Crafting an Interesting Character

Let’s start with the most interesting person I know as a template — myself. We join our protagonist sitting on a towel draped chair staring at a Word document so bereft of text the whiteness has scarred his eyes with black and purple worms wriggling left, always left. Twenty minutes later, nothing has changed.

Maybe someone else then. Someone cool. Could be from the old school like Frank Sinatra or Doyle Brunson. A master of his trade, innately gifted, ready with a clever witticism. But unless my story’s set for a jazz singer from the 50’s or centers around poker tournaments it’d be a test to throw their personalities into any other setting without serious dissonance.

But all this is getting ahead of myself. How can I create an interesting character when I don’t know the world they’ll inhabit? Flashy swordsmen have no place in the world of international politics. Neither does the mosaic painter belong in a spy thriller.

How about modern-day New York City? Big place, diverse peoples, whole lot of possibilities. Admittedly, never been. Just gleamed a whole lot off of videos and radio and standups. New York is an angry sludge pot in most places — the real New York. All the personality needed to take blow after blow and all man can do to break his fellow man can be found in the improvised insults of passersby. Experiencing all the broken limbs in the old American Dream makes good chitin. Unless you have the money to stand above it all in a tall tower and treat the sidewalks like most suburbanites and only cross it to get to your car.

I’d give the vortex a try, get a couple teeth cracked off at the gumline and pass/fail from there. But I’m skittish in an urban environment, always having a guard up pretending to be a hardened local despite my constant GPS glimpses. A damned embarrassment. If had the money to live on the hundredth floor… I’m corruptible. I’ll pull the ladder up behind me and live in a plush world isolated from the rabble. I’d hate that too after a bit but I won’t pretend I’ve faced and overcome that temptation before. If I held any high-class New Yorker job, it’d be as a stock analyst. I’m a person who can get drunk on figures, much like Churchill.

There’s an amazing video that resurfaced a while back when Stan Lee passed away. He did a show called Comic Book Greats where he’d interview comic book artists. Catching it over the internet decades later I’ve only ever seen one episode where Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld drew a character from just a name — Overkill.

I wholeheartedly recommend that episode for anyone wondering what an artist’s perspective and philosophy means when put to the page. Given the two’s work it was no surprise Overkill became a muscle stacked, ninety’s edge lord fodder template. If I were reading comics as a kid around that time I probably would’ve gravitated towards it. The real treat of it is Lee roasting those two for their lack of thought and originality. The New York ball-busting chops on that man. “How long does it take these people to get dressed?” “You can think and draw at the same time?” “This is really one of a kind isn’t it?” But what else do you say to a couple of knuckleheads focusing solely on zero thought aesthetic appeal? “The kids like chains.” “He’s got the biggest shoulder pads ever existed.”

Rob: I’ll tell you what I’ve done here. I’ve given him, building off your gunsight…

Stan: You’ve taken that? Great.

A good ball-busting has a lot of questions forcing the victim to further bury themselves.

My takeaway was the clash of methodology. Lee wanted a character of great depth, of a strained dual life and different personalities between them, where he lives, a purpose for wearing armor, functionality. “I don’t like you saying ‘suspend reality’. I’ve always told myself that our comic books are really the ultimate when it comes to reality. They are reality-based.”

There’s so much I love about that line. When working with superhumans you can’t lose touch with humanity. If the being doesn’t think the same way we humans do, then it’s an alien no matter what suit it wears.

If I had any drawing skills and were given that name I’d have drawn Overkill with the pink human meat-suit. Unassuming as a superhero (supervillain?) with an internal power: the power of superhuman expedited thought. The perfect stock analyst able to calculate and process information faster than any computer in the NYSE.

But at what cost? Many Greek heroes rose with courage and fell due to hubris.

Say he’s on a date and can’t talk to the girl across the table. She takes his shyness as cute for half a minute but he simply won’t respond to anything she asks of him. People may not be as complex as a market system in many ways but they possess infinite intangibles. ‘She’s repositioned the napkin on her lap slightly towards the center. Visualizing how this information builds upon the touch up on her lipstick (Calori #1, brick crimson) before she entered the restaurant as an aspect of perfectionism heightened when nervous in romantic and/or professional contexts as extrapolated with the manner she acts around the office when she both notices and doesn’t notice me or anyone else paying attention to her…’ Near infinite calculations taking up so much brainpower he can’t communicate with her. Either they eat in silence or she leaves after he fails to order his drink. A mind which destroys the ability to connect with his fellow humans. He feels himself the alien. His mind is overkill.

His only home is the whirlwind of information inside the stock exchange. Unfortunately it isn’t open twenty-four hours a day like his mind. Sleep is but an excuse to lie down alone, close his eyes, and let those thoughts run dominion over him. Nothing slows it. It’s for the world to catch up, for everyone to be bestowed processing capacity near his level. A Heraclean task fraught with pushback and naysayers. But doesn’t the rising tide lift all boats?

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