Lessons Learned from Characters I Love

Writing Advice

You know, I feel like it’s a great time to gush about some lovely characters from some lovely properties that I love. Ya know?

I enjoy a variety of media and that’ll be represented here. If you haven’t ingested any of this delightful content, I cannot recommend anything more than these shows, movies, and books. 

**A note for the format: I am going to talk extensively about the first character. The other discussions will be considerably shorter.

I’m going to split this into several posts This week, I’m going to talk all about some awesome ladies! 


Toph Beifong [Avatar: the Last Airbender] 

What can I say that hasn’t already been said? Toph is the total package. In a show of fantastic characters, it was difficult to say ‘let me just pick the best one’ because each character feels so real. How do you compare these very diverse personalities, skills, traits, and dynamics? Because of the interconnectivity of all the characters, I struggle to identify favorites. But I wanted to talk about Toph for a very specific reason:

Toph receives one of the flattest arcs of the show. There are characters with a fraction of the screentime go through massive, compelling changes. And that’s the reason I want to talk about her here. A lot of you authors out there — myself included — have spent a lot of time learning from pros. I know that I’ve done a fair amount of research looking into what makes compelling characters, and, while there are cases like Indiana Jones where the ‘flat arc’ is perfectly acceptable, it is often suggested that the best way to convince your audience to latch onto a character is through a beautiful, symbolic arc. Yet here we are. 

One of the greatest things about Toph is the way this minimalistic arc plays into her character. When we first meet her, she is confident, powerful, stubborn, unyielding; she is the perfect foil for our MC, Aang. She embodies everything he needs to learn from her. She is an earthbender through and through. And to strip her of those traits would lessen the impact that she has on Team Avatar as a whole. Her minor arc centers around the slow-growing appreciation for authority, and it is just enough to ground her as a realistic person — a child who is still growing and learning. 

Of course, one of the best things about Toph is her blindness. I’m sure you writers out there have been warned against ‘writing a token ___ character’ to fill a diversity quota. Readers of the world are begging –demanding– diversity. And rightfully so. The world is full of a menagerie of people, yet the basic character template is ‘straight, white, able-bodied male until distinguished otherwise.’ That is a tragedy. Therefore, the response to this is to include one ‘checkmark’ character. Because that will satisfy fans. One character of color. One LGBT character. One character with a mental or physical disability. Bonus points if you lump several characteristics into one — a black female, wheelchair bound, who likes girls because lesbians can be hot. What a great idea. If you don’t understand sarcasm, understand I do not agree with this method. 

So what does that have to do with Toph? Her blindness is not used as a way to fill a quota. Her blindness is so well integrated into the world and her character. Why is she the most incredible earthbender? Because she can’t see, she developed an ability (that makes sense in-universe) that shows her what is happening. Want added drama in more mundane activities? Toph can’t see anything when they travel by sky bison. Need a way for Team Avatar to know they’re being pursued? Toph can feel people coming long before they’re close enough to attack. She isn’t a one-trick-pony. She is integrated into the story in every way. Without Toph and her blindness, the story could not happen the way it did. 

Asami Sato [The Legend of Korra] 

Originally, this slot was taken by Megara from Disney’s Hercules, but Asami hits all of the same points plus a few extras. When we first meet Asami, she’s the pretty romantic rival to Korra. She gets a standard meet-cute with their current shared-love interest, Mako, and sweeps him away to a world of wealth he’d never known before. Another show might take this opportunity to tell the audience they should be rooting for Korra and Mako to end up dating because Korra is the MC. The writers could have made Asami unlikable in a dozen different ways. She could’ve been snobby, dumb, petty, manipulative, unfaithful… Shoot, they gave her two chances to oppose Korra — once when Mako and Korra kissed and again when her Equalist father asked her to turn against Team Avatar. 

Legend of Korra has its faults, but I think they really wrote a beautiful character in Asami. She is level-headed and kind. She is hard-working and smart. She is independent. Oh, and did I mention, she is a non-bender? She is at a disadvantage in a straight fight, yet holds her own. And in a world where the market is overflowing with ‘strong women’ who look just like Korra, Asami is a great reminder that strong women come in all shapes and sizes. She wears heels and makeup and her hair is always perfect. She is soft-spoken but unwilling to be plowed over. She has strong emotional reactions — something Korra also offers in a way I appreciate. Asami is just a joy. The writers took a character who I assumed I would dislike, and they let her become one of my favorite characters in the show. 

