The Imperfect Hero

People often ask fiction writers where they get their inspiration for characters. Are the characters an extension of the author? Are they reconfigurations of people they know? Are they archetypes, metaphors, symbols?

Let’s dive into the question by looking at one of the protagonists, (my book centers on two). One is an independent, homesteading hermit named Freda who is strong and intelligent, though slightly deranged. The other, Elle, is an apathetic, despondent teenager who washes dishes at the Pizza Parlor to help her alcoholic mother pay the mortgage.  

As a reader, you may not like Elle initially. You may become irritated with her. You want her to see how awesome she is—how much potential she embodies. Yet she resists her own power. A cruel childhood left her cold to even her own radiance. 

Sometimes I can see how Elle reflects back my own personal struggles. In this way she is an extension of me, but I write this knowing my struggles are your struggles are her struggles. This is the beauty of storytelling and the empathy we often find in books.

That being said, Elle’s circumstances are radically different than my own, and probably yours as well. Universal emotions bind us; the perimeters of our individual existences define us.  

Elle’s personality is a product of her history. Like I wrote, we may not initially like Elle. I drew inspiration for her character from an experience I had once teaching writing to disadvantaged youth here in Bozeman. I volunteered my time, helping high schoolers dive into their stories.

One student resisted. She stuck out her chin and looked anywhere but the blank sheet of paper before her. I would ask if she needed help, and she’d roll her eyes and push the notebook away. The next week was the same. The week after, though, she began scribbling. Then she began writing a word, maybe two. By the end of the six weeks, she had written a small story about bouncing from foster home to foster home.

I’m not gonna lie: when she initially gave me some major ‘tude, I became irritated. There I was, donating my time, and she all but flipped me off. When she read her story to the group, her initial push-back made total sense. I was floored by her bravery.  

While Elle is many things, she reflects this young woman’s story through the archetype of the imperfect hero. The scratched diamond. The protagonist we love not because she’s brilliant or special or even the person we aspire to be, but because no one is perfect, and yet we all are capable of healing. We all deserve to heal.  

So to answer the question, I believe characters originate from all three sources: personal experience, people we meet, and archetypes of storytelling. There are probably a dozen other origins for these fictional people, swimming around in the murky mystery where stories come from.