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Fiction Friction: Beloved Characters That Nearly Weren't

By Tom Anderson

An unexpected character, or Brother and Back Again.

Picture courtesy One Wiki to Rule Them All.

Many, perhaps most, people who enjoying reading and watching fiction will tend to view it through the medium of its characters. Characters can be people we identify with – or, sometimes, love to hate and want to see their comeuppance. They frequently have a sense of solidity and a reality to them, while the setting in which they live may feel like a mere backdrop (depending, of course, on the work and the author). And, if the author is good at their craft, the plot feels far more dynamic and less solid. Our characters are real people, the plot is what happens to them. We believe that the decision made by those characters, the values which they have demonstrated they hold, plays its part in driving the direction of the plot.


It can, therefore, feel not unlike the ‘reveal of the man behind the curtain’ in The Wizard of Oz if we incautiously delve into the writing process of our favourite authors, and learn that the reality can often be rather different. Rather than solid character and dynamic, changeable plot, often the reverse is true. An author usually has a plot in mind from the start (though, of course, typically this evolves and changes throughout the writing process) whereas characters can be far more amorphous. This is even true of main protagonists – an author might get halfway through a draft and then decide to switch the viewpoint character to someone else, or reimagine the character they were writing.

The man behind the curtain.

Picture courtesy Wikipedia.

However, in this article I especially want to focus on characters with more humble origins. It is a daunting realisation to find that, often, the characters which become most beloved in a work may start out as a mere plot device. Our hero needs someone to hand them a document to send them off to their next location, and the like. An author frequently cannot predict whether such a minor role may turn into something greater. This is especially true in the case of media like television and film, wherein the actor cast to play the minor role may become liked by the director and producer and the role thus expanded. Or they may become a fan favourite and their character play a bigger role than intended in the sequel.


One might assume that purely literary works are immune to this, as the character is entirely under the control of the author – but said assumption is only made by someone who has not been a writer themselves. In reality, many authors have said that trying to control ‘their’ characters is like herding cats. A good example is JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. LOTR’s cast of characters was very amorphous in its writing process, including names of characters, as I’ve previously discussed. Some iconic characters emerged from unlikely origins. The character of Aragorn or Strider, the heroic Ranger looked down on by his fellow Men who turns out to be the heir to the throne of Gondor, began as a hobbit named Peregrin Boffin or Trotter. He had been one of the many hobbits said to have been ‘lured’ into lives of adventure by Gandalf, and had moved in dark circles, even being captured and tortured in Mordor – as a result of which, he was one of the few hobbits to wear wooden shoes, and Tolkien even considered giving him prosthetic wooden feet! Even after Tolkien changed the conception to be the human character we know and love, he still kept the name ‘Trotter’ rather than ‘Strider’ until very late in the drafting process.

Peregrin Trotter, a hobbit with wooden shoes, I presume.

Picture courtesy Allstar/New Line Cinema.

Aragorn’s bride Arwen is an even more clear-cut case of characters originating from deceptively minor origins. She was not introduced as a character in the drafting process until Tolkien had almost finished the first draft of the work, and had already written everything up to the Mount Doom confrontation. He later went back and added a few references to her earlier in the text, but this is why she feels like a very background character. The Peter Jackson film adaptations tried, not always very successfully, to expand her role, for example by giving her the role in The Fellowship of the Ring that belongs to Glorfindel in the text. (Of course, Tolkien could not have given it to Arwen at the time even if he had wanted to, as he hadn’t created her character yet!) Saruman, who became a major antagonist in the books (and one who has a lot more ‘screen time’ than Sauron the Dark Lord himself) was also added later; initially Gandalf is taken captive by “the Giant Treebeard”, who eventually became a force on the side of good in a later draft.


But probably the most noticeable case in LOTR of authors losing control over their characters is that of Faramir, younger brother of Boromir. Tolkien wrote in a somewhat befuddled letter, giving an update on the progress of his draft: “A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir – and he is holding up the ‘catastrophe’ by a lot of stuff about the history of Gondor and Rohan.” Later, he would say that Faramir was the character in LOTR whom he felt most closely resembled himself and his own values. Many readers also like the character and consider him one of his favourites, even though he (and especially his father) were the characters that the Peter Jackson film adaptations probably bungle the worst.