Anastasia Romanov [Anastasia] 

It’s finally time to talk about one of my favorite animated movies out there. Our title character, Anastasia, is loosely based on the real life Russian Revolution in which Czar Nicholas ii is overthrown, and he and his whole family is killed. The following circumstances lead to a series of conspiracies that one of the daughters survived. Of course, that daughter was the inspiration for this magical, musical, happily-ever-after adaptation of the real-life events. 

So let’s actually talk about the movie. Because of the magic of amnesia, our grand duchess ends up in an orphanage at the age of 8 with no idea who she is or where she came from. Nothing aside from a locket that convinces her to go to Paris. We are shown that she is loved by her fellow orphans while butting heads with authoritarian figures. She is shown to be a bit aloof as she continues to show a strong will that favors that of royal privilege. This very fitting personality trait sets her up for fantastic banter and push-and-pull relationships with the headstrong Dimitri who helps her travel from Russia to France. 

I adore the character of Anastasia because she is so perfectly balanced. She is kind but proud. She has no intention to be run over. She is determined but unsure in herself. She has serious doubts that the path she is pursuing leads anywhere. I am a sucker for a snarky character who is stubborn and sassy while hiding a fear of the unknown. 

Next week, I’m going to talk about some of my favorite boys in fiction. I hope to see you all then!


Stay Safe, 

Rena Grace

Searching for the Theme

Writing Advice

Across the internet, in niches of the writing community, the topic of theme is pretty widely discussed. Spawning from years of reading-class conversations over literary icons, thematic statements can feel simultaneously obvious and vague, practical and mystical, tacked-on and over-thought. 

What even is a theme? 

“Theme, of course, is a statement, direct or implied, about the author’s ideas of the human condition.”

Ah… of course. That makes sense. Thank you Google.

I have heard theme renamed many things that feel more relatable: the ‘big idea,’ the ‘universal truth,’ the ‘commentary on humanity.’ The Lesson. The Moral. The Take-Away. But even those words can feel pretentious and unhelpful.

To take an example right out of Mrs. Peirce’s AP Lit class, let’s look briefly at the Great Gatsby. An incredibly basic summary of the story might look like this: Jay Gatsby gains wealth in an effort to win the adulterous affection of a past-lover, Daisy Buchanan, eventually leading to his death. From this statement alone, I could argue that two large thematic ideas are wealth and love, because they are two of the biggest factors in the writing, and, therefore, in the summary. Gatsby gains wealth in order to pursue his lost love. Many of his biggest goals revolve around gaining those two things. Love and Wealth. Wealth and Love. Seems simple enough. Yet, if you were to Google themes of the book, you would get lengthy lists that varied with each source. “The American Dream,” “justice,” “power,” “greed,” “ambition,” and on and on and on. 

And suddenly we’re overwhelmed again. How is this supposed to help us as writers? What can we learn? I think there is one great lesson: there is no one right answer. Don’t overdo it; I believe every story has a theme, whether intentional or not. Let your story happen, and these elusive themes will happen the same.

Still concerned? Hoping to be more intentional? Let me walk you through my process:

In my writing, I look for one theme. No more, no less. And for me, that theme starts with characters. 

In my current manuscript, Tales of Drynic, my main character’s name is Abryn. Abryn is a mechanic who chooses to work in a poor town, even though she doesn’t have to. She stays because she has abilities that the townspeople need, and she needs to feel needed. That’s her goal, her motivation, and her philosophy. Be useful or be forgotten. Because her self-worth is tied to her usefulness to other people, she is constantly learning new skills. Not only can she fix machines, but she can cook, she can knit, she can play guitar, she can be what you need her to be. Because she is a fast learner, she develops a false-pride and a sense of hollow self-importance. Because she clings to this false-pride, she becomes upset when she doesn’t pick something up or have an aptitude for any one thing. She is uneasy around blood, and that is a large point of shame, as she feels useless in medical situations. She keeps herself in a cycle of learning, hoping to be the best, and refusing to have faith in others.

When the story begins, you meet Abryn as a workaholic who bears the weight of her town’s transit-repair team — a job she sees as vital to the survival of the townspeople. She is introduced to royalty who tempt her with an offer to help them save surrounding cities from collapsing on themselves. She is put in a position of power that feeds the belief that she is earning worth because of her help and involvement. Time and time again, she is presented with options that give her a sense of control; she is given the opportunity to take matters into her own hands on a power-high that can cause ripples across her small island-nation. 

