This is what happened to me during the creation of most of my books but it happened the most with Who Killed Joel Larson? It was not until I had published the book that I was able to realize what films and characters had subconsciously inspired my writing. I thought I’d dive into that today.
Making Life HELL For Your Protagonist (Batman Forever)
Batman Forever’s main story is about Batman stopping the hilarious Riddler and goofy Two-Face. That is the main goal of the protagonist. (Batman) But so much else takes place that makes this one hell of a movie, albeit a cartoony one. Take a look at this, courtesy of youtuber J’s Reviews. See his video here.
Likewise, there is a lot going on in Who Killed Joel Larson? The plots are as follows:
*Maggie Taylor will lose her job if she does not solve Joel Larson’s murder in a timely matter.
*A terrorist group reunites and confirms that Maggie is their next target.
*Maggie adopts a daughter who disappears from school.
*Maggie’s antagonistic ex-boyfriend destroys her public reputation and is en route to solving the case first.
*Maggie’s relationships with others is often complicated due to her battle with bipolar disorder.
That’s a hell of a lot for one person to deal with, and that’s what helps her character arc. Speaking of character arcs, that is where Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead steps in.
Did anyone inspire this character growth? Yes! Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead.
Rick began the first season as an everyman. He was a good-natured cop before the zombie apocalypse began. Once the dead begin to rise and feed on the living, Rick holds on to his principals. He refuses to kill living people. He goes out of his way to save others, some of whom do not deserve it. He refuses to give up hope, regardless of how bleak the situation is. Because he is level-headed, other characters look up to him as a leader.
However, due to his good intentions sometimes getting people killed, Rick sometimes doubts his own leadership and eventually adapts to the violent world around him. By the end of season 2, he has become a hardened, ruthless individual. In the later seasons, Rick would occasionally he return to his moral code from early seasons, but he always reverts back to becoming a badass. It is the uncompromising violent Rick that kept him and his group alive for so long. The zombie apocalypse changed him tremendously as a person.
Rick inspired me in other ways too. For example, Rick’s behavior was often influenced by those around him. Rick’s former best friend turned antagonist Shane Walsh planted the seed for Rick to become emotionless, violent and uncompromising. His father figures (Dale and later Hershel) helped him maintain his humanity. His sidekick Daryl is constantly his backbone, almost always giving Rick his full support. Michonne and Glenn are Rick’s conscience as well as secondary strategists. And then there’s his son Carl, whom Rick will do anything to protect.
In the case of my protagonist Maggie Taylor, her husband Jacob would be Character C. Because he is confident and silly, he brings out Maggie's humorous side. She feels safe and secure with him.
You see, the Character Tree is much like real life. You act and feel certain ways around different people. For example, your boss may bring out an ill-tempered side of you, but your child at home brings out your playful and optimistic side. Characters in fiction are no different. No one is black or white. There's a lot of grey.
However, the Character Tree does not have to be as exact as you see it here. For example, Lamont Jackson (Maggie's vengeful ex-boyfriend) does a damn good job of humiliating and antagonizing her. He crushes her spirit and brings out Maggie's fearful and vulnerable side perhaps more than any other character.
Her boss Commissioner Mickey becomes a caring mentor and father figure. It is his wisdom and mentoring that helps Maggie to keep a level head in tough situations. In contrast, Maggie does not get along with her racist and overbearing mother, who generally brings out her morose side. Something as subtle as the Character Tree brings realism to the story.
Perspectives, Villains and Anti-Villains
Alright. Four years later, a mysterious and muscular woman named Abby comes from out of nowhere and blatantly murders your father figure. Naturally, Abby’s the villain, right? Well, midway through the game, the player is forced to switch roles and play as Abby, who, as we find out, is actually the story’s hero. Your father figure was the real monster all along, and you're following in his footsteps.
I took inspiration from this. For example, in Who Killed Joel Larson? There is a minor character who recently lost his wife and his young son is currently dying from the same illness. The quickest way for this character to get the money to pay for his son’s operations is to become a hitman for a crime boss.
So, is he doing the right thing (by saving his son’s life) or is he doing the wrong thing (by killing innocent people)? Either way, he is the anti-villain or the anti-hero hero depending on your perspective. Maybe you see him as a villain. Me personally? I see him as an anti-villain because he doesn't want to do these things, but loves his son and will do anything to save his life.
The same is very true of Catwoman in Batman Returns. Her only real goal is to get revenge on the man who murdered her. Is she trying to kill everyone in her path? Is she a bad person overall? No. She may be mentally unstable, sure. But she also saves a woman from being mugged, and is more interested in seducing Batman than killing him. Still, although she does bad things sometimes, her reasons are well understood.
If the movie were from her perspective, Batman would be the villain because he is trying desperately to stop her from achieving her goal of killing her former boss, Max Shreck.
