How to Create Distinct Fantasy & Sci-Fi Characters, an Interview with Michael Panush

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© Michael Panush

Carrie De Simas

Editor in Chief @ GoneWithTheWord

What is the most important element in creating fantasy characters?

MP: I would say that giving all your character’s a coherent past and backstory. Whenever I create a character, I start with a basic description, but then I go back and write down a quick biography – where they were born, to what social standing, what events have shaped them – and rely on that when creating their personalities. The character of Roscoe, the hot rod-riding zombie and protagonist of the Rot Rods series, isn’t aware of his past until halfway through the book, but it still affects his personality.

How do you make your characters seem both real and sympathetic when they are (pardon the stealing of your wording here!) paranormal, the supernatural and the just plain weird?

MP: The ‘realness’ of a character comes from giving them a history – or putting them into real history. To make them sympathetic, I simply design them with core values that they struggle with. I make them want to do the right thing, even if it’s difficult, while allowing moments of vulnerability.

How much research do you do to create your characters and how much is pure imagination?

MP: It’s usually a pretty even mix of original ideas and research. I know a lot about the history of Southern California in the 1950s (just from reading James Ellroy boys), and I can take those events and themes and plug them into my work pretty easily. I don’t really bring those historical events up in the story too often, as slowing down the plot for a history lesson wouldn’t be very interesting, but I always have those historical events hovering in the background.

How do you know when you’ve done enough research?

MP: I don’t think I can ever do ‘enough’ research. There’s always something more to learn! The balancing act is how much to include in your story. I like having a lot of it below to the surface—stuff that’s only alluded to. A person who knows history will figure it out, but it should stand on its own anyway. I just read about everything, look for cool stuff, and think about how I could fit it in.

Do you ever base any of your characters on a historical or contemporary person (or a combination of people)? 

MP: Definitely. The villain in Dead Man’s Drive is a mix of Howard Hughes (being crazy) and Henry Ford (being an anti-Semite and friend to the Nazis). Future installments will have rocket scientist and occultist Jack Parsons, Bugsy Siegel, Aleister Crowley, and many more. I have characters that are based on them so I can do whatever I want in my stories—including killing them off. Some historical characters are too big and famous to use stand-ins for, so I have to use real names and people. The Kennedys are gonna show up in the fourth Rot Rods novel, and there’s no way to use replacements for them. 

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