We’ve heard it all before. Nothing is original. The same characters get recycled over and over into different times, worlds, and scenarios.
True, true, true.
While entertaining some foreign exchange students, I brainstormed what to do with them. I thought I should take them to touristy places, or museums. My friend shook his head at me. “Don’t get stuck on their background,” he said. “They’re your age. Go do stuff you’d think is fun.”
The point he was trying to make is that the person — the individual — isn’t tied to a time or place. As such, their interests and psychology should determine their character more than the setting. Setting determines what’s cool and fashionable, but you could say with confidence that the Teenager will want to assert her identity by being rebellious — pursuing that which is cool and fashionable.
With this in mind, it’s important to represent archetypes honestly. Let’s take, for example, a soldier. Her job is war. He must keep his gear in good repair. She must execute her orders with efficiency. He must obey superior officers. She may believe in honor, or be completely jaded; but generally speaking soldiers want to LIVE.
They “believe” in laying down their life for their country, their king, or their Alpha Centauri Consortium, but mostly they want to get themselves and their buddies out alive. Or they want to plunder. Or develop their career.
Vikings went a-Viking to bring home enough wealth to start a farm. The Baby Boom happened right after World War II. See what I mean?
When developing characters, start with setting but don’t get stuck there. Think about who they are, and what they want out of life. A great character will be the same person whether they’re on the battlefield, or a boardroom.
“No matter where you go, there you are.”
— Buckaroo Banzai
“I am a person before I am anything else. I never say I am a writer. I never say I am an artist…I am a person who does those things.”
― Edward Gorey