In my early teen years, I became really interested in genealogy. I worked on my family tree, wrote to relatives I hadn’t met before, and even looked up ancestors in the Library of Congress. My family roots, like those of most Americans, make me a mutt. But I was fascinated by finding out where my ancestors were from, hoping it would tell me something about my own identity. And the ancestors who stirred my imagination the most were from Germany and Scotland. I mean, kilts, claymores, beer, and castles. What’s not to like?
So when my father recently did one of those DNA ancestry tests that involves mailing your spit to a lab, we were a little surprised to learn that his ancestors were primarily Irish and Scandinavian. That’s right: I am a Viking leprechaun, at least on my dad’s side. I now doubt my mother’s claim that her family is primarily English and French. Who knows? Maybe it’s all a lie, and her roots are in Moldova.
I’ve been thinking about this the last couple of days because of a class I recently took on character development, taught by the wonderful Rebecca Petruck. One of the points Rebecca made is that while character archetypes are important, it’s also good to give them a little twist. For example, you might have a character named Jed who’s a lumberjack. And you would assume, without being told any more, that Jed is probably a big, muscular, white dude who drives a pickup and wrestles bears for sport. But maybe he also likes to do needlepoint. Or maybe you’ve got a powerful dragon in your fantasy story who’s afraid of princesses. You get the idea.
I’ve been thinking about this in regard to the main character in my own work in progress, Arcanum. Cyrus is a self-educated smarty-pants whose cynicism disguises some serious trust issues. It was easy in my first draft to give in to Cyrus’ know-it-all confidence. But I realized he needed flaws to make him human and deep personal issues to struggle against, so in revision I’ve focused on bringing Cyrus down to earth.
For years I chalked up certain personality traits in my family to our German ancestry: hard-working, organized, punctual, love of sausages. But I can see now that I was trying to fit myself into a certain type that didn’t really exist. While I’m still chronically early for appointments and like to eat bratwurst, it’s not because of my nominal German ancestry. I also love traditional Irish music, for instance. That’s just who I am, you know?
But I still want one of those horned Viking helmets.