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The Ideas Shoppe: The Making of a Superhero (Part 3)

The wait is over! Vanguard Prime: Wild Card will be released tomorrow, 27th February, and to celebrate I thought I’d return to a series of posts that haven’t been featured here in a while; the Making of a Superhero. And given that Vanguard Prime: Wild Card heavily features the Knight of Wands, what better time than now to take a look at the team’s resident man of mystery?

So mysterious you may not know that's him on the left...

So mysterious you may not know that’s him on the left…

Previously, I’ve discussed the process behind creating the two junior members of the team – Goldrush and Machina – but I knew that the senior members would be a challenge unto themselves.

I wanted to create characters that felt interesting and dynamic enough that they could very easily be the protagonist of their own book. The examples I had in mind of these stemmed from comic books, of course, where the Justice League and the Avengers were traditionally populated by characters that were already established in their own series.

This was in opposition to teams like the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, where the characters were created to be part of a team, and as interesting as they may be in their own right, they still work better as part of that team structure.

I wanted the “Big Three” of Vanguard Prime to be much like the Big Three of the Avengers and the Justice League. Just as Captain America, Thor & Iron Man and Superman, Batman & Wonder Woman all have their own supporting characters, antagonists and personal lives, I wanted to come up with characters that felt as established as that…without the benefit of 70 or so years of continuous publishing behind it.

I started in the place I was most comfortable with, drawing on the ‘Self-Made Man’/’Mortal Amongst Gods’ elements that Iron Man and Batman share, while also focusing on the ‘Dark Avenger’ archetype originated by characters like Zorro and the Shadow, their legacies continued to this day by the aforementioned Dark Knight Detective.

It wasn’t the first time I’d used the ‘Dark Avenger’ template to create a character; when I was 10, I came up with a spoof superhero called Penguin Man, who eventually mutated into “Nighthawk” when I was 12.

But with my new story, I didn’t want a Batman rip-off. I didn’t want to just transplant Nighthawk from my childhood into the present day (not least because there’s already more than one comic book character that’s taken that name).

So I looked back at the characters that intrigued me when I was younger; not the characters I loved, like Batman or Spider-Man, but the characters that seemed slightly goofy or “off”, but still stuck in the brain. Characters like Steve Ditko’s Blue Beetle and the Question, or Jack Kirby’s Mr Miracle. Strange, colourful characters that immediately capture your interest with how quirky they are.

I’ve spoken before of the need for a memorable superhero to have a strong thematic element; something that elevates them from the mundane to the iconographic. As an example; Batman and Spider-Man draw on the animal kingdom, with those two animals informing many of the elements that make those characters unique, such as Spider-Man’s web-slinging or Batman’s Batcave.

It’s hard these days, after so many thousands of superheroes have been introduced to the world, to come up with a unique theme for a new character. What I ended up drawing from was the memories I had of my mother practicing divination with her tarot card deck. I never put much stock in the fortune-telling side of it, but I always found the names and the illustrations of the cards themselves fascinating.

So bearing in mind the off-beat features of the Ditko and Kirby characters, I was immediately drawn to the “Knight of Wands” card, combining as it did aspects of the warrior and the magician under one, evocative name.

Storytelling is the art of posing questions and then answering them. The first question I posed to myself about a character called “the Knight of Wands” is why would he take that name? Especially when you consider that there are two decks in the tarot; the major arcana and the minor arcana, with the Knight of Wands belonging to the minor arcana. Out of all the cards in the deck, why would someone pick that one?

And that’s when it occurred to me; he’s named himself after a character from the minor arcana because there’s a villainous organisation called the Major Arcana that he’s working to bring down.

That’s where the next question comes into play; why? Why is he fighting this organisation? And it’s from there that I developed the Knight of Wands’ back story, fleshing out the Major Arcana as an organisation of superhumans that the Knight’s father founded but that has been overtaken and corrupted by his older brother.

This idea had a certain Shakespearean flavour to it that really appealed to me at the time; it’s only in retrospect that I also see the influences of films like Infernal Affairs and anime series like Cowboy Bebop as also having a fair amount of influence.

