Back Off! Get Your Own Sand Box! – Writing for Pre-existing Characters
by Aaron Feldman
A few months ago, I stumbled across a message board thread. The topic asked, “Which was better for a writer: writing pre-existing characters in an established world, or telling the story of all-new characters, set in a world of your own making?” Like most things on the internet, this discussion eventually turned into a hate-filled verbal fisticuff, so I decided to sit it out.
But it was a good question, and one that I certainly have some opinions about.
At the time, I would have probably typed something along the lines of “CLEARLY IT’S BETTER TO CREAT YOUR OWN CHARACTERS. WRITING PRE-EXISTING CHARACTERS IS EASY.” The caps lock would have shown that I meant business.
Of course, a lot’s changed since then.
You have to understand that at the time, my only experience with writing had been completely original characters of my own design. Derivative? Sometimes, but original nonetheless:
(Actually, that’s not entirely true. When I was 13 I wrote a short story where Hermione Granger created a love potion and tested it on Catwoman, but the less said about that, the better.)
Creating new characters is certainly no easy feat. Kathleen has a great piece on character voice, so I’ll only touch on it briefly. There’s a lot you have to consider if you want your character to really shine. What are their motivations? What are their recurring dreams? Their backstories? What sets them apart from every other character? etc. etc.
I believed at the time that these questions didn’t really apply when writing other people’s characters. Want to write Spider-man? Well, he’s Spider-man. We all KNOW how he acts. How hard could THAT be?
Well, plenty, as it turns out. For starters, when working with pre-existing characters, you have a certain responsibility. To the fans, to the characters’ original creators, and to the characters themselves. You can’t just have characters pull complete 180s without reason. They need to be true. Batman can’t kill for no reason. Spider-Man can’t needlessly become an alcoholic. If you MUST have Catwoman engage in erotic acts with female wizards, there needs to be sufficient justification (tip: love potions are your friend).
Second, perhaps contradicting what I just wrote, characters all mean different things to different people. Take Batman, for example. If I were to ask you who his most important relationship was with, I’d get a surprising variety of answers. Some may say it’s with Alfred. Others might say Dick Grayson. Others still might say Commissioner Gordon or Thomas Wayne or Selina Kyle (which is the correct answer). There’s a Batman for everyone.
My point is, writing a pre-existing character doesn’t mean you get a free pass with character creation. You still have to discover what the character means to YOU. What’s more, you have the added responsibility to make sure that character remains true to EVERYONE ELSE, or the audience will reject your story.
I have one more piece of advice that I’ve saved for last, as it’s the most important to me: don’t be afraid to be completely audacious. Respect the character, but don’t be afraid to take them to unheard of places. If we didn’t have adventurous creators who wanted to say bold things about characters, we wouldn’t have daring stories like Garth Ennis’ Punisher, or Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Iron Man would never have had a drinking problem, and Magneto would never have been a Holocaust survivor. These stories exist because of creators who weren’t afraid to take characters out of their “safe” zone.
Now, The Toronto Comics Workshop had already put out a stellar anthology featuring the Holmes Inc crew in various adventures. This meant that I was pretty familiar with all the characters when we started working on issue 2. I knew very early on that I wanted to write a story about either Number 2 or Elizabeth. As luck would have it, I got to write about both, though Elizabeth is the primary character of my story.
So what did Elizabeth mean to me? Well, among other things, we learned from the first issue that she was mature, a leader, Texan, and a hell of a capable detective. You’ll see this in every story featuring her, but the real fun is seeing how each author subtly twists these ingredients into their own personal interpretation. For me, Elizabeth is the quintessential soldier, the survivor, the front end of a mullet: all business. You’ll see her put through the wringer, and deal with it head on.
“Safe,” is the title of my story. However, the story I’m telling is anything but. When I first pitched the story to editor and Holmes Inc. creator Ty Templeton, I included some character choices that I was CERTAIN he was going to reject for being too audacious. But, to my immensely pleasant surprise, he thought for a moment about what these choices would imply about the character, as well as future stories, and told me, “I’m comfortable with that. It makes sense. Go for it.”
And go for it I did. I’m really excited for you guys to witness what I’ve done with the character. It certainly doesn’t hurt that I have an amazing art team, with Rachael Wells doing pencils, and a special surprise inker to really drive the visuals home (hint: his name rhymes with Shmy Shmempleton).
And even though Ty made me cut out the catsuit and goggles, I think you’ll love what we have in store for Elizabeth Watson.