Mystery, Suspense and Red Herrings
You know what? The first “Whodunit” I was ever intrigued by was a storyline from the WWE (then the WWF) In 1999, Stone Cold Steve Austin was run over by a limousine and out of action for 9 months or so. Everyone on the roster was a suspect. Although Austin was extremely popular with the fans, he was not popular with the other characters. He was a beer-drinking anti-hero who went by the motto, “Don’t Trust Anybody.”
During his absence, his long-time rival The Rock replaced him as the company’s top star. Likewise, the WWF’s top villain (Triple H) married the daughter of Vince McMahon (Steve’s arch nemesis) and dominated as the WWF champion. Naturally The Rock, Vince McMahon and Triple H were the top three suspects, but Austin did not get along with anybody (aside from announcer Jim Ross) so the list of potential suspects was as deep as the grand canyon.
This whodunit angle did not necessarily influence the Joel Larson mystery, but showed me how such a mystery should be handled. Like Stone Cold, Joel Larson was not Mr. Popularity. There's a short list of people who genuinely liked Joel Larson.
Samantha Larson- Joel's mother. She loved her son dearly and desperately wants to know who murdered him.
Jessica Larson- Joel's quiet and gothic sister. Close to her mother most of the time.
Terry Rossi -Joel's maternal grandfather. Despite always supporting Joel, he is a bad influence on him and regularly clashes with Samantha on raising him. Because he is deceased in the current timeline, Terry is only present in a flashback and mentioned once in Joel’s journal. He was a wise-cracking character, but Joel may have turned out better if he lived longer.
Maria Sanchez -The closest thing to a girlfriend Joel ever had, and a really close friend in the short time they knew each other. The staff permanently separated them after they were caught doing something sexual. Both of them missed each other greatly, but never saw each other again. Maria is devastated by the death of her friend.
Evan Camden - A friend Joel saved during a seizure. Evan has Down syndrome, was a good kid and got adopted in Florida
Peter and Donna Smith -An elderly couple Joel rescued from a wolf attack. They speak at his funeral.
Father Clifford Stephens - An amusing priest adored by the students of Father Barry Catholic Middle & High School. He gives Joel wisdom during his teenage years. After Joel’s death, he expresses his sorrow on social media and gives the homily at Joel’s funeral. He is only seen in flashbacks and in one social media post.
Coach Jack William Wright -Jack becomes a huge fan of Joel after witnessing him knockout huge popular bully Clay Ross. Much like Father Stephens, Dr. Chung, and Joel’s grandfather Terry, Coach Wright is very supportive of Joel. He pleads with Principal Glover to allow him to nurture Joel’s gift and train him to be a boxer, but the close-minded Glover refuses. Coach Wright is regretful and devastated over Joel’s death. Like Father Stephens, he only appears in flashbacks and on a social media post.
Elijah Sanderson - Mae Sanderson’s 8 year-old grandson. Loved to hang out with Joel. Joel’s last real friend.
Compare this tiny list of Joel's allies to his looooonng list of enemies.
Aaron Henson: A pedophile who lives across the street from Joel.
Kinky Christa: A sex worker who rejects Joel.
Jackie Larson: Joel's older brother. Joel attacked his wife and caused her to miscarry. As a result, Jackie has never forgiven Joel.
Kelly Patterson: An evangelist caretaker Joel attempted to rape.
Crazy Dan: A homeless alcoholic veteran who was near the crime scene.
Mark Tupola: An effeminate caretaker beaten up badly by Joel.
Tiana Jones: A former colleague of Joel's. Joel fondled her at McDonald's and she threatened to kill him.
Amaya Turner: One of Joel's caretakers. Joel broke her windshield and knocked her out with his fist.
Mae Sanderson: A smug and jaded elderly caretaker who openly despises Joel.
Randy Venson: An innocent caretaker Joel frames to get arrested by the police.
Damon Richards: Maggie's new assistant. He's shy, introverted and secretive.
Sarah Vaughn: The 21 year-old jogger who discovered Joel's body.
Clay Ross: A tough jock who bullies Joel in middle school. He eventually has a sex change and becomes Clayannah Ross.
Naturally, there are certain types of characters needed in each story you tell. Everyone has to serve a purpose one way or another. Before I dwell into the different types of character tropes, here is a list of the main cast of Who KILLED Joel Larson?
Maggie Taylor (Protagonist) Insecure, timid, anxious and depressed. Desperate to save her job by solving the Joel Larson murder case and locate her missing daughter. Her life is complicated by her impatient boss Commissioner Mickey, her overbearing mother Rachel, a vengeful ex-boyfriend and a terrorist group out to kill her. Although she has enough problems, her bipolar diagnosis makes things harder.
