Audiences fall in love with characters for all sorts of reasons, but one of the most common is a high novelty value. If the character is fresh and different from what people have seen before, that’s a huge boon for the story. Creating novel characters is easier said than done though, as figuring out what people have seen before is a tricky business. That’s the topic of this week’s episode. Tune in as we discuss how you give a character novel traits, how you figure out which traits to start with, and how to keep them from being annoying.
Generously transcribed by Space Pineapple. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts: Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris, and with me is…
Chris: As we’ve said before, novelty is an important way of engaging audiences. For instance, on this podcast, our novel trait is that we like to learn to swim by watching people drown, according to a very poetic review on Apple Podcasts.
Oren: God, how long can we reference that review before it stops being novel?
Wes: I don’t–it’s…
Chris: I don’t know. I think we can keep pulling quotes from that thing as long as we’ve got a new quote to say.
Wes: It’s so rich. It’s so rich.
Chris: Yeah. My favorite thing about this particular part of it is the assumption that all of these really famous storytellers and big budget stories are all drowning because we (laughs) personally push them under the water. I just feel so powerful.
Oren: We did that.
Wes: We did that.
Oren: You thought the MCU was like a hegemonic juggernaut taking over the movie industry, but no, we critiqued it, so it’s drowning now.
Chris: Okay. So, we’re actually gonna be talking about novel characters, not characters in a novel. Unfortunately, the adjective of “novelty” is “novel”. We’ve talked about novelty a lot in terms of characters, because it’s one of the three traits that makes characters likable on a really broad basis, as opposed to making them likable for a specific niche audience. But it does tend to be tough to implement, especially if you already have the basics of your character planned out. It’s not that you can’t still make them novel, but a lot of the most novel characters really have a character concept that highlights novelty and makes them different to start with.
Oren: Okay. So obviously, what you should do is: First, make them an animal. Second, make them love to play hilarious pranks on the protagonist, just constantly make the protagonist look silly and like they don’t know what they’re doing. And then also make this character super powerful. And then you’ll have a very novel character, because no one will suspect the superpowered sloth that can save the day, the whole time. Right? No one will suspect that.
Wes: How novel, what a novel idea.
Oren: I know. I’m gonna go do that.
Chris: Yeah. Just make your cute animal the puppeteer that’s scheming and doing everything in the story. That will definitely work out.
Oren: No one will ever suspect the sloth.
Chris: One thing to consider is that we’ve talked about candy characters before. When a writer really loves a character, one thing they do is make them more novel. That is one of the things about candied characters, is they tend to be more special, different than other characters. They tend to have more unique traits. Unfortunately, they are often obnoxious for other reasons. It’s not necessarily the novelty that’s hurting them. It’s usually the fact that they’re overpowered.
Oren: Yeah, or they’re out of theme. If you’re searching for novelty and you aren’t careful, you can end up with a bunch of stuff that just doesn’t fit together because it was new and shiny until you grabbed it without thinking. That’s when you get your very serious protagonist paired with a complete clown of a side character who constantly shatters the mood, because that just doesn’t fit with the story you’re trying to tell here.
Chris: I thought it might be worth starting by just going over examples of characters that are particularly novel. To give people an idea of what this actually looks like, instead of just saying, oh, this character is unique and different, okay… Which characters are particularly unique and different, and that has aided their likability, for instance.
Oren: Well, as I’m sure no listener of this podcast could guess I would say–
Wes: Murderbot. Yay.
Oren: –Is Murderbot.
Chris: Oh, who could see that one coming?
Oren: Nobody. I’ve never mentioned Murderbot before on this show. Impossible. ‘Cuz Murderbot’s a novel character, and if you’ve seen it before, then it’s less novel.
Chris: Yeah. Of course, Murderbot is a construct who loves binge watching TV shows, but it’s, like, a security construct that was designed to murder things. Hence, the Murderbot who loves binge watching TV shows.
Wes: Well, I like how Murderbot is obsessed with human serials, but really doesn’t care that much for humans, right? It’s like, I just want your fictional serialized drama. I don’t want any of your real-life bullshit.
Chris: Can we have the sanitized version of humans please?
Oren: Right. But also really cares about protecting humans.
Wes: Yes. Also does. Yeah.
Oren: There’s just a lot of really neat things going on with Murderbot.
Chris: One that I commonly reference on the blog, because she’s a great example, is Seven of Nine from Voyager (Star Trek: Voyager). I also love pointing to Seven because we actually know that the show ratings went up after she joined, and even just talking to people, right? They’ll be like, oh, when does Seven of Nine come on Voyager? That’s when I wanna start watching. (laughs) And, you know, there’s few characters that come late that we can really show had such a significant impact on engagement as Seven of Nine. Yeah.