If you consider these character traits, ideals, fears, beliefs, and flaws — things you likely already have baked into your own character — you can start to see them weave a coherent through-line that leads to an idea about humanity. Theme is often directly linked to character and character growth; it’s easier to learn from other people, even if they’re fictional. 

To me, Abryn’s story says that self-worth cannot be earned. To you, it may mean that perfection is unattainable. Another might see that one person can’t do everything. Another learns that it’s important to love yourself. All of these answers are just as valid as the last. The thing is, I — as the writer — am only focusing on the one. I cannot stop the reader from seeing different truths, but this truth is the one I want to tell myself. That is how I find my themes — by looking at my life and asking what I need to teach myself. 

So maybe that is a place to start. It can be overwhelming to look at the world and try to make a statement that applies to everyone. It’s intimidating to find a way to say “love is the most important thing of all,” or “world-peace is the best option” without sounding pretentious. Maybe the most important place to look is at your flaws, pains, and tragedies. Funny thing about humans, we often need to learn the same stupid things.

That’s all I have for this week. I hope it gave you a direction to look in. 


Stay Safe,

Rena Grace

Comparing Group Dynamics

Writing Advice

As a piggy-back to last week’s blog, let’s talk about more team dynamics. Just like in part one, I’m going to be using some basic tropes of the five-man-band to make these comparisons. As a refresher, the five-man-band is a tried-and-true method of team building that helps authors build a balanced team. The basic players are as follows: To start, you have the Leader, who does exactly what you’d expect — lead. Next up is the Lancer. This character is the right-hand-man of the group; they tend to be the closest to the protagonist, and often poses the most internal conflict of everyone — though that’s not necessary. There are a lot of flavors to Lancers: the best friend, the almost-as-good rival, the cranky loner, the literary foil (we’ll talk more about that in a bit.) Next, you have the Heart, the emotional center of the group; the big guy, the group’s muscle; and the smart guy, the group’s brain. As we talked about last week, the most interesting team members often have complex and unique relationships within themselves as well as with each other. Though, as you’ll see today, there are examples of simple teams done really well.

Before we jump in, let’s talk a little about the Literary Foils. Typically referring for single characters, a literary foil is something that uses opposite characteristics to highlight features of your protagonist. Selfless Leader? Greedy Lancer? That’s a foil. The differences highlight important traits. I’m going to be using this literary device on a group scale to talk about how some of our favorite teams stack up to their in-universe counterparts. 

Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, Zuko VS Azula, Zuko, Mai, Tai Li

Let’s start with one of the hottest topics in the world right now: Avatar. Among so much more, Avatar the Last Airbender has an amazing team dynamic, but it also has an incredible foil team. 

this is your spoiler warning. I will be giving specific examples that will spoil character arcs.

Starting out with our favorite pacifist monk; Aang is in a subcategory of leader, being a “chosen one” of sorts. While he is kind and loving, the role of the Heart would probably go to Katara. She fulfills the Heart role in a very motherly way. Her brother Sokka — the self-proclaimed “idea guy” — plays the role of the Smart guy, with Toph as the Big Guy in a small package. 

In comparison, the ladies of the Fire Nation work in a much different way. Azula, in all her terror, is a powerhouse in this trope. She takes up three of the five roles as the Leader, Big Guy, and Smart Guy. She always has a plan, and it is at least three steps ahead of anyone else. And in terms of pure power, skill, and talent, the princess is on a completely different plane. This sets up a super interesting dynamic for the rest of the group. While Tai Li is a very traditional Heart — soft and kind and vulnerable — I would argue that Mai Is as well. Mai is in a constant state of emotional shut-down, though she is far from un-feeling. I would call her an anti-Heart or a hidden-Heart. The way the writers chose to use Mai and Tai Li as foils to each other furthered Azula’s separation from them.

Notice how, holistically, Team Avatar’s spread is infinitely more balanced than Azula’s. We see that once the Hearts of her group leave, you see the princess incapable of making coherent plans or applying her strength effectively. While Team Avatar does struggle when Sokka is high on cactus juice or before they have the brute strength and power of will Toph brings, they don’t crumble under their own weight the same way Azula does.