Using the tarot deck also provided me with ideas for the Knight of Wands’ paraphernalia, including his method of transport; his “Batmobile” wouldn’t be a car, it’d be a supersonic scramjet stolen from the Major Arcana, named after “the Chariot” card.

Originally, I had the Knight carrying a flaming sword, but that felt off given that he was meant to be a knight of wands. An off-hand comment someone made about Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver being the Doctor’s “magic wand” gave me the idea of giving the Knight a similar high-tech wand, albeit as a collapsible quarterstaff, which is where his “laser-lance” comes from (though I called it a “photon rod” at first).

His real name – Ethan Knightley – came from two separate sources; Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt from the Mission: Impossible franchise (not that I’m a major fan, but it was always a name I thought was cool) and Mr Knightley from Jane Austen’s Emma. I imagined the Knight to have been a Scottish aristocrat, born and bred to continue on his family’s legacy, only to end up a beggar knight errant.

This would be a Batman with no fortune, forced to do things on a budget, and just as the Knight of Wands card represents improvisation, he’d work from his gut and off-the-cuff rather from than any grand plan or comprehensive system of preparation.

Unlike the other characters I created for Vanguard Prime, the Knight’s creation came quickly. By the time I was done, I had a character that I was very fond of and just as interested in exploring, which is why I decided to make Book 2 his spotlight story after keeping him in the background of Book 1.

That affection has also led this post to being much longer than I intended it to be, but I wanted to give you a sense of everything that goes into creating a superhero character…especially as it seems to be one of the things that people Google that brings them to my website!

And if all this rambling has somehow intrigued you about the Knight of Wands, this is where I remind you that you can read all about him and the Major Arcana in Wild Card, Book 2 in the Vanguard Prime series. You’ll recognise it on the shelf; it’ll be the only one where a hooded figure is wielding a flaming laser-lance…

Note: Do not attempt this at home.

Note: Do not attempt this at home.

‘Til next time.

The Ideas Shoppe: In The Groove

One of my biggest sources of inspiration is music; so much so that I gave a presentation at uni on songs that had inspired my writing. It…did not go well. I’d hoped to stimulate conversation amongst my fellow students about what music sparked their imaginations. What I got instead was muted befuddlement. I was eventually told by someone who’d been in the class that the excerpts I played dragged on too long to maintain everyone’s interest, which is something I should have probably realised on my own.

At the risk of having history repeat itself, I thought I’d write about a few of the songs that inspired Vanguard Prime: Goldrush. I’ll try to keep things as spoiler-free…and succinct…as possible!


National Anthem – Radiohead 

This was not a song that had to grow on me. I loved it from the very first moment I heard it. It’s dark and hypnotic and brimming with a hard-driving energy, and it’s the song I imagine playing in Machina’s room when sirens start going off to tell her and Sam that something on the Round Table has gone terribly wrong.


Take a Bow – Muse

Not a devastatingly original choice, given its use in one of the trailers for Watchmen, but it’s the song that changed my mind about Muse (well, this and Feeling Good) and its slow-building grandeur is endlessly compelling. It’s the song I played over and over again when first envisioning and then writing the passage where the Overman stuns the Round Table’s crew by demonstrating just how powerful his telekinesis has become. 


Runaway – Yeah Yeah Yeahs

I don’t know if you could find a more appropriate song  for Sam than this one, which I always felt would work perfectly in the moment where he turns and runs from the Overman, but that would also fit quite comfortably into the passage where he’s describing to Machina what happened to him the day his powers first manifested.


Army of Me – Bjork

Goldrush isn’t the only one piece of writing I’ve had inspired by this track, which remains as energising and…well, cool…as it was when it was first released. It’s a very cinematic piece of music, immediately bringing to mind scenes of action and stalwart determination. You may even notice that I named a chapter after it, which would be the exact same chapter where I imagine it playing.


