Chances are if you went looking for outdoorsy-reader-me as a kid, you would have found me perched in a tree limb with a book in hand. Or walking around the house with my nose in a book. Or sprawled out reading on the back of my oh-so-patient horse, an elderly fellow named Sylvester who we jokingly referred to as “the English Gentleman.”
I read and read and read and drank in heroic stories as if they were water and I was dying of thirst, and somewhere along the way, I fell in love with the characters within. The hobbits who chose to stand up. The Apprentice Pig-Keepers who dreamed of being heroes. The shieldmaidens who stood between those they loved and certain death.
At face value, the character I loved had little in common. Some were male. Some were female. Some were warriors. Some were gardeners (and body-guards). Some were computer geniuses. Some were just ordinary kids thrown into the wildest and craziest sorts of adventures.
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But all of them had strengths and skills all their own.
Honor. Courage. Hope. Love. Indomitable spirit. Intense Loyalty. Sacrifice.
Those were the qualities they exemplified, and so those were the qualities that I—even as a kid—knew that I wanted to have too.
Maybe my Hogwarts letter wasn’t going to show up. Maybe the next wardrobe I opened wouldn’t whisk me to a magical land with talking animals (although that didn’t stop me from trying despite the sad lack of wardrobes in my daily life—closets proved an unexciting substitution). Maybe I wouldn’t show up at summer camp and discover that I was fated to be a hero and fight monsters.
But I could try to be just as brave and fierce and courageous and hopeful in my daily life as my favorite heroes were and maybe that made me just a little bit like them.
Some days, I didn’t feel brave. Some days, I didn’t feel hopeful. Some days, I didn’t feel like sacrificing. And it wasn’t until I got older, that I realized that the same was true of my favorite characters.
Not one of them was perfect.
They were all complex characters with a blend of strengths and weaknesses that ultimately made them seem real and relatable. After all, perfect people don’t exist. So perfect characters shouldn’t either.
Take Sam Gamgee for example. Incredibly loyal. Positively adorable with his down-to-earth nature. Always ready with a sold dose of good hobbit sense. He is willing to sacrifice himself for Frodo every step of the way as he walks to Mordor (See … it can be done, Boromir!) and braves the fires of Mount Doom. This kind of friendship is something that we can all strive to imitate.
And yet, Sam’s attitude toward Gollum (reasonable or not) can be painful to read in the books and especially painful to watch in the movies. Dear, kind, loyal Sam allows his protectiveness toward Frodo to lead him to despise Gollum. He insists on calling him names like “Slinker” and “Stinker,” and it could be argued that Sam’s actions hinder any potential redemption arc for Smeagol.
And yet, I can so relate to Sam’s weaknesses even as I can admire his strength. Because in Sam’s place, I might have done the same.
Nowadays, I don’t just get to read stories about imperfect (but wonderful) characters, I get to write them too. Developing characters is one of my favorite parts of writing because it’s through characters that the connection between readers and a story truly takes place.
So when I started writing Orphan’s Song, the first book of The Songkeeper Chronicles, I knew that the characters within would not be perfect, but I hoped that they would be inspiring even in their imperfection.
So Birdie, who begins the story as an orphaned drudge at an inn before she is launched on her wild adventure and wrestles with fear and identity, inspires me to be courageous and to know who I am and whose I am.
Ky Huntyr, who has a stubborn streak as wide as a river and starts off the story as a street-wise thief dodging soldiers to stay alive, inspires me to keep pressing on. Kind of like Captain America standing up after he’s been knocked down again and again. “I could do this all day.” What I wouldn’t give to have that kind of indomitable spirit!
But he also reminds me to be willing to bend and acknowledge that maybe I’m not 100 percent right 100 percent of the time. (Crazy thought, right?)
And Amos McElhenny, the wild-haired, brash-tongued peddler, inspires me to love fiercely and be completely me, no matter how “boggswoggling” odd that might be. Because strength needn’t always be hard and love is not weakness. (But also, Amos’s mishaps remind me that maybe I shouldn’t go around calling people “beswoggled fools.” Unless they really deserve it.)
Joking aside, at the end of the day, imperfect characters are inspiring because they remind us of grace. They model for us how to fall and how to rise again and how to keep on keeping on even as they face the good and bad consequences of their choices. And as they struggle with choices—and sometimes make choices that have negative effects on themselves or on their worlds—I know that I am inspired by their struggle as much as by their victories, because I understand that struggle too.
Who are some characters that have inspired you the most over the years?
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Explore Gillian Bronte Adams’s novel Orphan’s Song in the Lorehaven Library.
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