How My Characters are Born

(Or How I Learned to Embrace the Dark Side)

by Melinda M. Snodgrass

Confession time — I play games like  In particular role playing games —  and now that my RPG days seem to be sadly behind me (sniff) I have segued into playing video games.  I love to play video games.  For those of you who may not suffer from this particular obsession I am one of those people who played until 3:00 a.m. the first time I played through Dragon Age: Origins.  The best video games have a strong narrative drive and you can make choices for your character, and those moral or immoral choices impact the outcome the game.  They games are even designed to tell you if you are falling to the dark side or embracing the light.  You can be a paragon or a rogue.  A Jedi or a Sith.   

I have always picked the paragon side of the equation.  

The same thing always happened during my role playing days.  We were playing a call of Chthulu game where our game master, Walter Jon Williams, had my proper British gentleman and his brother discover we were werewolves.  My brother chose to embrace the Great Old Ones.  I chose humanity and we fought against the forces of darkness.  Basically I like heroes and noble choices.

God knows Tachyon was a flawed person, but he wasn’t a bad person.  He tried to protect jokers and aces, defended his adopted world.  Richard in the Edge books is very much a paladin —because he’s literally a paladin.  In my space opera Tracius Belmanor may be a man with a quick temper and an inferiority complex, but he always does the right thing.  

Fast forward or should I say Flash back to 2006-7 and the rise of the new generation of aces and jokers and Carrie Vaughn’s brilliant idea to add a reality TV show added to our little universe.  I didn’t want to play with one of the new shiny kids competing on American Hero.  George and I had discussed where this triad was going — an exploration of real versus fake heroism — and I decided I wanted to write the older, (27 to the 18 and 20 year old kids), and very cynical character who thinks the world is a very complex place and that problems cannot be solved by punching them really hard.  We also needed characters to pit against our young wannabe heroes so I set out to craft one of those people.

Now bear with me because now I’m going to tell you how I go about creating a character.  All the various threads that come together to craft a person that I’d like to write and that, hopefully, people will enjoy reading about.

George and I knew we were going to go international at some point with this new set of books, and since I’m an Anglophile I wanted this person to be British so I started pondering.  Another confession; I adore James Bond, so the idea of having a secret agent as a character was very appealing to me.  Next up this person needed a cover, something that would allow him to travel without suspicion.

One of my spec scripts (I’ll explain spec scripts another time) was about a young Jewish magician who falls in love with an American opera singer in Vienna Austria just prior to the Anschluss.  My hero delays too long and gets swept up by the Nazis.  Point being that I like magicians and I thought a world famous magician would be a good cover for a spy.

But this is Wild Cards, so the character needed an ace power.  One of the tricks in creating a Wild Card character is that in addition to the power we have to come up with limitson the power.  It was back to pondering.  I’ve always liked teleportation.  Probably because I want to sleep and cook meals in my New Mexico house and still be able to go to work in Los Angeles so I wanted that as my ace’s power.  

Now I needed a limit on the power.  I’ve always found intersex (ie hermaphrodites) interesting so I thought that was an interesting twist and would affect this person’s psychology.  That helped me find a name.  Something that was gender fluid to some degree — Noel, and then a nice English name, Matthews.

Remember how my magician fell in love with an American opera singer in Austria?  Well, that was my life.  I studied opera at the Konservatorium Der Stadt Wien.  I love all classical music, particular grand opera, and in particular Mozart operas.   I had been trying to drag George off to see an opera at the Santa Fe Opera, and I told him I’d ease him into this particular art form by taking him to see The Magic Flute.  I told him a bit about the plot — Queen of the Night, High Priest of the Sun, etc. etc.  

As we sat talking about Noel and how he was intersex we got the idea that his power and limit on that power was that he could only teleport when he was in the form of his avatars.  A woman at night, and a man who could only appear during the day.  At sunrise and sunset Noel is just an ordinary guy with no powers at all — or so he believes.  

We added the additional element that his Queen of the Night and High Priest of the Sun are the Ur of maleness and femaleness.  They are sexually overwhelming, which worked well for a spy who needs to engage in some seduction.  It also helped me craft the story of how Noel’s card turned.  He was 13, entering puberty and so his subconscious reached out for the most handsome of men and sexy of women because he was wrestling with his own undefined self.  It also means as a grown man he is rather embarrassed by these avatars.  They are a teenager’s view of femininity and masculinity and they make his cringe now that he is pushing forty.

And then I added the last piece.  Because he can teleport Noel isn’t just a spy for Britain’s MI-7, the Order of the Silver Helix, he is their most elite assassin.  We already had MI-7 in the universe because they had been created for a game book so I just had to plug in my young… hero?  Well, maybe not so much.

As I began to write Noel I realized that while he is a proud Englishman and a real patriot he is also a very dark and cynical figure.  He has almost no compunction about killing.  He is certainly amoral if not out and out immoral.  He is truly the greyest character I have ever written.  

And he is just so much fun.  

Which got me to wondering; what is it about villains that makes us fall in love with them?  God knows I have – Darth Vader was always my favorite character in Star Wars, Loki in the Marvel films, Loghain in the video game Dragon Age: Origins.  What made those villains fascinating was their complexity.  They weren’t evil for the sake of being evil.  They all justified their actions, assumed they were the heroes in their own stories.  Vader wanted to save his wife, and he craved order after what had been a chaotic life.  Loki was trying to win his father’s love – and it wasn’t even his real father.  That was such a great, twisted choice. Loghain was fighting the last war and not seeing the real threat.  Noel doesn’t lie to himself, he knows what he does is wrong by the standards of law, morality and society, but his justification is that someone has to make the hard choices to protect the ordinary blokes, the soft citizens of Great Britain who need him to be a wolf.  Noel takes pride in his skills and he enjoys the heady power of holding a person’s life in his hands and watching it ebb away.

As a writer I have to say the villains usually get the best lines. Unlike the hero they’re not worried about having to buck up the Scooby Gang, make the St. Crispin’s Day speech, comfort the dying, show defiance to the villain.  They don’t have to give a damn, and they can be amused by the vagaries of life and the foibles of humans.  They don’t have to be polite and we’ve all had that moment where we really, really want to say what we think but good manners prevents us from doing so. Villains allow us to do that.

You will be amused to discover that Noel gave George a cramp in his conscience.  Somewhere in that first triad that introduced the character George said to me – “We really have to bring Noel to justice.  He has done horrible things and he needs to be punished.”  (Yes, that George, the George who brought us Jamie Lannister, but somehow managed to rehabilitate the character.  How the hell did you pull that off George?  It was amazing!)  But I digress.  When George bought this up I immediately pushed back because I didn’t want to lose this character.  I loved him too much so I pointed out that often bad people never receive the punishment they so richly deserve, and then I said, “I offer as evidence Richard Bruce “Dick” Cheney former Vice-President of the United States.”  George had to agree that I had him there.  

So Noel lived on and in fact will be a major character in our upcoming Wild Cards novel THREE KINGS.  I think that’s why I wanted to blog about Noel because I’ve just spent the last few months with him, and it has been a joy from start to finish.  It also didn’t hurt that I was doing this mosaic novel with four other great writers so this felt more like play than work.

Apart from nattering on about my current favorite character in Wild Cards I also wanted to show how any and all of a person’s life experiences can help with your writing.  So all you aspiring writers get out there and have some strange and wonderful adventures, take up new hobbies, study new things because it will only make your work deeper, richer and more exciting to that next generation of readers.