat down and started writing, however, it became clear that this was a character who could see through all the nerves and guilt and fear everyone had on their first night and speak to everyone to calm them down.

It’s because of what he could do that he became the kind of level-headed, steadfast character that he is. I initially needed him for that role, he filled it, and from there onward, I was able to build plot around that fact.

The aforementioned Liedecker was originally a basic savvy mob boss, but then I needed him to be lenient to another character over a certain motive of hers and got to thinking about why he would do that. From there, I built a bigger backstory for him that lays out not only his motives, but why he doesn’t do some things one would expect of a mob boss.

When we’re talking about context and superheroes though, you can’t get away with ignoring that part in particular: they’re a superhero. That means that they have a reason for foregoing using their powers for profit (or doing so on the side) in order to put themselves at risk to help others or take on threats and conflicts beyond what can be expected of the average person.

While it isn’t one hundred percent necessary to decide what drives them (in my opinion), but what is indefensible it how the character approaches that. They know they can get hurt, they know they could die—or at least they should (it’s pretty fun when they don’t) and yet, they still do this thing they (often) don’t have to. The question for me when I’m designing a superhero is usually NOT why did they start, it’s why do they keep doing it.

And there are a lot more reasons for people to stay in this kind of things than a lot of people consider. The most popular are pure altruism and righting a specific wrong (often harm done to a loved one) by way of righting many other wrongs, but there’s a whole there’s a whole cornucopia of continuing motivations out there. One I feel into entirely by accident was that of a victim of abuse using their heroism as a means of breaking the cycle.

The same kind of thing goes for villains and failing to give them a continuing motivation often results in the villain starting out with a clear goal only to come back later doing petty crime. TVTropes calls this Motive Decay and you shouldn’t let this happen to you.

And while a lot of people don’t think of this, this kind of thing applies to supporting cast as well, especially those who are in on secret identities. Why do they stick with the hero, helping cover for them, bandaging wounds and staying in the line of fire for whatever psychopath forgets that hurting the supporting cast is a really, really stupid idea? It can be love or friendship, but with people there’s often other layers. Maybe they feel like they’re doing their part and are part of something larger, perhaps they feel a larger obligation to the hero?

And I know I’ve talked about motivation a lot in this section, but the context also applies to exactly what the character has been put into the narrative for. This is where a lot of final tweaks come in. For example, if they need to be in conflict with the main characters, I’ll nudge their personality slightly to create friction. If I want them to eventually befriend the group, I’ll make them a bit more compatible with someone, maybe give them a hobby.

In the end, I feel like the takeaway should be this:the entire character, from their powers to their background is not independent of the story. They’re symbiotic, feeding off of each other and in turn becoming more refined in the process. The best stories are those that could not have possibly been told with different characters. And the best Superheroes are the ones who have their own stories and have been shaped by them into a character who could not truly exist as they are without those stories.

…Or at least that’s how I do it.

By | 2014-07-13T20:20:11+00:00 July 4th, 2014|Landon Porter, On Writing|Comments Off on Building Heroes (and Villains): My Process

About the Author:

Landon Porter is the creator of The Descendants Universe and Rune Breaker.You can follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni

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