Recently I realized that I like to repeat not just character types, but character ensembles. And my lack of creativity scared me.
In my comic StarCrash!! with Jeff, there is a green dissatisfied snarky person, a blue annoying shouting person, and a pink caring decent person. There’s also Jeff, who is kinda-sorta removed from the ensemble as their Michael Scott-esque Charlie-from-Charlie’s-Angels supervisor dude.
In this new thing I’m working on, Catgirl System, there’s a green dissatisfied snarky person, a blue annoying shouting person, and a pink caring decent person. There’s also Taipha, who is kinda-sorta removed from the ensemble as their special houseguest and, in battle, their boss.
We can go even further. The Rad Rabbits featured in CarrotInformer Magazine were supposed to be nothing more than ripoffs of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but…their creation predates StarCrash. They are the prototype. Their colors are different, but their souls are the same: The Don-like dissatisfied snarky person. The Raph-like annoying shouting person. The Mikey-like caring decent person. And Rabbit Leo, the only one who isn’t bulgingly muscular.
It’s enough to make a self-avowed “creative” tailspin.
Isn’t this proof that I haven’t mustered the self-awareness to probe my own creations further and edit them into entities that are more exciting, more new?
But then I calmed down and thought, hey, this isn’t so bad. If I were Vladimir Nabokov, people wouldn’t say I’m “ripping myself off.” They would be calling this ensemble my “glorious obsession.” And in their literary essays, they would come up with some clever name for the dynamic, like…the Diamond, uh…the Diamond of Power.
When a well-established author publishing with a mask of confidence and scores of ready fans publishes a work with some similarities to what they just released last year (or decade), we readers stand a good chance of seeing this not as a dearth of creativity and a failing of their brains, but as a vital continuity of the themes this author finds themself drawn to.
So if you have the crisis of artistic confidence I sometimes have, then be like them. Don’t call it ripping yourself off, call it a theme. A motif. Even an obsession.
Maybe Stephen King does write a disproportionately large amount of protagonists who are authors living in the northeastern United States. Maybe this is common enough for snarky internet reviewers to poke fun at it sometimes (which is the only way I heard about it…since I’ve never read and barely watched his work.) But others would say that writing what he knows is one of the main reasons his work is strong. Writing again and again about the same types of people, places, events, and wells of deep emotion—in this case, of fear and trauma (right? sorry, I don’t know this guy)—has given King a rare familiarity with the subject.
Deep knowledge is a power. So is diversity of themes and subjects—but don’t confuse either one for goodness.
Why Stephen King Technically Wouldn’t Be Ripping Himself Off Even If He Wrote Twenty Supposedly Disconnected Books About A Big Evil Spider Eating Precisely Three Teenagers
When you’re consciously avoiding repeating your themes and motifs, you can, of course, rewrite. Overhaul at least one part completely. Or you can take those “old” ideas and try to give them a new significance or a new challenge. You can recast them in a new setting. Do a genre flip. You can take the personalities you gave to twin siblings and reassign them to an old lady and dog.
Now, if you were doing nothing at all to avoid repeating your themes, you of course won’t do any of that.
Except you will, inadvertently, because every new story has new context.
Even if you are literally republishing the same manuscript once in 2020 and once in 2021 under a mildly different name, it will at least have the same difference in context as Campbell’s Soup Can Print #1’s difference from Campbell’s Soup Can Print #2. But more likely your characters are going to end up facing a new suite of challenges.
And there are times when it’s better to focus your creative energy here: on the world and challenges the characters find, not whether their personalities are in themselves “new authorial territory.” Because once they struggle through those challenges, they will be different.
Another Case Study: August Wilson Writing “The Same Dude” Twice
I read the scripts of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom pretty much back-to-back, and as I was halfway through Ma Rainey, I went, “Hey! This guy just used the same character again!” Did I then follow it up with “what a lazy hack?” No, because I saw that this extraordinarily similar character was in a compelling new context.
Boy Willie and Levee are both hotheads and braggarts. You could say that the differences start with the stories they’re in: one comes back to an old family home and its piano steeped in blood and family history, the other is rehearsing in a studio and shooting the breeze (and/or talking shit). From there the differences spiral. One is an intruder, the other is a member of an ensemble; they dream of making it big, one by buying land and the other by selling hits; there’s violence in both of their life stories, but of course, it has different roots, and takes different routes.
I guess you could also say that Boy Willie and Levee’s similarities “justify themselves” because where their stories end up is so different. That’s one way to phrase it.
The way I like to put it to myself—being the budding, somewhat insecure writer that I am—is that character types shifted from story to story will inevitably end up different, so put the most energy in making sure that this is a damn good character dynamic in a damn good drama. (Or at least ensure that they are funny.)
The worst sin is not being derivative of yourself. It’s being derivative of yourself in a boring way.
Phew! Okay, now we get to the really terrifying part. I promised months ago that I would post regular writing updates on my own “little” “side-“project Catgirl System until it is done. Here’s the latest progress report:
It’s not doing so good.
I’m inches away from the first-draft finale, with maybe three scenes left to go. One of them is an impressive final battle, the rest are pure denouement.
I was hoping I would know what an “impressive final battle” would look like by the time I reached this point, but I’m lost.
Technically I’m not lacking for inspiration…but none of it feels right. I know that if I write a rough draft of this, it’s gonna look like, “And then I leaped out and confronted the beast! Using every bit of power left in my body, I unleashed my ultimate attack! Then the beast was destroyed. (I leveled up fifty times!)” It will be so paltry that its second-draft version will be a near-total overhaul. Moreover, it won’t be thematically tied to much of what happened earlier because, well, I forgot what happened earlier.
So I am doing something criminal: going back to old chapters before I reach the end of the current draft. Worse, I’m also editing those chapters already…
Well, I was going to, but then I decided to just leave notes on them instead, so that I can edit them in more depth after I do finish this draft once and for all. I’m not too far-gone.
All that being said, the first several chapters are actually ready for release! Just not the first entire book. I think it’s time to seriously pin down some dates for Catgirl System’s release. I’m pretty confident that I want to release it independently and, if it gets traction, then consider looking for publishers and learn what getting that kind of platform is actually like. Oh yeah, and also I’d like to develop another concept or two and seriously shop that around, for the first time in my life.
Um…maybe this March? Maybe even slightly earlier? That sounds decent. I’ll come back to the question later.
Thank you for reading, and Patrons, thank you for Patreonning.
For more writing tips from me, a slovenly hack, check out my tips on how to finish a project (…I swear I will make this happen and you’ll all be proud of me) or watch me gleefully disrupt the creative work-life balance entirely. You can also watch me play old Pokemon. That’s fine.