Now, you may have noticed I saved our favorite cranky, honor-obsessed enigma for last. I thought it would make the most sense as we get to see him as part of both groups and by himself. Zuko is a great example of the almost-as-good rival on both teams, and this works to his benefit as a stand-alone character. Since he was little, you see his technical skills paling in comparison to his sisters; “she was born lucky, he was lucky to be born.” Once he joins team Azula as teenagers, he takes up the implied role of Lancer. Being the only other bender puts him in direct comparison with his sister in the way the other girls aren’t; this comparison reinforces that he is still only second best. As a further foil to his sister, he portrays another level of what it means to be a Heart. He is the midpoint between Mai and Tai Li, internalizing all of his negative feelings like Mai but is much more open to expressing them like Tai Li. 

Any time he is by himself, Zuko demonstrates all three characteristics of the group (Leader and Lancer are a bit redundant in solo situations) as seen in the episode “Zuko Alone.” He is smart enough to stay alive, stay under the radar, and keep out of trouble for the most part. He kind and loving in the way he takes care of the Earth Village family. And he is strong and capable when he defends them from the power-hungry soldiers. It’s common for the “loner” variant of the Lancer to have a well rounded skillset but not good enough to remain a solo act for too long.

Once aligned with Team Avatar, you see him in the full role of a Lancer. He equalizes the team, adding the last bit of balance they were missing. Literally, he is the last element needed, giving him an element of the Big Guy. His knowledge of the Fire Lord and Fire Nation gives him an element of the Smart Guy. And his willingness to help each member of the Team accomplish some goal — some even finding closure on their character arcs. He also fills in the important role of in-team tension. While it’s great for teams to get along, things won’t be great always. Sometimes you have to allow your arch-nemesis onto your team to teach you firebending. Zuko was brought on after months of opposing Team Avatar, and each had an additional, personal reason to mistrust him. But this mistrust lead to the vital episodes that Zuko spent helping each team member with a personal task.

You can see how, while Team Avatar has very simple, straightforward alignments, they are foiled by their most intense, highly-complex rivals. Zuko’s inclusion in both groups highlights just how different the dynamics work. 

Kirk + Spock + Bones VS Future Generations

Live Long and Prosper, my dudes. Through sixty years and almost ten series, Star Trek is a great example of how diverse these five-man-bands can really be.

The original show gave us one of the earliest dream-teams on television. While you could argue to fit additional members in the additional slots, no one beyond our original three (Kirk, Spock, & Bones) really have much impact on the team’s makeup. It might be slightly different in the new movie adaptation, but I’m sure the premise is similar. Captain Kirk is, by rank the leader. In great 60’s fashion, he is the most charming, the most charismatic, the best at whatever the episode needs. Like Our Harry Potter example last week, he is a relatively simple character, leaving the nuance to his closest friends. Spock, his Lancer, fills in both the roles of Smart Guy (the logical mind of the expedition, as well as the most familiar species with space travel) and the Strong Guy (again, because his species is innately stronger than the human race.) Bones, as a doctor who works under a moral code, is the Heart; his medical knowledge also gives him some Smart Guy characteristics, allowing Captain Kirk to simply exist, supported by his colleagues.

Decades later, The Next Generation breaks down the players into the one-a-piece method of the trope. Captain Picard is again our Leader. Ryker, the second in command, is our Lancer. Dianna is an emphatic therapist, making her our Heart. Warf, a Klingon warrior, is our Big Guy. Data is an android, filling in the role as Smart Guy. This is the simplest way to set up a team. Everyone has pretty clear roles, and there is hardly any significant overlap. If you’ve seen the series, you know that the simple setup works for this story, allowing more focus on plot than characters. TNG focuses largely on creative worldbuilding, vast adventures, and unique scenarios. There was no need to over-complicate things by splitting the focus evenly between plot and characters.

Another couple decades pass, and we get our next great run in the series Voyager. In stark contrast to The Next Generation’s plot-driven story, Voyager feels almost completely character driven. We, again, start simple with Captain Janeway as the Leader. Chakotay is the second in command and plays the Lancer, as well as a fairly spiritual version of the Heart. Pretty straightforward. In this generation, I consider the technology to be the main “Big Guy” as it does a lot of the plot-driven heavy lifting. That leaves us with a really interesting setup for the role of Smart Guy. B’Elanna is far-and-above the best engineers; The Doctor is a hologram with access to an infinite amount of data with no limit on mental capacity like humans; Seven-of-Nine is a Borg — a species that thrives on accumulated knowledge from other civilizations galaxy-wide — so she knows more about the universe than the rest of the crew combined.  In a story like Star Trek, it is important to have a wide range of knowledge on your team at any time. This setup puts a strong focus on the internal conflicts of the show, minimizing the need for physically strong characters. The writers devote a lot of time to problem solving, both academic and emotional; they even give Janeway a handful of episodes to explore the relationship between leading and taking care of one’s emotional state.

