Characters make a story. Every reader and writer knows this. That is why creating characters is such a scary, intimidating, and stressful endeavor. It's also pretty great.
I have a few favorite characters from Whitewashed (halfway there!). Ella is my automatic number one because she's the protagonist and she's been with me for so long. Of course I have to say she's my favorite–and, well, she is. Besides her, my favorites vary between a few others, people who are goodies and baddies. Sometimes, depending on my mood, I might prefer one character over another. A constant, however, is Ethan.
When I first started writing The Trace, the main characters were totally different than they wound up being in my final draft. Ella was shallow, Kara was selfish and rude, and Ethan was the angsty, brooding, impatient guy with anger problems–the male love interest every teen has come to expect from a YA novel. He was short with Ella, cryptic, and a little possessive. Why was he like this? Because those were the types of male characters I'd read about, and I thought that was all a teenage guy could ever be.
Initially, his name was "Ian." Actually, I guess his name was originally "Josh" because all my male characters from childhood were named "Josh." Josh turned into Ian, a rude guy I didn't really like.
One afternoon, as I was studying for my Shakespeare final in the library, I was rereading Henry IV on Sparknotes (don't judge). In the corner of the screen was an advertisement for a film production of The Host. I wanted a distraction, so I clicked the ad (that's what they're there for, right?) and started reading up on the book, which I'd never read and still haven't. That was when I discovered Ian O'Shea, an apparent love interest for the female protagonist. Ian has black hair and bright blue eyes–just like my Ian. Ian O'Shea also sounds very similar to Ian Sheedy.
Well, poop. My male character looked like and sounded like (as far as his name) another male character in another YA sci-fi book. I was in a pickle, a much more worrisome one than the impending final which would cover around ten Shakespeare plays I still got mixed up. I asked my friend for advice, and she recommended the name "Ethan."
Hmm. Ethan Sheedy. I decided I liked it. So Ian became Ethan, and, in doing so, he somehow became an entirely different character. (Btw, I passed the exam, one withered hand later.) Gone was the broody, annoying Ian, and in came the patient, kind Ethan who wasn't going to drool over Ella or tell her whatever she wanted to hear. He was going to help her grow to be a better person, even if it meant offending her or forcing her to question things about herself. Ethan became much less of a romantic interest and more of a friend to Ella, so much so that I considered removing the romantic love between them altogether. Then I decided I wanted to keep it because I wanted to try depicting a healthy love story where neither of the characters were obsessive, possessive, or in it just for the awkward sexual tension that–let's be honest–no teenager should want to read about. Ethan and Ella were first and foremost friends before they became anything more; and when they did become "more," the "more" wasn't the focus of their relationship.
I appreciate Ethan so much because he is willing to do things the right way instead of the easy way. He is a decent person, albeit a bit naive, who trusts people simply because he assumes everyone is as honest and forthright as he is. He is the person who will tell you that you are wrong, not for the satisfaction of being right, but because he doesn't want you to live your life in a state of error. He can come across as cocky, and his "I'm always right" attitude gets annoying, but it's forgivable because you know he cares.
I spent many drafts crafting an Ethan who was good for Ella and good for the story line. He might not be everyone's cup of tea. I would certainly get irritated with him on occasion. But I would also go to someone like him for advice–at least, the Ethan who exists now. I haven't finished Book 3, and I'm foreseeing some changes in his personality due to the circumstances he experiences. I'm not sure what sort of person he'll end up resembling, but I'm excited to find out.
Releasing characters into the world is difficult. You've spent so long getting to know them and hoping that they're as likable to readers as they are to you. Sometimes, you think you created a fleshed-out, 3-dimensional character, when to readers your character is flat and boring. Sometimes, you think a character is great (like first draft Ella), and then everyone hates that character. This is a reality I've faced and one I'm sure I'll face again. Not every character works for everyone. Sometimes, characters only work for you. How to take character-hatred is a skill I've yet to perfect. I'm sensing another blog post coming, one where I try to analyze character-hatred and how to respond to it. I'll probably just end up confusing myself.
Now for a cool quote from Henry IV.
"I am as vigilant as a cat to steal cream." (4.2)
(That's Harry Potter, you mad mustachio purple-hued malt-worm.)