Nothing is new under the sun.
This was written in the Bible thousands of years ago (when there was, presumably, less fiction in the world than there is now) and it’s certainly true today.
Sometimes that can be disheartening, because everyone wants to believe that they have something original to contribute to the world. But it’s also a gift: we don’t have to re-invent the wheel, do we? By utilizing other people’s research and ideas, we can come up with our own distinct creations. I like seeing how other people do things, because they can give me good ideas, too. Sharing ideas is a quick way to progress, and I think that’s especially true in writing. STEAL ALL THE IDEAS!
One thing I’ve noticed about my own writing is how I like to jump off of fiction -whether it’s movies, TV, books, or even songs- that I already enjoy. When I come up with a plot, characters are usually vaguely formed in my mind. I usually know what “feel” I’m going for in the story, but to sharpen my focus, I like to look at works that share something similar, and use that to further the goals in my own story.
When it comes to characters, I usually use this method as a learning tool when I want to take a specific characteristic and figure out what makes it *work* in other fictional characters that already exist. (For instance, say I want character #1 to be sarcastic- but still likable. What are some characters who already exist who use sarcasm, and use it well? What makes it work within their character? On the other hand, which characters don’t use sarcasm well, and what should I avoid?) Taking bits and pieces of different fictional characters (or even real people!) who already exist, you can use it as a framework to create your own character. By taking specific aspects of different individuals–even hugely well-known ones–you can still come up with a distinct character that stands completely on his own two feet. I tend to get into conversations analyzing characters and movies anyway, and those have always helped me in understanding the art of story and what makes good stories work.
For instance, here’s a handy-dandy chart that shows you one example. Would you ever believe that such an iconic, distinct character could be such an obvious mix of three other iconic characters?
Like Sherlock Holmes, Batman is brilliant, and has honed his skills for his specific calling in life. He’s not just decent at what he undertakes- he is the best. Both characters are known as the World’s Greatest Detective for good reason. You could also argue that Bruce’s small army of children is his version of the Baker Street irregulars. He even has a “Watson” character (Robin was actually created so kids could see themselves fighting alongside the caped crusader, in the same way Dr. Watson serves as an “everyman” for Holmes readers). You could even argue that he has a Mrs. Hudson in Alfred Pennyworth (although Alfred is by far the better developed, well-rounded character. And depending on the version of Batman, sometimes Alfred takes on a more Watson-like role).
Meanwhile, Batman is also clearly influenced by Zorro. Now, I could go on to how you can really trace this back to The Scarlet Pimpernel (since Zorro has basically the same premise, just set in a different time, location, and culture) but since canonically Batman is actually inspired by Zorro, I’ll let it slide. Both Zorro and Batman are rich, with flippant personas that hide their identities as masked heroes. They’re in it for the justice, not fame, glory, or money.
Like Dracula, Batman is mysterious. When we think of Dracula, we think words like dark, reclusive, frightening. We think of bats and blood and old money. In some ways Dracula is an entirely different case than the previous two characters. Unlike with Sherlock Holmes and Zorro, Bruce Wayne doesn’t resemble Dracula in personality or situation. Yet this is a good example of taking an abstract idea, mood, or look of another character and modifying it into something new. This inspiration is more superficial, but it’s no less important: after all, what would Batman be without the bat?
It’s no surprise that I love all three of these characters. (Okay, maybe not Dracula himself, but I love the book) So then, is it really a surprise that Batman happens to be one of my all-time favorite fictional characters? We like things for a reason…and if you study what you like, why you like it, and what makes it memorable, it makes it easier to capture that same feeling in your own work.
One thing you’ll notice when you combine character traits like this is that you don’t usually need to worry about creating something original, because it will come. If you create a character with the roguish charm of Flynn Rider but the backstory of Hamlet, and then add in the insane brilliance of Victor Frankenstein, you’ve already got an intriguing combination ripe for exploration. And then set the story in a Lost World-type island with dinosaurs and, well, my friend, I would want to read that, because it sounds awesome. The possibilities are endless. By mixing and matching to create a basic skeletal structure, you can then fill in the gaps to create a well-rounded, solid figure. It sort of is playing Frankenstein.
Don’t be afraid to analyze what you like and why you like it. I think one of the easiest and most efficient ways to craft a good story is to take those things and make them your own.
What are some of your inspirations for your characters?