The world of fiction is full of Faramirs, characters who step fully-fledged onto the page to the surprise of their authors. Bur it is also full of characters who were created as an afterthought, as a plot device, whom their authors then lost control of. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novel Guards! Guards! was meant to be told from the perspective of Carrot Ironfoundersson, a human raised by dwarfs who is implied to be the heir of Ankh-Morpork’s lost throne, with the charisma to match. However, Pratchett realised that he needed to set the plot going in Ankh-Morpork before Carrot actually arrives there, so he hastily created the viewpoint character of Sam Vimes, the head of the now-decayed Night Watch to which Carrot is signing up. Vimes was barely a character at first, just a mass of police procedural and noir clichés, a barely functional alcoholic prone to cynicism and depression whom is nonetheless roused by a sense of justice.


In the end, Carrot never became the protagonist – leading to the intriguing, unintended consequence that the reader never really gets to see into his head and wonders if he is more complex than he lets on – while Vimes became one of the most popular characters in the whole of Discworld, and almost a default protagonist for city-set stories.

Just a character to provide the back story. Who became a fixture.

Picture courtesy Wikipedia.

Discworld also has an example of how authors can lose control for a different reason – the fans. The first two Discworld novels feature Rincewind the failed wizard as their main protagonist, whom Pratchett regarded as a flat character who just provided a channel through which various impressive and humorous settings and events could be related. But Rincewind was popular with many fans – inexplicably, to Pratchett’s eyes – and he was periodically brought back again and again for that reason.


The Star Trek franchise has several examples of characters who expanded beyond intended one-off appearances. Perhaps the most dramatic example is Miles O’Brien. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) pilot “Encounter at Farpoint”, the writers want to show off their impressive new Galaxy-class USS Enterprise-D by demonstrating its saucer separation sequence, in which the ship splits into two so that the civilians can be separated from the battle section. In order to do this, they needed some more extras so they can have full bridge crews on both sections at once. Colm Meaney was employed to play the unnamed navigator on the battle section, and given a line or two of dialogue. From this inauspicious beginning, he was re-hired and eventually given the recurring role of transporter chief, and a name: Miles O’Brien. Of course, due to how often Star Trek uses the transporter, he ended up appearing a lot and became liked by the fans. His role was gradually expanded, with him acquiring a wife, Keiko, in the fourth season, and a daughter, Molly – whose birth took place at the panicked hands of Mr Worf during a power failure in “Disaster”. He was also given the backstory that he was an enlisted man in Starfleet, enriching the setting – previously it had often been effectively implied that everyone was now an officer who had attended the Academy. The character of O’Brien was so popular that he was promoted to the main cast of the spinoff series Deep Space Nine (DS9) and acquired an odd-couple friendship with the privileged, initially rather annoying Dr Julian Bashir. In fact, Meaney’s acting chops were such that the writers adopted a policy known as “O’Brien Must Suffer” where, at least once a season, the character is put through some hellish experience as an excuse to show off his acting. O’Brien served through all seven seasons of the show and Meaney was in demand for other sci-fi guest roles (as well as bigger film ones) throughout and afterwards. Not bad for someone who had originally been hired to say one line of dialogue to Picard on the battle bridge in “Farpoint”.

Colm Meaney (Miles O'Brien) and a Police Box: When settings collide.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

For that matter, the aforementioned Mr Worf also somewhat qualifies as a character who dramatically outgrew his original concept on TNG. Michael Dorn’s character was initially more of a background symbol, showing that the Federation’s old enemies, the Klingons, were now allies. Gene Roddenberry, who seemed to have an unerring ability at this stage of his career to make all the worst decisions possible, hated the idea of featuring any species from the original series (even Vulcans) and tried to minimise Worf’s role. But, after Roddenberry was kicked upstairs and the Enterprise’s security officer Tasha Yar was killed (as Denise Crosby wanted to leave the series), the character of Worf came into his own. He became one of the most popular characters on the show, enriching the development of Klingon culture. This came with the subtle twist that – because he was an orphan raised by humans who had learned about that culture from books – he idealised it and held it to a higher standard of honour than Klingons who had grown up under more usual circumstances. Furthermore, Dorn not only completed seven seasons of TNG as Worf, but also moved over to DS9 from season 4 onwards and continued his character arc there. In fact, Dorn has more individual appearances than any other actor in the whole of Star Trek, and has a trophy to prove it.