Joel Larson (Deuteragonist) The 24 year-old mentally disabled man whose life and death are the focal point of the story. Joel was highly intelligent but had the maturity of a ten year-old child. He suffered from constipation, autism, pathological laughter, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. He had a long history of racism, violence and both physical and sexual assault, but was on his way to redemption when he was murdered. However, a lot of his bad behavior was the result of his mental disorders and bad parenting. His biggest obsessions are losing his virginity and the late heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano.
Jacob Taylor: Maggie’s friendly and concerned husband. He tries to keep her laughing and is always in her corner. Although he is a goofball, he is mentally tougher than Maggie. He is her backbone.
Commissioner Leonard Mickey: Maggie's gruff boss, and the most popular police officer in the city. So popular, in fact, that he is running for governor and en route to an easy victory.
Lamont Jackson: Lamont is a famous journalist who is also the disgruntled ex-boyfriend of Maggie. He still resents her for breaking his heart years ago, and is actively out for revenge.
Dr. Theodore Chung: Joel's friendly psychologist.
Mallory Taylor: Maggie's recently adopted daughter. She suddenly disappears from school one day.
The Jaspers: A group of terrorists who confirm that Maggie is their next target.
These are the main characters. Now let's go into which types of characters you see in nearly each film, book or general story. Pay close attention.
Villain/Antagonist - The person who opposes the protagonist or hero. The antagonist doesn't always have to be a physical character. It would be a force of some sort, or something that the protagonist has to battle from within. Although antagonists are often evil or wicked, this is not always the case. Sometimes they are just standing in the way of the goal's of the protagonist or vice versa. In my novel there are several antagonists including Lamont Jackson, The Jaspers, Maggie's bipolar diagnosis and several other characters who will surprise you later in the story.
Tertiary Character - A character of minor importance but vital to the plot in some way. We know just enough important things about them to find them interesting. An example would be Glinda The Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. She does not appear much, but plays a vital role in Dorothy's journey. In my story, many of the people Maggie interrogate fill this role.
Deuteragonist- The second most important character in the story. In some stories they support the protagonist. (Like Robin supporting Batman, for example). Other times the deuteragonist may also be the antagonist. Deuteragonists may even have their own subplot. In Who Killed Joel Larson? The deuteroagonist is obviously the title character.
Love Interest - Quite obvious. In my story, Maggie's husband is her love interest. Joel attempts to have several love interests but they never pan out.
Mentor/Confidant - The character the protagonist trusts the most. They could be a wise older person, a sidekick, a love interest, etc. When the protagonist confides in the confidant, they are actually speaking to the audience. In my novel, the confidant characters are primarily Maggie's husband Jacob and Commissioner Mickey. In his subplots, Joel Larson has a few characters he confides in, including Dr. Chung, Greg Smith and Father Stephens.
Flat Characters - Minor characters who only appear once or don’t contribute much to the story. They're minor plot devices just to get from point A to point B. They could be a pet, a secretary, a mailman, a stranger, etc. Generally these characters may have one or two lines.
Foil Character - Someone who is the opposite of the protagonist but not always in a bad way. In my story, Jacob is Maggie's foil. She is depressed and anxious while he is confident and funny.
Anti-Hero - Someone who lacks heroic tendencies, but you wind up rooting for them. Sometimes the anti-hero is someone who doesn't want to be the hero, but they're somehow forced into doing the right thing. Maggie is something of an anti-hero early in the story. Likewise, Joel is an anti-hero in certain situations.
Anti-Villain - Someone who may be good character overall but does bad things for understandable reasons and ends up being a villain. Sometimes the person is forced into being a villain, much like the David Kessler character in An American Werewolf In London. In my novel, the hitman character I mentioned earlier in this essay is a perfect example of this. (He is part of a MAJOR plot twist).
False Protagonist - Someone whom you think is the lead character, but you discover a bit later that they are not the lead character. This character may die early in the story, or the focus will shift to another character as the protagonist. Sometimes you'll discover later that this person is actually the villain. There are no false protagonists in my story, but there are plot twists that will throw you off. (A character or two you think is a good character but they're really not, and vice versa).
False Antagonist - The opposite of a false protagonist. They appear to be the bad guy but you later discover that they are not the main villain or they were never the antagonist in the first place. Sometimes they wind up being the hero. There is one in my story but I won't spoil it.
Hero Antagonist - A good character opposing a villain protagonist. Hero antagonists are only present if the main character is the villain.
Villain Protagonist - The villain when he/she is the main character. In his subplots, Joel is a villain protagonist although he has moments of good.
Static Character - A character who does not change at all throughout the story. In my story, Maggie's mother Rachel is overbearing, racist and opinionated. She is this way at the beginning of the story, and the same at the conclusion.