You have an opportunity to create original characters that become the face and front-line of your IP. Here’s our 6 best tips on how to make that happen.
To think this all started out as a joke in our team Slack.
I’m a rather large, bald, red-bearded giant often labeled as our “resident viking” and I was given a challenge to create an original character for Arclight Comics that fit the viking archetype.
Before I was on the team I listened to The Arclight Podcast and found myself applying the lessons I learned in the Finding Your Why and The Soul Of a Character episodes when I first started to brainstorm for Apex.
I figured if I was going to create an original character for Arclight, I had to understand the mindset that came along with it.
Before I knew it I had pitched Apex to the team and there wasn’t a dry eye by the end. I choked up, then everyone else followed.
There’s something really special about the way we create our OCs.
We have a set of guidelines that not only helps us create our characters, but keep them from being called ripoffs, homages or copies of existing corporate characters and I’m going to share those exact guidelines with you today.
So keep these 6 tips in mind the next time you’re tasked with creating a character for your own comic.
Episode 001: Your Why
Tip #1: Your Best, Most Reliable Source For Originality Is You
To really drive this tip home, I have to do some personal storytelling.
Family is everything to me.
Everything that makes me a man is because of my parents.
My pops is my best friend and chose the military life to provide for us, even though it would tear him up inside to leave for months and sometimes a year at a time. My ma is my rock and shoulder to cry on. She was responsible for doing everything while my pops was away, and at an early age I recognized that as strength.
Sacrificing for the good of family became second nature to me and has become one of the single most important values in my life. These values and beliefs of family-first and ‘sacrificing for family’ also became the starting point for Apex.
Make sure you catch that, because that’s how you start making your characters original.
Who you are, where you come from, your life experiences—all of it has the potential to be repurposed into your characters.
When you start using your own life experiences as a foundation to drive your character’s development,you’ll never have to worry about recreating what already exists.
Takeaway: You don’t need to look any further than yourself to start being original. What are some of your own core values and life experiences you can share with your character as as starting point?
Tip #2: Create an Original Character Within an Existing Archetype
So how do you go about creating a strong original character and keep the concept fresh for the reader, (especially when thematically related characters like Thor, Hercules and Wonder Woman exist)?
Here’s how we do it at Arclight.
Acknowledge that those other characters exist
Respect those heroes and the creators who have come before you. They’ve molded the concepts and archetypes into what they are now. They’re responsible for inspiring you directly.
To dismiss that entirely is starting on the wrong foot.
Takeaway: Use existing, established characters as a guide to show you what’s been done before or show you what key elements can’t be used as part of your idea in story or artform.
Tip #3: Avoid Creating “Your Version” of an Established Character
These can be a lot of fun, but at the same time, you’re not creating anything outside of the box or original that you can call your own. You’re playing with someone else's toy that you can’t take home with you. Let alone, own and sell.
You better believe that fans are able to spot this a mile away.
If you look at a character like Thor from Norse mythology, then look at Marvel’s Thor, you’ll notice that Marvel doesn’t own the rights to Thor the Norse god.
They own the rights to their version of Thor, the visual look and original stories of their version of the character and the mythology they’ve created. Marvel has taken something that already existed and put their own brand and identity on it, separate from what we know of Thor as told in Norse mythology.
You too can create a Thor.
What you can’t do is create your version of Marvel’s Thor. And at this point I’d shy away from it completely.
It can be tricky given copyrights and trademarks, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go back to the original Norse Thor (as written in the public domain) and its mythologies to bring into your own character.
Due Diligence Is Everything
I could have used Thor as a base for Apex.
Could have spun things around, put some glitter over here and gave him “that” weapon—even cheat a bit and go with that battle-loving, drunk-monsters-of-war-with-horns stereotype of vikings.
But I decided to do another important aspect in creative thinking: due diligence.
So I did research on Viking culture, how they lived, what they believed in and even found out they never even wore those ridiculous horns over their brow.
To my surprise I found another beautiful aspect of this culture that we really don’t see. Their agricultural skills and their genius in engineering when it came to their ship building. How they would honor men and ALSO brave women lost in battle (called shieldmaidens) with ceremonies.
Due diligence is looking for those little differentiating gems that nuance your character in such a way that it’s different from what we’re conditioned to seeing.
That along with the value of family is what I wanted to focus most on. Not a battle loving brute which has been done to death, but the cultural side.
Takeaway: The world doesn’t need another version of something that already exists. Find a new lane to travel in with the archetype and commit yourself to research.
