The Three Inspirations of Leena: building a character
Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world. ― Voltaire
Fire is light and movement and passion. It comforts and terrifies, gives life and destroys it. To embody this element, my heroine of the fire fae had to be a creature of contrasts, so it seemed natural that she’d be a dancer. Few things demand such primal abandon and rigorous discipline at once.
Where do characters come from? It’s one thing to imagine the type of character we want—a fire fae, a spunky barista, a master thief. However, creating a protagonist who can lead a complex story goes beyond a simple archetype. We need broad strokes, but we also need emotions, contradictions, history, and a deep well of desires that are completely unique to that individual. Real people are messy and complicated. Characterization should capture some of that, even if the heroine is a paranormal being.
My characters come to me in many different ways, but in this case Leena and Smolder arrived through three inspirations. The first came from Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet, The Rite of Spring. At the time of its premier, both the music and choreography shocked audiences—a lusty depiction of ritual sacrifice was just too distant from the floaty tutus usually seen on the Paris stage. But if anything could summon flame from the core of the universe, it was this creation, and I loved its strangeness and power at first sight. Stravinsky also wrote The Firebird, so my subconscious clearly owes him a debt for my book about a dancer and a phoenix.
So, I had my concept of what a fire fae should be—the flavor or keynote of her nature. But Leena is a person and not a ballet, so I used a writing meditation to find the core of her psychology. It’s perfect as a second step, when an author knows the basic facts about a character and it’s time to find out more:
Imagine yourself in a character’s room. What is there? What does it tell you about the character?
Leena’s room in the poorer district of Eldaban has little in it, but I found a woolen shawl woven in a pattern that is typical of her mountain tribe. What does it say about her? A shawl is used to keep warm, but it’s also good for carrying possessions, gathering apples, making a baby sling, or as a shroud. The wool would come from the family’s sheep. The women of the tribe would spin and weave it. A mother might make a shawl as a gift for her daughter as a sign that she was ready to forge her own future. That told me a lot about Leena’s people—humble, independent, and steeped in the love of their home and family.
I did a similar exercise around Leena’s chatelaine, which she carries with her in Smolder. (For those who don’t know, chatelaines were a short of tool-holder that clipped to a belt. Here is a beautiful example of one from the nineteenth century.) At first, I didn’t know how Leena would use the chatelaine in the story, but she insisted on having it. It turned out to be essential to the plot, so sometimes the character knows best!
So now that I knew who Leena was, I had to know how she finds the courage to walk into extreme danger. My third inspiration was Fionn, her brother. She held his hand when they fled the destruction of their homeland. She raised him from the time they were orphaned children, but now he’s a grown man with ambitions of his own. When he makes a terrible choice, what’s a big sister to do? Try to save him, of course, even if it’s a task far beyond anything she’s braved before. This was the motivation that launched my story’s plot.
So, to return to the initial question of where do characters come from–mostly they walk into my head fully formed, but once in a while I get to know them in a more organized way. These three steps describe how I discovered enough about Leena to begin writing her adventure. I found the inspiration, developed her backstory, and gave her strong motivation. They helped me find her spark at the start.
As befits a fire fae, she needed no help from me to set the rest of the story ablaze.