Heroes – David Bowie

My original vision for the book’s ending involved the members of Vanguard Prime standing on a beach watching the sun go down. It was an image that came to me when listening to this song…which, I’ll admit, is a fairly on-the-nose choice. The book’s ending may have changed somewhat, but the imagery still occurs to me whenever this song plays on my car’s stereo. Side note: David Bowie’s eyes inspired the Knight of Wands’ appearance when his mask is removed, which you’ll learn more about in March when Book 2 is released.


Hero – Childish Gambino

Sticking with the ‘hero’ motif, this song didn’t play a part in inspiring the writing of Goldrush, but it’s one that I can easily imagine Sam loading onto his gauntlet’s MP3 player. Note for younger readers and their parents; track contains explicit lyrics.

Now, I could keep going as I’ve just barely scratched the surface of the music that inspires me – I haven’t even touched on the cinematic scores of Murray Gold, Two Steps From Hell and Daft Punk – but this seems like a pretty good place to wrap up, lest I end up confounding my audience with my self-indulgence all over again. And given how many more books I have to write and how many more songs I have to talk about, I don’t want to burn you all out too quickly!

In the meantime, drop me a line and let me know what songs inspire you when writing. I’m always on the lookout for new music to listen to!

‘Til next time.

The Ideas Shoppe: 5 Things I’ve Learnt About Writing

My post about what I’d learnt from being published generated a bit of interest, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to explore the subject of writing in greater detail. This time, I’m going to outline five pointers I’ve picked up through the study and practice of writing. Hopefully it’ll be of some help…but make sure to heed Point #5, which is probably the most important point of all!

1. Don’t Be Wishy-Washy

I’ve always had an issue with describing action that’s about to happen, rather than the actions themselves. When going through both the proofreading and the editing stages, I do everything I can to remove terms like “seems to”, “try to”, “almost”, “slowly”, and every phrasing that positions the character as passive, rather than active. The fewer qualifiers you use, the stronger your writing will be. Of course, as with all rules this one will sometimes need to be broken, but the trick is to be more conscious of making that choice.

2. Pick a Perspective and Stick to It

Jumping from one character’s point-of-view to another is one of the major hallmarks of a first-time writer, and the faster you jump the more off-putting it can be to your reader. Distinguish for yourself from the onset whose perspective will best serve the story and stick to it. That’s not to say you can’t write things from the point-of-view of an omniscient narrator, but I tend to fit that a POV like that works best in small doses. You can find ways to change perspective if you need to, whether through chapter or paragraph breaks. But avoid switching POVs in the same slab of text.

3. Have Something Happen in Every Chapter

The temptation for a writer is to indulge themselves in description, to fill their stories with rich detail, poetic imagery and unique metaphors. It’s so tempting that you can lose yourself in it, which will often leave readers bored as they slog through all this description to get to the actual story buried underneath. I could write an entry in itself on how description is best used to reflect mood and character, but the main point I want to make is that the way you create momentum in your story – and how you keep the reader engaged – is to make sure that you include at least one notable story development in every chapter. Don’t miss the opportunity to include a new piece of information, a new complication. Which leads to…

4. Pose Questions to Your Reader and Make Sure to Answer Them…Eventually

Every story is essentially a mystery story. It starts with something going wrong (as almost all stories do) and then the central question becomes “How will the character fix this problem?”. But along the way, you can pose a variety of other questions to the reader. One trick is to have the characters reference something or someone, make the reader curious about this person or object, and when the time is right reveal the nature of the subject in question. Make sure to not string out your reveal, however, and always keep track of what information you’ve provided and what you haven’t.

5. Everyone’s Approach is Different

By all means, listen to what the authors you admire have to say, but always remember that there’s no prescribed method of writing. Take the best advice – in other words, the advice that most applies to you – and use it to synthesize your own approach.


‘Til next time.


The Ideas Shoppe: The Making of a Superhero (Part 2)

Continuing my look at the creation of the Vanguard Prime team, I thought it was best to present the other junior member – Machina.


I knew it was important to include more than one teenage member of the team, and I also knew it was important to make that other member a girl. Machina arrived in my head almost fully formed. I knew I needed a “tech-head” for the group, and an armoured one would make a contrast to all the other members. The name popped out at me almost immediately, which I took as a sign that it should be a placeholder until I came up with something “better”, but ‘Machina’ quickly grew on me and so the name stuck.