Tip #4: Don’t Try to Outdo Existing Characters and Creators
When all you have in your mind is outdoing another existing character, guess what, that existing character is going to be in your head during the entire creative process.
You’re going to be bowling with the bumpers on so to speak.
The potential for creating something one dimensional is at it’s peak when you approach the creative process like this. If you’re driven by creating a character that will outdo Batman, your capacity to create something original hits its peak just a notch or two above or below Batman.
But if you’re fueled by creating a character driven by honest motives and given the depth and complexity of a character worthy of being around for 75 years your focus goes from “outdoing” to “establishing.”
But if you’re fueled by creating a character driven by honest motives and given the depth and complexity of a character worthy of being around for 75 years your focus goes from “outdoing” to “establishing.” You want to leave your mark with this character and to do that you have to get it out of your head that you’re going to outdo what already exists.
Make your own name and path versus riding the coattails of someone else’s hard work.
Takeaway: Nothing you come up with will be 100% original. Thousands of years of storytelling is in place. Concepts will be recycled over and over again. Don’t kill yourself trying to outdo existing characters and thinking that’s originality. Instead, use existing characters them as points of interest and draw inspiration from them. Thor and Wonder Woman were inspirations for Apex, yet, you see no hint of them in the character.
Tip #5: Embrace the Sandbox, but Bring a New Toy
Be it science fiction, fantasy, western, sword and sandal, superheroes or countless other genres you can play with, the moment you decide on your setting or genre keep in mind that it’s okay to blend them.
Just don’t get too crazy.
You don’t want chaos, but to break up the monotony of an archetype it’s okay to fold different aspects from different genres into your own creation.
Apex comes from my love of the fantasy genre and video games dropped into a superhero world.
A nice blend of settings that work well with one another. The voice of Apex, his look and the stories we’ll tell will keep him grounded to that setting.
Takeaway: Don’t limit yourself to a single genre. If you’re creating superheroes, create superheroes, but if you love Westerns there’s nothing wrong with adding that flavor to an existing archetype to make it different.
Tip #6: Focus On Making a Name For Yourself and Standing With the Greats, Not Beating Them Out
This is a mindset shift from “outdoing” to “standing with.”
To stand next to an iconic character is to be mentioned in the same breath as them.
Let’s be real for a moment.
When it comes to indie comic creators we don’t have the financial backing to hire on whatever talent we may want for a project or fund merchandise and have it released in days. But you can decide to not allow that to stop you or turn away and quit.
You can accomplish the same level of quality. It just requires you to dig deep, find your “Why”, and go full throttle and hustle.
Your product may not drop in days, weeks or months. It could be years before it catches on. But I see this as an advantage. When you start from the bottom, you got to get out and grind. Just imagine how prepared you’ll be when you reach your mountaintop.
Embrace the hustle required to create genuine, original characters.
If you do, someone will look at your product, then look at or write to you and mention the level of quality. This has happened to us several times. Not to brag or boast, but we often get commented on how our stuff is comparative to the corporate companies.
So don’t settle for good enough. Don’t go after just creating your version of something. Changing the colors, name and powers on a character doesn’t cut it. You have to go above and beyond and put sweat, blood and tears into the creation of every character that’s going to fall under the umbrella of your entire universe.
I could have easily thrown Apex into our world with Mjolnir and presented him as our version of Thor. Or even made a modern take on Hercules or a male version of Wonder Woman and that would have been good enough.
But understand what that does to the concept and character. It would have placed him in the same category of many other similar characters we’ve seen done so many times before.
That’s not memorable.
Sure, Apex has fantastic abilities. But the man, Valgrim, is what drives the emotional attachment to the concept. The fantastical becomes the action beat, but the human component gives the character a soul we can choose to invest in and admire or most importantly, see a little bit of ourselves in and relate to the concept—and ultimately that’s what you’re going for every single time.
When we break down our walls and open ourselves up to our characters the most amazing thing happens.
We create the real within the fantastical.
I look forward to telling his story and hope you'll accept the quest in taking the journey with us as Apex is one piece of a fantastic puzzle within the Arclight Universe.
I’ll leave you now with a battle creed from Apex himself:
“Here I stand, firm
My Will forged of Iron
My hands my instrument of Peace
Be they used for war or embrace
Here I stand, firm
My brothers to my shield hand (looks left)
My sisters to my sword hand (looks right)
We stand in unity, as One
If one shall fall or all I bid you reunite me with my son and my shield maiden in Valhalla.
To the god of my new family, I bid you welcome them into your gates.
In this life or the next..ALL will know…
Here WE stand,
Hear Apex’s Tale
Nobody tells a story like our Toothless Bear.