There are also some examples from the rival Star Wars franchise, albeit somewhat less clear-cut. Princess Leia originally had a bit part before the script was rewritten and she became a main character, for example. However, in Star Wars it can be challenging just to keep track of characters in the first place because (like Tolkien) their names changed so much throughout redrafts, with one name frequently given to multiple characters in turn. Of course, Star Wars also has a reverse example, a character’s role being drawn down and minimised because of negative fan reception, in the case of Jar Jar Binks.


What about the world of cartoons? William Hanna and Joseph Barbera created many, many, many cartoons, but arguably the one with the greatest staying power is the various incarnations of Scooby-Doo. The series has been reinvented so many times, changing tone and age target, featuring celebrity guest stars, sometimes losing some of its original cast of teenage characters, or making dubious additions like Scrappy-Doo – the only constant throughout it all is, of course, the presence of Scooby-Doo himself. Because of this, it is somewhat shocking to realise that he was actually a later addition to the original cartoon concept! In interviews, Hanna and Barbera said that their original idea was a group of teenagers who played in a band (hence the Mystery Machine is meant to be their tour bus) and who investigated apparent supernatural happenings in the process. “Then we threw in a dog, Scooby-Doo, and he became the star of the show.”


It’s interesting to speculate whether the show would have been as successful if it had just been the teenagers in the VW van. At the very least, it would probably have been more rooted in the 1970s and perhaps might have looked outdated sooner.


Or what about videogames? While I could talk about the more story-based games such as Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy series, arguably the most obvious example of a disconnect between fans and creators when it comes to character is Nintendo. Nintendo has a vast fanbase, many of whom all seem very attached to the characters and plots of their games, which is almost hilariously dissonant with Nintendo’s own attitude that: “It’s all about the gameplay. Slap the characters and plots on at the last minute.” This is more obvious in the case of games that were never intended to have grand defined characters and plots – for instance, Luigi is obviously just a recolour of Mario from a 1980s arcade game so Player 2 stands out from Player 1, though he got his own somewhat different characterisation later. However, there are more arguable cases where it might seem that there’s more emphasis on story. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild includes a recurring character named Kass, who’s a bard who plays ancient songs as clues for our protagonist Link to find hidden shrines. Fans loved him, and were confused when Nintendo just forgot to put him in the sequel, Tears of the Kingdom, with zero explanation. As far as Nintendo was concerned, he’s just there to give the clues as a puzzle for the player to drive the game, and they didn’t care about the character at all.


Then there’s Rareware’s 3D platformer “Banjo-Kazooie” from 1998. This retains a huge fanbase, despite its characters being in limbo for years due to Microsoft buying the company and then doing nothing with them since 2008. “Banjo-Kazooie” originally started as a game concept for the SNES called “Project Dream”, starring a boy named Edison whose antagonist was a pirate. The pirate actually appears in a cameo in the “Banjo-Kazooie” games, claiming his game was stolen from him! Banjo the bear was originally just one of Edison’s friends, but as the game changed conception, he eventually became the protagonist of a very different game. Its setting requires him to perform 3D platforming feats by learning different skills such as briefly floating in midair, or climbing steep slopes. Rareware originally intended Banjo to have a backpack full of Wallace and Gromit-style gadgets to let him do all these things, such as mechanical legs or wings.


Then it was pointed out that it would better fit the cartoon animal style of the game if all of that was accomplished by a bird who lived in his backpack, which could extend legs or wings as needed. So the character of Kazooie was created, whose dismissive, snarky attitude and British humour (in contrast to the slow and steady Banjo) became one of the key selling points that made the game popular. But without the need to cover a gameplay mechanic, the character would never have existed.


There are many more examples I could discuss here, but hopefully the point has been made – though we as readers, viewers, and players may see our favourite fiction through the prism of its characters, be wary of looking behind the curtain. We may learn that our favourites are less solid and less substantial than we thought!



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Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:

The Look to the West series

among others.




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