Each generation has its own take on power and skill distribution. I’d say that Star Trek’s only baseline consistency is actually in their Leader characters. They are generally only that: the Leader. As with many main protagonists, they are well-rounded in everything, while other characters take up specific support roles for each trope. Obviously, with such large casts, each person can bring something a little different to the table to balance out the mix. It’s important to consider how each character is vital to the success of the team. How would your team work without any one primary member? If the team would function fine, maybe reconsider that character’s value in your story. 

There is no one-size-fits-all mold for any team. In fact, that nuance is what makes readers want to keep engaging. It is important to look at your story and decide how nuanced your team needs to be to fully benefit the story. An awesome skill/power dynamic is an easy point of interest for your reader to latch onto, but it isn’t always necessary to every story. Using tropes like the five-man-band makes your characters easier to understand and remember, even if your reader has never had the trope explained to them. While it isn’t the only way to work, it is an effective method to consider. The biggest benefit is the versatility and variety you can get while staying in this format. It keeps your team in check without taking away the freedom you have as an author. The possibilities are endless!

That’s all for this week. Next Monday, I’m considering annotating the team I built in my current WIP, Tales of Drynic. If you’d be interested in seeing that analysis, I’d love it if you left a comment down below!


Stay Safe!

Rena Grace

Group Dynamics in Fiction

Writing Advice

In an era of self-isolation and social distancing, I want to talk about some of my favorite teams in fiction. One of the fastest ways to get me personally hooked is by setting up a group of characters that I love to see interacting. 

As with all elements of fiction, a number of tropes and trends have arisen over the years around the ‘dream team.’ Overly Sarcastic Productions (OSP) on Youtube has a fantastic video on the semantics of this trope, and I highly recommend checking them out after this! I’m going to hit on the basics of their video to help frame today’s blog.

Let’s start with something obvious: the best teams work best when each member contributes something. OSP really successfully discusses the most common members of the five-man-band: the Leader, the Lancer (right-hand man), the Heart, the Big Guy, and the Smart Guy. These five archetypes cover basically anything you could need for a five-man team, but using these cut-and-dry outlines can make a character feel flat and one-dimensional. Oftentimes, the most successful way to combat this is by combining archetypes.

Let’s start out with the simplest example.

Harry + Hermione + Ron (Harry Potter)

How could I talk about team dynamics without discussing this generation’s golden trio? Harry and the gang fall into a looser five-man-band, occasionally picking up Neville or Luna as the Heart or Ginny as the Big Guy. But on their own, they’ve got a pretty obvious Leader-Lancer-Smart Guy composition. On the surface, at least. This dynamic is interesting specifically in the way it splits up the roles of Lancer and Smart Guy. Ron is the quintessential Lancer — the first best friend, the side-kick, the one who’s always there. But the entire Weasley family is a wealth of knowledge. When it comes to the wizarding world, Hermione is nearly as lost as Harry is, as both grew up in muggle homes. Without Ron, there would be no nights at the Burrow to see how a magical family lives. There would be no explanation of unusual items and customs. Ron’s experience makes him more of the street-smarts guy, but that role is a pillar of many stories. 

As for Hermione, yes, she is bookish, and she in every way fills the stereotypical ‘smart guy’ role. But! She is also a wonderful foil to Harry. She is committed to overachieving in classes while Harry exists in a more passive world of natural talent and chosen-one-ness. And despite that, she stays with Harry through everything. She is unyielding. She helps him and Ron with homework because she can’t stand to see them fail. She isn’t mad when Harry is entered into the TriWizard Tournament because she cares so much more about Harry’s safety. She stays with him every second while looking for Horcruxes. She doesn’t even leave when he’s cheating to beat her in Potions. 

Because of the complexity of his friends, I wouldn’t say that Harry has a very complex archetype. He leads because it’s his story. And that works! I have so much love for these characters, especially the way they are written in the book. They exist on an even playing field. The story works because they exist together, creating a unique unit that feels unstoppable. 