I’ve been asked more than once how it’s pronounced. Technically, it should be “mack-in-a”, but I have to admit I pronounce it “ma-sheen-a”. The disparity exists because the name comes from “deus ex machina”, a term which translates from Latin as “god from the machine”. To quote Wikipedia (always an intelligent-sounding thing to say) it’s “a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object”.


I half-named the character after this term because her power could become an easy “Get Out of Jail Free” card and I wanted a reminder to not let that happen – at least not too much. The mispronunciation comes into play because I just think it sounds better. A writer’s heart is a fickle thing.


As far as her character itself is concerned, I drew on all the slightly older teen girls I remembered from when I was young who all seemed so much more sophisticated than I was and were all highly terrifying. Admittedly, there’s also a dash of Hermione Granger in there, as well as a large helping of Asuka Langley Soryu from Neon Genesis Evangelion, though I wasn’t conscious of either of those influences at the time. It’s only in retrospect that I realise how much those characters factored into Machina’s inception.


Design-wise, I envisioned Machina in a white V-suit that matched my original idea for Sam’s, with her outfit made-up of purple circuit-patterns where Sam’s was gold. Picturing actors in the role of my characters always helps me in creating them. I imagined Machina as a cross between Brie Larson, Alison Lohman and Stephanie Bendixsen, only British, and sketched out a rough idea of what she might look like to get a handle on describing her.

One of the first Machina sketches, where I was working out how the circuit pattern might work.

A later sketch, where the circuit patterns are starting to get out of hand.

My final, streamlined design, where the circuit patterns manage to form ‘M’s and ‘V’s at the same time.

All of these designs suffer from the obvious problem that I can’t really draw but they helped me to envision the character, which in turn informed my description of her.


Eventually, my final sketch was passed onto the book’s design team. Just as with Sam, it was thought a white suit wouldn’t strike the right image, so the colours of Machina’s outfit were swapped to black and purple. Her character is very much retained, however. Interesting note: while I drew on the actresses I’ve listed for my mental image of the character, the book’s designer used Michelle Williams as a starting point. I remember being really impressed with the designer’s insight when she told me that.

The final Machina design, where she demonstrates her armour-forming power.

Of course, all this gives an insight into the visual of Machina, but not her character. For that, I’d like to point to a couple of moments from the book.


One of those moments is where she’s talking about how she came to be a member of the team, and how that relates back to the relationship she has with her family. Machina doesn’t come from the same kind of background as Sam does. Though she by no means had a “bad” upbringing, I imagined her parents to be very distant people who’d had a daughter almost as an afterthought. The fact that she prefers to go by her superhero alias rather than her civilian name goes to show just how alienated she is from her family.


The other moment – and it’s a tiny one- is where Sam is listing the objects he sees when looking around Machina’s room and he notes all the stacks of CDs. It’s not commented on, and nobody has mentioned it to me as yet, but it seems odd in this day and age that a teenager would have need of physical albums, especially a teenager as tech-savvy as Machina.


I imagined these CDs to have been handed down to her from her older brother – the artifacts he passed on to help her cope when he left home and she was still stuck with their parents. It’s why she’s so knowledgeable and snobby about music, but it’s also why she’s standoff-ish with Sam when he joins the team; she’s created a new family for herself with Vanguard Prime, a family where she has a distinct role and purpose, and suddenly a new baby brother has come along to potentially usurp that.


She keeps those CDs as a tangible connection to her brother, using them as a security blanket in a way. I never actually address that in the book and I don’t know if I ever will during the course of the series, but it’s touches like those that writers create for themselves – if no one else – as they imagine the interior life of all their characters.


Since the book’s come out, I’ve been a lot asked about the relationship between Machina and Sam. I think the best answer I can give is that the dynamic between them is a complicated one, and that it will only grow more complicated in time to come, especially as Book 2 will throw a spanner in the works that nobody’s really counting on at the moment.


