A few days ago I read the book Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. I’ve had it on my shelf for years, and the time was finally right for it. It’s a book that can be read in a single sitting if you so desire. I found it well written and compelling, sweet and sentimental and thought-provoking. But it wasn’t until today that I realized Stargirl was Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter series. Although I suppose that since Spinelli wrote his book first, Luna Lovegood is really Stargirl. Either way, I didn’t realize until I saw a photo of Evanna Lynch on twitter that I’d envisioned Stargirl as Luna while I read.
The whole thing got me thinking about character tropes. As writers we know that there’s really nothing new under the sun. The individuality factor comes from what we do with those same already-used characters. As readers we take comfort in the familiar, and it can be nice to peg a character into an existing hole. We make associations all the time both as readers and as writers. The question becomes one of where we find our inspiration for our characters. When I’m starting a new story I typically simply open the door and let characters invite themselves in, but they have to come from somewhere: a face I’ve seen in passing or a favorite person or someone else’s character (we all steal, at least in part, because it’s all been done before). Percy Jackson is Harry Potter and Harry Potter is young King Arthur with a wand instead of a sword, and so on.
That’s not to say we don’t create our own memorable characters. Some of my favorite characters belong to authors who have not yet been published, those I’ve been privileged to read in advance. While the tropes still certainly apply, these writers have been able to put their own unique spins on their offspring.
I’m working on two books right now. One protagonist is a conglomeration of about four of my favorite people, both real and fictional. The other protagonist came purely from my imagination, but when I started looking around I found people who met the character’s mold. I’m also always both surprised and amused when a character takes on a very specific look in my mind, and one day I open a book or magazine and see the face I’d always imagined for them.
Fellow writers, where do your character inspirations come from?