Captain America + Ironman + Thor (Marvel Cinematic Universe)

Next, let’s talk about everyone’s favorite superheroes — well, they’re mine at least. However, many of you astute readers are questioning me. “Don’t you know there are more Avengers than that?” To which I say, yes of course. But these are the ones that matter. Even considering Black Widow, Hulk, and Hawkeye, the three listed above are the characters I care about the most. They also happen to be the most interesting characters to examine.  

Lined up against our five-man-band archetypes, there are some pretty quick parallels: Tony Stark is very obviously the ‘Smart Guy,’ Thor is obviously the ‘Big Guy,’ and Steve Rogers is obviously the ‘Heart.’ Very simple, clear alignments. It becomes a little muddier when you look at the other two “roles” of Lancer and Leader. 

Before we get there, let’s talk about the Leader v Lancer relationship. At its most basic level, Lancers are the right-hand man; they’re the second in command; they’re often the closest to the Leader. The Lancer often provides in-group opposition to the Leader. In good writing, the Lancer is a foil to the Leader, accentuating that characterization. So what does that do for our Avengers example?

Well, all three have very distinct moments of leadership. I believe — even aside from their solo-films — all take charge as the commanding force of large battles. 

Cap leads in the Battle of New York, leaving Thor to zap things and Tony to decide on his own what should be done. In this situation, Tony is the Lancer to Cap’s Leader. It highlights that Cap is a team player with the charisma to shine, while Tony is more of a quick-thinking, individualistic rogue.

In the Battle of Sokovia, Tony takes the lead, taking responsibility as the creator of their current issue, Ultron, with Thor playing Lancer, mostly by extension through the life-lightning he used on Vision. Cap is just there to punch things and save people this time around.

In the Battle of Wakanda, Thor is the turning-point in the fight. While Cap did what he could, leading the charge and calling the shots, he was the Lancer here, dependent on the God of Thunder to join in and decmate the army more efficiently. When the time came, Cap put up a great fight against Thanos, but it was Thor that was there to deliver the final blow, making him more of the Leader. All this time, Tony is in space, incapable of filling any real role.

While there’s nothing special about saying “Tony is smart, Thor has powers, and Cap is a sweet, lovable softy,” there is something special about the way their leadership dynamic ebbs and flows. 


Quasimodo + Esmeralda + Febas (Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame)

This is one you might not have expected to see on this list, but I really really really wanted to talk about the success of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Unlike the two examples above, there really aren’t many characters to add to make this a full five-ish man band. Other main characters include the scary bad guy, those comic relief rocks, and that one gypsy-narrator who can’t decide whether or not to be omniscient. 

That means this group works exclusively by itself. For this one I want to abandon the roles of Leader and Lancer because I don’t think they really apply to what has been done here. I want to talk about the other three roles and how every character fills every one. 

Let’s start with our main guy, mister Quasimodo. This guy is incredible. And the first thing you’re likely going to notice is his heart. His introduction scene shows him encouraging a baby bird to fly. You see a gentleness that warms your soul right before you’re reminded of the manipulative asshole who raised him to be timid and fearful and ashamed to exist. Yet Quasi loves him until the end. After recognizing years of abuse, neglect, lies, neglect, manipulation, murder — shit, nearly stabbing the woman he was falling for — Quasi still tries to save this monster from falling off the cathedral into the depths of lava-hell. And that’s not even touching the love he has for his friends.

… Yet… there was that one time he held Febas in full armor with a single hand. And that time he effortlessly moved the stone seal from over the Court of Miracles. And that time he literally broke down stone columns of an architectural masterpiece. You can’t deny he’s incredibly strong! … Yet… he is also smart! He devised an escape plan for Esmerelda, and he figured out how to read the map to find her.

Of course, if we’re going to talk brains, let’s talk about Febas. While he fits the typical ‘big guy’ persona — strong soldier who breaks into a burning building, who chokes out a guard, who catches our very heavy protagonist from falling to his death — I think he’s much more than that. Aside from a startling wit, he is always quick to pick up on things. He is the only character to recognize Esmerelda in disguise. He helps her escape Frollo by thinking quickly and saying she had claimed sanctuary. His immediate instinct when trying to decipher gypsy code is to literally translate the Latin or Greek or Aramaic. 

Our sweet captain also has an immense heart. He is generous with money; he risks his life to save those unrightfully oppressed; he falls in love with someone of much lower social status. 