Oren: And of course, you know, you’ll get the flippant, like, oh, well it’s ‘cuz of the super tight outfit. It’s like, I promise you, it’s not.
Chris: The fact that everybody attributed it to how sexy she is, and how honestly dangerous to her health, how tight those uniforms were, which just kind of shows the whole sexism that was also, unfortunately, happening in that situation. But like, she would’ve been extremely novel regardless of what she was wearing, ‘cuz her personality–and that’s what really makes the difference. Her concept is that she’s a Borg. She was converted forcefully to a Borg when she was a kid. And now she’s been recovered, and is kind of learning how to be human again, shall we say? So that’s her concept, but if she acted like any other person, it wouldn’t mean anything, right? The thing that makes her novel is the fact that she continues to clinging to her Borg traits and the things that she’s used to, and tries to continue behaving like a Borg, even when she’s on Voyager, and judging everything by Borg values, for instance.
Oren: Yeah. And I mean, Star Trek has a pretty good history of novel outsider characters. And Seven is sort of the latest in that line. Before Seven, you had Quark and Odo from Deep Space Nine, and then before them, you had Data. And they tried to do it with Worf a little bit. It didn’t work super well. And then before them, of course, you had Spock, who was the original outsider, high novelty character. And Seven is, you know, the latest and one of the best incarnations of that trope.
And in fact, Seven is such a good version of that story that she kind of exposes how underdeveloped most of the rest of Voyager‘s cast is. Once Seven arrives, the other characters just increasingly fall out of the story and get less and less time as the show focuses much, much more on Seven, the doctor–the doctor is also a very high novelty character–and then Janeway, ‘cuz she’s the star. Chakotay and Kim almost disappear entirely, Paris and Torres are still around and do some romance, but that’s about all they do. Whereas before, they tried to spread the screen time out a little more evenly, and then they were like, we don’t really know how to make these characters interesting, ‘cuz we didn’t give them good concepts. So, here. Borg time.
Chris: Star Trek tries to add novelty with all of the characters that are not human, and to some degree succeeds, right? Novelty comes in various levels. It’s not all incredible or nothing. So the average Vulcan still has little novelty. It’s just not super high, because A) we’ve seen Vulcans around, right? So Spock was much more novel than the latest Vulcans are, for example.
Oren: And also, they just didn’t really know how to innovate. Some of the more recent Vulcan stuff actually has changed a few things about them, like in Discovery, the fact that the Vulcans and the Romulans live on the same home planet and call it–oh gosh, I forget what they call it now, but they have a new name for their planet and they’re a blended society. That’s cool. And then with the Romulans, we’ve seen Romulans a lot before, and then we introduce the Romulan sword nuns, and those guys have really cool novelty, ‘cuz they’re neat and interesting, whereas previous versions of Star Trek have kind of been like, well I guess we know everything there is to know about Vulcans. And Tuvok wasn’t a bad character. He had some really neat things going on, but they weren’t willing to really deviate from the established Vulcan tropes that had been discovered. And then T’Pol had it even worse where it was like, T’Pol is like a standard Vulcan, except also an asshole, was their premise for T’Pol.
Chris: Yeah. But I would say that Star Trek really starts to shine in the novelty department when they kind of changed the nature of the life form to a larger extent than just another alien species. So when we have data, for instance, who’s an android, or the Doctor on Voyager who is a hologram, right? Or even Seven and Nine comes from, I mean, the Borg were just incredibly novel when they were introduced. Star Trek has gotten so much mileage out of the Borg to the extent that they can even take a Borg-like character who’s not entirely Borg, and still generate lots of novelty off.
Oren: Right. And I mean, Quark and Odo had the same thing. They had different perspectives and different ways of looking at things. Odo had his shape, shifting powers, Quark just had different ways of solving problems. That’s what they were trying to do with Neelix, but you know, Neelix failed for a number of reasons.
Chris: I think Quark would honestly be a very tricky character to replicate, because he’s on one hand, pretty selfish, and he doesn’t always succeed because he’s selfish, so you don’t really want him to. But he succeeds enough that you feel like he’s a competent person, as opposed to Neelix, who is selfish, but also seems to be bad at everything. And Quark just comes off as–has just the right balance of those likable traits with a little bit of edge to them that could be unlikable, to make him an overall character that’s enjoyable to watch.
