(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Hey Thanks by the Wonder Years, Beast of Burden by the Rolling Stones, If by the Red Hot Chili Peppers)
I’m writing this post because my friends and I are gearing up to binge-watch RWBY Volume 4. (Don’t tell them I already watched it on my own.)
I think new writers (myself included) have this misconception that great characters stem from complex personas. I wrote in a previous post about the similar misconception that we shouldn’t be using archetypal characters in our works.
We need to get over this. There’s a reason archetypes are good; they are the scaffolding from which a more nuanced character can be made. Until a certain point in the series, Harry Potter was just a star-struck noob and Hermione Granger was the know-it-all annoyance.
You don’t start with your character completely fleshed out. You start with a facade of a person and then, as you fill in more details and backstory, something crazy starts to happen. They get deep – surprisingly quickly too. I did this for a D&D character who started out as an ex-military man haunted by the destruction of his hometown. Classic PTSD-ridden character, right? Turns out he had a much stronger moral sense than I’d anticipated, a real desire to protect people. I didn’t even notice until he was breaking the fingers of a man who had merely threatened one of the other members of the party (much to the surprise of myself and the entire rest of my group).
“Creating a character” isn’t the term for what you should be doing. “Discovering a character” is much more like it. When you start with an archetype and then delve deeper, there’s a pleasant feeling for the reader of getting to know someone they’ve always known – that’s the archetype – in a much more intimate and subtle way. (Plus it also leads to some really cool moments where you as an author are surprised by a decision that your character makes. To be honest, it’s my favorite part of writing, having my own characters shock me.)
RWBY (an American-made anime created by RoosterTeeth) is an incredible example of this. It’s no spoiler to say that every single character in RWBY is derived from some sort of folktale or legend – the main four heroines are reimaginings of Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, and Goldilocks. All of the obvious character traits (Red’s naivete, Snow White’s frustration with being locked away by family) mix with new concepts the creators imbued into their characters (Goldilocks with a riot grrrl temper and Belle as an angsty, subdued teenager).
In the first season, it’s kind of like you’re watching Into The Woods, but packed with even more folklore. Still, the characters are essentially two archetypes forced together. Combine cute, unaware little Red Riding Hood with a fierce passion for protecting those close to her, and you get Ruby. Mix Snow White’s perverse family dynamics with an obsession with precision, and you have Weiss.
But none of these characters are new in a sense. Weiss could just as easily be seen as the Hermione prototypical “perfectionist”; Ruby could be Prim Everdeen with a battle scythe. What makes these characters different is what they go through over the course of the show. Is Weiss the kind of person to lie ‘poisoned’ until a prince can come free her? No, she’s going to create giant spirit beasts to smash shit up. Is Ruby able to take the full hit of the loss of her friends and continue to be a leader to her team? Nope, she’s going to get weaker and cede that title to Jaune. (That one actually surprised me.)
Even if you don’t know the show, you can understand what I’m saying. We start with archetypes because it’s what we (and our readers) know; where we go from there, and how the journey fares, is what makes things exciting – what makes a character really pop off the screen and beat the shit out of you with shotgun gauntlets.
(Okay, but seriously, if you haven’t seen RWBY, please watch it. For the love of God.)
Yours, sick as a slug but still hanging in there,