Which leaves us with Esmerelda. She is loving. Her song God Bless the Outcast is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I know of. She defends Quasi when she doesn’t even know him, simply because of the love she feels for the oppressed. She uses that love to give others confidence, reading Quasi’s palm to tell him he isn’t a monster. That scene leads to the fact that she’s brilliant — both observant and quick. She keeps up with Febas’s banter — in fact, she’s never without a come-back. 

But I think most notable is her strength. Everything Esmerelda does, she does with her full strength. On the physical side, the dancing she does is not light work. Neither is the insane escape sequence she pulls off shortly after. She then goes hand-to-hand with an experienced soldier. And then there’s the scene where she dives into a river, strips Febas’s armor off, swims him to the surface, and gets them both to the bank. Are you kidding me? But it’s more than that. She prays with all her might; she loves with all her might; she leads with all her might; she defends with all her might. It’s a big presence that leaves an impact.

All this leads back to the group and it’s dynamic. All things considered, I would say Febas is most like the “Smart Guy,” Esmarelda is most like the “Big Guy,” and Quasimodo is most like the “Heart.” The Hunchback of Notre Dame is incredible because it gave us three characters with incredibly powerful (and incredibly similar) skill sets without any one of them stealing the show. Not only did they accomplish that. They did it while flipping stereotypes on their heads. Strong soldiers are supposed to be dumb. Dancers are just ladies with no agency. Big, bulky guys should just tag along to lift things. These characters have one of the most beautifully complex team dynamics I’ve ever seen. If you haven’t seen this movie in a while, I highly recommend you watch it, if for nothing else than a phenomenal display of great writing. 


I think next week, I’ll release a second part, talking about some of the teams I didn’t get to. These will be teams that I want to go more in depth with, comparing and contrasting in-universe examples. Specifically teams from Star Wars, Star Trek, and Avatar the Last Airbender. 


Stay Safe,

Rena Grace

Characters from Life

Writing Advice

Since finishing my first draft and jumping head-on into draft two, I have allowed myself a lot more time to really consider each of my characters as they appear. If you’ve seen my Plotting Compelling Characters blogs (part one; part two) you might remember me talking about how my process is fluid and evolving. Since the first installment, my personal character sheet has continued to change, as I noticed things that were missing and prioritized them over others.

In my current editing, while I do look at some of the traits/fears/etc, I find that many of those things already exist in my mind because I have based every character loosely on someone I know in reality. I call this a character’s ‘Base Model.’ When I’m stuck, the first question I ask is “What would [real person I know] respond? What language do they use? What kind of leader are they?” With that answer, I can then decide how closely the fictional character would mirror their real life base model.

This process is like an artist who betters their skills by drawing from life. You take what you see, adapt it to a different medium, and take what you learned on to future projects. I’m going to walk you through how I pick Base Models and use them to make my characters stand out from each other.

Compile & Analyze

As with so many processes, the best way to start is with a brainstorm. This brainstorm is simple enough to do wherever. Whether in a notebook or in a digital format, just let your mind go through people you know. Write down everyone, just as they cross your mind; in the beginning, there is no reason to try to file people in compartments or with any kind of system because you’re just getting as many ideas as possible. I found that the people who came to mind first were often the people I knew most about. There were definitely exceptions to that rule, but it tends to be easiest to remember people who impact you the most, both positively and negatively — and that’s just what we’re looking for! Family, friends, teachers, mentors, friends-of-friends, neighbors, coworkers, old classmates — I even went through my phone contacts to make sure I didn’t forget anyone I found compelling.

Now, I obviously don’t suggest you remember every person you come in contact with. Listing ‘the janitor on the second floor’ is only going to help you if you have a general idea of this person’s personality. So while I encourage you to make the list broad enough to get a variety of personalities, ages, races, backgrounds, and more, don’t let this become a rabbit’s hole you never escape. All things should be done mindfully and in moderation.

Same as with the list, it can be helpful to have a short synopsis of people you know in relation to your story. That sounds vague; let me explain: My story has a heavy emphasis on leadership and different ways people lead. So for my analysis, I picked a handful of candidates and wrote a paragraph about how they lead. I picked extroverts; I picked introverts; I picked blatant leaders, and I picked behind-the-scenes manipulators. Having these ideas on hand helped me not only align character-to-base, but it gave me a broader understanding of one of my themes. It’s an exercise in observation as much as it is in writing. Again, I caution you to used this step in moderation. I did not analyze each person’s relationship to the greater themes of the multiverse. Some people, I wrote a few descriptors for. Some people, I wrote nothing for. Always keep the goal in mind!