Oren: Apparently Armin Shimerman also was wondering about that in Deep Space Nine’s early years, where he would feel like he was getting very mixed messages from the writers about whether Quark was supposed to be a cunning thief and businessman, or if he was supposed to be a buffoon. So a lot of that balance comes from Armin Shimerman, who would talk to writers and be like, okay, can we please figure out how smart Quark is supposed to be.
Chris: And what we have just–it’s like, he fails enough to almost be sympathetic, but we still kind of believe he’s competent enough to admire him. So just a very tricky balance that I think that some characters are easier to replicate than others. Data turns out pretty easy to replicate. The show Dark Matter has their own android that’s basically Data. She’s like Data, she’s very sweet and always, you know, does what the crew wants. And it’s got that innocence that Data has in addition to the emotionlessness. And they had no problem taking that same character pattern, but Quark would be difficult. Seven of Nine also, She has to look innocent and earnest because she’s not selfless like Data is. And again, the acting–Jeri Ryan’s acting also played a large role in that.
Oren: Yeah, what’s disappointing is that sometimes you get stories who have really novel characters, but don’t have anything for them to do. This sounds like a cool character, like, the Fifth Season has this lady named Tonkee who is a vagabond geologist. The rogue geologist who travels the land doing geology. And it’s like, that sounds super neat. What does she do in the story? And it’s like, uh, basically nothing, ‘cuz the story’s not about geology. It’s about magic, and she doesn’t have magic. So yeah, it’s like, I really kind of feel like Tonkee should have just had magic to just let her be part of the plot, but like that would’ve messed with other things that were going on in that book.
Wes: To be fair, if you’re describing any kind of scientist as rogue, the novelty goes through the roof.
Oren: The rogue linguist.
Chris: Yeah, you’ve got a nice subversion, nice contrast there.
Oren: …Goes around changing the subtitles of your anime to better reflect the very specific cultural context, but in a way that makes it harder for an English speaker to understand. (laughs) This is evil linguism going on here.
Wes: Kind of the plot of Snow Crash, that Dan Simmons [Neal Stephenson] novel, has to do with kind of a rogue linguist and brain hacking in this VR world scenario that goes–Well, it goes. I don’t know. (laughs) It’s weird. It’s weird, definitely. It takes place.
Oren: kind of reminds me of Babel-17 (by Samuel Delany), which is like, the premise is that they invented a language that makes you a superhero, basically.
Wes: Oh. (laughs) There you go.
Oren: At the time I hadn’t ever heard of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis before.
Wes: Oh, yeah.
Oren: So when the book was like, it’d be like, all right, there’s this super special language that they developed. And because this guy speaks it, he’s really good at cryptography. Sure, I guess maybe a language could make you good at cryptography. And then it’s like, he’s also really good at tactics, because of this language they developed. And okay, that’s a little, that’s still a mental thing, but we’re kind of pushing it. And he’s also really good at kung fu because of this language. I’m like, hang on, what? I think something weird’s going on here.
Wes: Like, English is really letting me down.
Chris: A less subtle example of a character with novelty is Eddie from Stranger Things (season) Four.
Wes: Aww. Eddie. Yeah.
Chris: The one character everybody’s sad about.
Oren: R.I.P., Eddie.
Chris: Yeah. Died kind of pointlessly. It was supposed to be a heroic death, but there was no reason he had to die there, actually. So, oops. Nice cup of depression for you there.
Oren: It’s so he can come back in season five as the villain, because the only thing more powerful than the Mind Flayer and Vecna is the Game Master.
Chris: Yup. I hope so. Oh, I hope so. But anyway, he’s just a little different from all the other characters, which can be enough in some cases. A lot of times, if there’s a character who, especially if their differences are a little refreshing, if the entire Team Good is just full of dour, dramatic people, having a character that’s just kind of light and drama-free and just feels like a breath of fresh air can itself–people really like that. So, Eddie, yeah, he’s a GM and he’s very enthusiastic. He’s a very expressive person. He also is put into a sympathetic position in the story, which probably also aids his likability, but he just stands out for how dramatic he is. He’s metal, right? So he takes the time to play a metal song in the Upside Down. (laughs)
Chris: And so, as a character, he just stands out from all the people around him, which are just a little more straight-laced, a little less dramatic and just less creative in terms of their dress and their behavior and their activities. Just more like standard characters.
Oren: And partly that’s just because the Stranger Things cast, despite sometimes being portrayed as nerds or outcasts, are actually very conventional, for the most part.
