When I was working at a company called Crossgen back in 2001, I was stuck writing a book called Sigil. I didn’t start it; it was inherited. It was about a two-fisted, ex-military, blue-collar guy named Sam who traveled the galaxy and fought aliens. I forget why. I do remember it wasn’t a very compelling or convincing reason. I specifically remember that the alien empire he was up against had conquered interstellar travel but still had not invented the wheel, which is probably the single stupidest science-fiction conceit I’ve ever heard.
There was nothing about this setup that was particularly easy for me to wrap my head around. Sam was the kind of guy I couldn’t in real life relate to on any level, and he was fighting an eons-old humanoid empire that had somehow never seen a rock roll downhill. So finding my “in” was extra-challenging--but that’s the job. If you’re going to write a character convincingly, you have to find something in him, however small, that resonates with you.
After much studying and much drinking, I hit upon the one commonality Sam and I had: we were both vagabonds with no family ties. I got that, and something clicked. That suggested that there was some backstory with his parents. That there might be a reason he felt estranged from friends and family. That there might be some nugget of masked insecurity inside him that made him feel uncomfortable with close relationships. THAT, I got. (The book, though brilliantly drawn by Scot Eaton, was still a mediocre adventure, but I got it.)
Marvel Comics’ characters have been exceedingly popular since the 1960s because they’re especially relatable. The X-Men are about facing prejudice. The Hulk is about the power of anger and how to deal with it. The Fantastic Four is about family. Thor is about...
...this one stumped me for years. The Mighty Thor chronicles the ongoing, modern-day adventures of the Norse god of thunder, who divides his time between punching supervillains in Manhattan and fighting Frost Giants with a giant hammer to protect his home of Asgard and his cranky dad, Odin. I never got Thor. I have absolutely no interest in mythology, Thor’s trademark “thee-thou-thine” faux-Medieval dialogue feels corny to me, and Thor is traditionally about as bright as a week-old glowstick. And yet...and yet...he’s been one of comics’ mainstay heroes for nearly a half-century, which means there had to be something in the concept that the audience can identify with. I just couldn’t find it. And, worse, a few years back when I was doing a handful of Marvel books, I had to write Thor from time to time.
So I finally broke it down, and once I did, it was embarrassingly obvious:
Thor is about a rebellious son who can’t please his father no matter what he does.
Odin’s a jerk. He claims to have a very clear vision of Thor’s destiny, one that doesn’t involve wasting time with Earthlings, but like many fathers, he’s much better at articulating what Thor isn’t supposed to do than what he is supposed to do. There’s poor Thor, just trying to follow his heart, while Odin--time and again with all the compassion of a hurricane--punishes Thor for breaking specious rules that were never very clear to begin with.
THAT, I got. THAT, hundreds of thousands of teenage readers have been getting since 1962.
Characters, if they’re to have any longevity, have to speak to universal concerns. The Golden Age of pop culture is lousy with the tens of thousands of forgotten characters who weren’t really about anything definable. A few have adapted by becoming corporate icons--the Wonder Woman of 1942 is only barely recognizable as the safely sexless Wonder Woman of today--but, by and large, time is much kinder to the Spider-Mans of pop culture than it is the Betty Boops and Great Gildersleeves. Whether it’s a character you inherited or one of your own invention, you have to find in him or her the truths that will mean something to today’s audience and, hopefully, tomorrow’s.