Play Matchmaker

I’m not talking about love or relationships. I’m talking about finding Base Model options for each character.

I typically start this process with a character’s broad personality in mind; I have already decided things like Meyers-Briggs Personality, Star Sign, and Love Language (more on that here). From there, I go through and assign possibilities.

Let me give you an example: I’ve talked in the past about the Main Character in my current WIP, so let’s bring her up again. Her name is Abryn. She’s a mechanic; she’s practical, perfectionistic, reliable, sarcastic, observant; she hates criticism, can be distant and aloof, and is hard on herself. So with that in mind, I set off looking for people with similar personalities. *Note: it is very important to stay neutral!*

As with all MC’s, I put myself on the initial list. I saw a lot of myself in her, but I didn’t want to stop there. I ended up with quite an odd list: my simultaneous good friend and rival, a girl who stole my high school boyfriend, my best friend’s husband, my first boss, an ex boyfriend, a guy I fell-out with in college, and a girl I knew in high school. Of these eight people, four of us are girls, four are boys. Gender, race, age, and sexuality does not have to align with the character herself. I know these people in different ways and to different degrees. But they all had characteristics that reminded me, at least some, of Abryn.

From there, I had to start removing people from the list. This was when I really started to finalize who Abryn is. I took myself off first because, while I know the most about myself, I know too much about myself. The best part about this process is that it isn’t an exact science. It’s guesswork. And I didn’t like the idea of always knowing what I would do in the situation. There are too many interesting and unique people in my life; I wanted to explore what they would do.

The second person to go was my friend-rival who I realized was a perfect fit for my character Kerrix. Slowly, I pulled people until I was left with two options. If you’ve seen my Example Sheet for Abryn, you’ll know that those two people were “Brett” and “Jeff.” And that was great. I was able to go all the way through my first draft with both names until I figured out that “Brett” was the more accurate option. (I’ll leave it to your imagination how I know him in real life.)

Each primary and secondary character got this same treatment. Bryst is based on an old roommate; Reislyn is based on a girl I played volleyball with; Kaler is based on a guy from church; Estrella is based on a girl who doesn’t like me. Sometimes Base Models will know each other in real life — several of my characters are based off of people from my childhood church. That can be a really fun dynamic to adapt to more precisely fit the characters. However, I find it just as fun to stretch my imagination to consider how someone from my high school might interact with someone they never met from my college.

Beware of Clones

Never forget that the character comes first. Base Models are a great foundation, but they don’t need to be shoe-horned into the story. Think of it this way: all types of buildings have foundations. An open-air gazebo might have just a concrete slab foundation with beautiful columns built right on top; the foundation would be very apparent, but it’s not the focus of the space. A house might have a shallow foundation, too, but all kinds of things are built on top of it. You can’t see the slab through the flooring, but it’s still there. A five-story rock climbing gym would have a deep foundation that would be difficult to see. But it’s that specific type of construction that makes the interesting space possible.

Now I’ll leave you with what is probably an unpopular opinion: Just because you don’t like someone, that shouldn’t automatically make them the villain in your work. I know that some really compelling bad guys and bullies have been direct rewrites of real life jerks, but be mindful of how you use it. Hell, supervillains are most convincing when parts of them feel real and relatable. The trap I see authors fall into is a form of power-creep. It’s the opposite of the self insert “Mary Sue” where everything the self insert does is perfect and nothing can stop them. The evil power creep — regardless of genre, age demographic, or plot — happens when the author lets their hatred for the real life person fuel their portrayal.

I highly discourage using your writing to tear down someone you don’t like. Maybe you noticed that when I was picking people to become the Base Model for Abryn, many of the options were people I don’t have great relationships with. Abryn is my MC, a character I think is really cool. How could I compare her to people I probably wouldn’t want to speak to again? It’s because I’ve taken a neutral stance on the real-life models I considered. Kaler is an antagonist based on a friend; Estrella is part of the good guy squad, but her Base and I don’t really get along. But these personalities were exactly what I wanted to see in the characters. I love complex characters. Sometimes we as humans can get so caught up in our feelings about someone, we flatten out the complexity, amplifying what is terrible. It brings me right back to writing a character as their own person, separate from their Base Model. Life inspiration is great, but writing revenge fiction can really overrun a story if you’re not careful.

Anyway, I know this post is going up on a Tuesday, but I hope to see you back here next Monday for more writing content.


Stay Safe

Rena Grace