Oren: Eddie is not really that big a departure from the norm, especially not for modern-day people, but the fact that he’s into some stuff that not everyone does, the fact that he has drugs, right? And so does Argyle in that season, another character people really like. Apparently drugs was the answer. (laughs)
Wes: They’re both just–you touched on it. They’re both just kind of raw, like more genuine. I mean, I didn’t really pay that much attention to how the recurring cast is so boring in comparison to those two, ‘cuz they seem absolutely genuine in what they’re doing. Eddie is more in your face and Argyle just wants to hang out, man.
Chris: They’re more distinctive characters, certainly, than the–which, I mean, that’s kind of the start of novelty, right? If you want novelty in a character, you have to start with them being distinctive from everybody else in some way. But yeah, Eddie is also–when they do scary things, he’ll show fear. And when you have the rest of the team being super seasoned–this is the fourth season, they’ve been encountering stranger things for quite a while, here–bringing in a new character that’s charismatic and can be, “oh my God, this is scary…No, actually, I don’t wanna do the brave things? Oh, wait. I have to do the brave things? Only if you make me. Okay, fine.” That’s, again, refreshing.
Oren: And they know how to not push it too far. ‘Cuz sometimes you can have characters who are like that, where they’re like, I’m scared ‘cuz a realistic person would be scared here, but then they take it to the point of not wanting to do the plot, and then that’s annoying. At that point, it’s like, come on guys, do the plot. And Eddie doesn’t do that ‘cuz they knew how to balance him.
Chris: Yeah. Novel gimmicks in general can become annoying. That is one liability when trying to make a character novel is, I think, just giving them variety. Not hitting one joke too hard is really key, because there’s too many characters that, whatever they’re doing is just too repetitive and they don’t have a lot of nuance or depth as a character. Whereas, Eddie has different things going on. So we don’t need to watch him constantly be afraid of everything. Because that’s not the only way that he’s distinctive.
Oren: We’ve been talking about ways to make your character novel by making them stand out from the other characters. There is another factor to novelty, which is harder to control for the author, but it’s still worth knowing about, which is just in terms of how much of a thing people have seen before, just in general. So it isn’t really so much about the rest of your story, but other stories that they’ve seen. And so, for example, the character Ista from Paladin of Souls (by Lois McMaster Bujold) is a middle-aged woman who is the protagonist of a fantasy novel. And that still has some novelty. You would think it wouldn’t by now, it’s been a while since that book’s come out, but there are still not a lot of middle-aged women as the leads of fantasy novels.
Chris: And in particular, she’s also like the dowager queen, so her daughter is the ruler. So that puts her in a position of, “oh, all the young people are doing the exciting things, but now it’s gonna be my story”, which I think also adds to the novelty of the fact that she’s middle-aged.
Oren: And that’s not the sort of thing that you should count on when you’re writing your story. By the time you publish, this thing that you’ve heard of that no one has ever seen before may have already come out. So there are other things you wanna do. You wanna observe other fundamentals, but if you keep an eye on what sort of things are happening in fantasy and sci-fi, you can observe those trends and try to fill niches that don’t exist yet.
Chris: Yeah, it also means, when looking back at stories, things that we take for granted now were novel at the time. Like Buffy from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. The idea is like, oh, that cheerleader that always gets killed in a horror story. What if she was a hero? And she said she killed all those horrific things that go bump in the night. That was a subversion that was novel at the time, but now it’s just like, there’s, Buffys everywhere, and it’s hard to remember that it’s a trend that she started. Another character from Buffy that’s, again, because at the time it was a subversion, is when Spike came in. All the vampires on the show had been very serious, but they’re also very hokey ‘cuz it was not, the show was not really good up until that point.
So we had a bunch of vampire antagonists that were kind of not threatening and took themselves way too seriously. And so then, when Spike came in and he was the modern, hip, rocker vampire, that actually had a lot of novelty to it.
Oren: Right. And it’s, I don’t think Spike was the first vampire in fiction to do that, but he certainly came during a time when that wasn’t a super common trope that every vampire was doing, and he was on a big budget television show, so the most people saw him.
Chris: I mean, the context of the story also matters. Right? There’s multiple contexts we’re working with here. One is what stories altogether are doing, and the other is what’s happening in this story and how does this character have contrast?
Oren: So, Chris, you talked about at the beginning, the idea that you want to design a character with novelty in mind, rather than designing a character and then adding novelty afterwards.
Chris: I mean, it’s easier that way. You can still, there’s a lot of situations where you’re just gonna have to do the best you can to add novelty afterwards, but it’s always better.
Oren: But assuming you can start from your clean sheet character design, how do?
