In indie comics (web and print) we are usually faced with building a world in which our characters can live in. We also try to make that world believable enough for our readers to get into that world and want to live in it themselves.
We’ve all seen the Lord of the Rings movies, and have our favorite franchise. Worlds of TARDISes, Galaxy Class Starships and Star Destroyers. Each of these universes has a myriad of stories and characters as far as the mind’s eye can see.
The sum total of these stories to us is a kind of new mythology. Those of us who are aware of the sum total of franchise stories tends to be more ‘in the know’ about characters, places, etc. Their level of knowledge is in direct correlation to their level of excitement and criticism of a new presentation of a part of that mythos.
For instance, when Guardians of the Galaxy released in theaters, I saw a variety of opinions about the movie (most positive). Those who had read the Guardians of the Galaxy comics were fully aware and completely excited about the movie.
Those of us who knew next to nothing about that series (myself included, I’m an X-Men guy), were pleasantly surprised and pulled into this universe with the Guardians.
Why is that?
In that universe we were introduced to several governments, but the general feel of the universe is that it was a larger version of what we have on Earth today. You have the clean, nice cities containing the newest technology and incredible levels of diversity in society.
Then you have the really nasty places that no one wants to visit unless they absolutely have to. The characters were not perfect, but mimicked the people we meet every day.
It felt real to us because it mirrored our real lives.
So how do we make a universe for others that feels real as well?
Location, Location, Location
When creating a starting point for your story, the most important thing is the description of the location that your characters inhabit.
If it’s a tavern, then the tavern needs to be more than bare walls and drinking men. What makes that tavern their home, or some place so seedy that they are cloaked as to hide their identity?
Describing that world visually and in dialogue is the key combination. If the characters or narrative don’t really acknowledge the status or importance of the place, the reader may not believe it is worth noticing.
In Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, there is a description of Bree which sets it apart from Hobbiton. Tolkien goes into great depth of describing Hobbiton and the Shire, because that place sets the tone for the characters. Frodo grew up in relative safety and it put in constant mortal danger for the rest of the series. Bu setting the tone of the home of our characters Frodo and Samwise, we can understand the more nuanced reactions they have throughout the books. The exact same goes for Bilbo in The Hobbit.
Days of Locations Past
Think about that for a moment. I can tell you right now that the majority of your life decisions have been influenced by the place of your birth, and where you grew up. Your identity is defined by it, regardless of where you live and what you do in the future. Did you leave that place as soon as you could? Do you still live there? Are you planning to live there the rest of your life?
Location determines so much about a character that you cannot fully describe the character without referencing the location. Tolkien does well in his descriptions of the Fellowship, as the origins of Gimli, Aragorn and Legolas are so starkly different that it’s a wonder that these representatives of their culture are able to interact with each other. This is part of what makes the Fellowship so intriguing. They find common ground in the goal of ridding the world of evil.
In the world, not of it.
Your character can be a product of a culture without adhering to that cultures standards. In the Marvel Universe, Gamorra is the adopted daughter of Thanos, but left his culture of death and assassination. Her defining characteristic is one of defiance. The same can be said of The Doctor, Luke Skywalker and more.
For Luke Skywalker, his birth and the remote place in which he grew had an astounding affect on him throughout his life. The way he interacted with others and the new stimuli around him always came from living out on a farm in the desert, unnoticed for decades.
His ambition and pure human feelings had to be tempered, and he had to grow up because the universe wasn’t going to wait for him. In his journey, he went from a cocky young kid to a battle-worn and seasoned man who was more concerned about saving his father than he was about saving the universe. Through his internal struggles he found redemption and peace, and ultimately a sense of significance that was missing from his childhood.
In Star Trek, Captain Jean-Luc Picard grew up as the best in everything from a strong family line, and as expected, landed the flagship of the Federation. Yet we see this unfolding humanity in Picard from the rigid, intense man he was at the beginning of the Voyage to a much more humble and caring man by the end of the series. In the beginning of the series, he tolerated children but had no use for them. He was a career man, and only allowed the children because it was Starfleet’s mandate that there be families aboard the ship.
As the series unfolded, every major event in his life molded him into a wise, caring individual. He was truly broken when he was assimilated, and when he lived an entire lifetime in an incredibly short span of time. When faced with changing the course of his live via Q, he found that it was more important to learn from mistakes than to kick himself for them.
By the time Star Trek: Generations came around, we found him weeping over the loss of his nephew, and in First Contact, we found him dealing with the deep-seeded rage of being violated.
These characters reflect our own struggles and problems, and the environments they come from, be they utopias or dystopias, speak to us in a very deep, subconscious level.
Where are you from?
When writing for a new character or series, think of how the locations will affect your characters. It goes far beyond “The dude is from a desert and likes water.” If that’s your first sentence, that’s great. Then ask yourself “Why does he like water? Is it water he likes, or a memory associated with water? Does water mean something more to him? Was there a place with water that was important to him?”
Once you determine the motives connected to location, then you write it all down, and give pieces of it to the reader, so they feel that sense of investment and fulfillment when the story pays off.
So writer, where are your characters from?