Chris: I mean, the most important thing is to come up with a concept that you can see kind of reverberating throughout the story and affecting the character’s behavior, rather than just being kind of what they are and having no role in the story. ‘Cuz I said, those characters like Seven of Nine wouldn’t be novel if she just acted like any other person, even if we said that she came from the Borg. The important thing is that she behaves like a Borg. So you want to look for a concept that you can see playing out in the story, and that honestly, that you’re excited about and ready to have fun with, and that gives you ideas for how this character will act and behave.
An example I like is, what if you had a character that was like Cupid come down to Earth, right? That obviously has implications as for what this character is going to do and how this character is going to behave that you can then play out in the story. Assuming, of course, that’s not completely breaking theme. We’re not gonna put Cupid in Teen Wolf, for instance. (laughter) So that’s a good one. You could do something like give a character unique constraints, as long as they play out, like putting a character under a curse could be a novel situation if they change shape, for instance, at specific times, and that actually affects how the story plays out. Maybe they change into an owl at night and then, after they come back to a human, they still have all those traits and just wanna eat mice for a while. Something that is big and noticeable, but then also you can see doing the little stuff. The devil’s in the details.
Oren: Or you could have two characters, one of whom turns into a hawk during the day, and the other turns into a wolf at night. And that could be a fun story, I think.
Chris: Yeah. They could just be in this entire forbidden love affair. It could be like–have synth music playing in the background, maybe?
Oren: Yeah. Just don’t have the guy decide that the lady is better off dead than as a hawk.
Wes: Oh my gosh. Yikes.
Chris: Yeah. So we’re talking about the movie Ladyhawke. This is not a super famous movie, I don’t think. Maybe it’s famous, more famous than I thought.
Oren: It’s a cult classic. By which I mean, there are people who worship it, as in a cult.
Chris: Speaking of Ladyhawke, the character Mouse doesn’t have any magic. He’s still pretty novel because in this big kind of epic fantasy with this big knight, who’s the badass hero, the main character is just kind of like slinking around. He’s a small guy who steals things and talks to himself all the time.
Oren: You can often add some novelty to even the most well-worn of tropes, like the farm kid trope in fantasy. This has been done bazillions of times, and yet the character from the Chronicles of Prydain, what is his name? The protagonist.
Oren: Taran. Yeah. He still feels like he has some novelty because, you know, he starts off the story as an assistant pig-keeper.
Wes: And that sticks with him and it defines him really early on.
Oren: Yeah. And even other farm boy stories don’t usually have their protagonist start off with that kind of non-heroic situation, right? Even characters who grow up on farms, they pretty obviously are designed for destiny. You know, they have a special, cool birthmark, or they see stars in their dreams that tell a prophecy or something, and Taran eventually gets there, but he starts in such a mundane situation that it still has some novelty.
Wes: Well, let’s not forget that Gurgi is in there. And he’s one of the most novel characters I’ve ever read.
Oren: That’s true.
Wes: And to talk about planning one from the start, it’s like, how do you make this character novel? Well, Gurgi just is a Gurgi. There’s no other Gurgi, and Gurgi’s best described as some kind of ball of fur and leaves and twigs that’s always hungry. And because there are no other Gurgis, Gurgi is kind of defined by being alone and wanting company, but he is just kind of weird about it the whole time. And obviously there’s like speaking mannerisms piled on top of that, but the core of it, I think, makes them very novel that in a world full of some magical creatures and stuff, there’s no other Gurgi, just the one.
Chris: But if you already have your character concept, we talked about an interesting job or hobby can really do it, just like the renegade linguist.
Wes: (laughs) Renegade linguist.
Chris: Or any unusual ability that could play out in the story in interesting ways, especially if they have to be inventive with it, contrasting them with other characters, character wit and snark can be used for novelty. I think the caution there is, it’s usually better if they’re self-deprecating, because otherwise if they’re always aiming their wit at other people, they can make villains feel less threatening or just come off as obnoxious.
Oren: Yeah. Also, humor is hard.
Oren: If you write a funny character, you have to know how to write funny stuff and that’s challenging. That’s a kind of a skill on its own. You’d be amazed how much novelty just making your character know how to cook adds. Very few main characters in spec fic cook. It’s very rare to the point that like Samwise Gamgee is probably best remembered, beyond the fact that he’s totally in love with Frodo, for his ability to cook. That’s just a thing that we all remember about Samwise, ‘cuz almost nobody in fantasy can, for some reason.
Wes: Po-tay-toes making the rounds on the internet again.
Chris: Okay. If you enjoyed this episode, please support us on Patreon. You can go to patreon.com/mythcreants.
Oren: And before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons who are extremely novel, despite the fact that you hear their names every week. First there is Callie McLeod. Then we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week
This has been the Mythcreants podcast.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?