What is that spanner? You’ll have to wait until March 2013 to find out. But if you want to learn a little more about Machina, make sure to check out her bio here.


The Ideas Shoppe: The Making of a Superhero (Part 1)

When I was first outlining the story that would become Vanguard Prime: Goldrush, I had nothing but a few spare ideas of what I wanted it to be, which I gathered together in a file on my computer called “YA superhero story”. Those ideas included the goal of creating superhero characters that felt authentic, that could be a main character in their own right, and that would have a certain weight and sense of history to them.


Eventually, I’ll explain how I come to create each member of the Vanguard Prime team, but for this first post in the series, I thought the best place to start was at the heart of the team with Goldrush himself.


By the book’s own nature of being a Young Adult story, I knew I had to have a young character at the centre of events. I wanted the main character to be relatable, so he had to have a fairly basic power that had the potential to develop over the course of the series.


My first idea was to draw on the characters I created when I was a teenager (and an aspiring comic artist), which included ‘Soundstorm’, a superhero who could absorb sound and transform it into energy. I toyed with this idea for a while, before eventually dismissing it as unworkable.


The next power I considered was a stranger one; a hyper-kinetic ability that would give the character the ability to bounce and ricochet from one surface to another, like a human superball. This seemed too difficult a power to encapsulate for a reader unused to superhero stories, so once again I canned it.


All the while, I was trying to work out what the character’s visual motif would be. Superheroes need a strong visual “gimmick”, for lack of a better word. The most famous superhero characters have an iconic appearance that generally stems from a simple concept; a man dressed up as a bat or a spider, a soldier dressed in his country’s flag, a speedster who uses bold colours and lightning bolts to convey motion (Superman gets a pass on his visual being so generic because he’s the guy from which all other superheroes stem).


Drawing from my old note books again, I found ‘Goldrush’ listed in the ranks of a superhero team I’d generated names for but never created any characters to go with them. Turning the name over in my mind, I realised it was perfect. It gave me a colour scheme to work with, it suggested a power, and it stuck in the memory. It sounded a little goofy, but in a cool way that the best Gold and Silver Age superhero names sounded.


But why “gold”? Just because of his costume? And what were the limitations of being a speedster? Would he need to wear a helmet to protect himself from the velocity he’d be travelling at? I sketched out an idea of what the character might look like with a mask, guarding him from both g-forces and the media’s cameras (you’ll have to forgive the roughness of the drawings – there’s a reason I gave up on trying to be an artist).

The first sketch of the character that would become Goldrush

It just didn’t look right, though. I had run into the same problem that Hollywood does whenever it produces a movie about a masked superhero; you limit the range of emotion you can show. Not that that’s much of an issue in prose, of course, but there was always the book cover to consider.


I took another pass at the design, deciding on white and gold as the colour scheme to help differentiate the character from the Flash. I liked how sunny and positive it was, but felt it still looked cool. Having decided on the name Sam Lee, my character was formed. Now I just had to write about him.

Goldrush as he was first envisioned.

Three years later, when my book was finished and had been picked up by Penguin, the design process for Goldrush began all over again. The designer and publisher felt that a mostly-white costume wouldn’t work, and asked how I’d feel about swapping the suit’s colours. At first I was unsure, but then I sketched out a rough idea of what it might look like and found myself pleased with it.

The inverted Goldrush uniform, incorporating ‘V’s into the design.

From there, the illustrator and designer took over. The first step was in finalising Sam’s look, with the illustrator providing a preliminary design that I can’t post now, but hopefully at some stage I will. It retained some of the white elements, coupling them with glowing neon and a black base layer that was visually stunning, but a little busy.


Working with that feedback, and moving in a darker, more realistic direction, the illustrator took a second – and final – pass at the costume. Streamlined, strong, futuristic, Goldrush’s V-suit (as the team’s outfits are called in the VP universe) looks like what an expert costume designer would create for the big budget Hollywood adaptation of the book.

The finalised Goldrush design, as featured on the book’s cover.

But most of all, it retains the most important elements that I’d aimed for when first coming up with the character; it has a strong visual theme, it identifies him and the team he works for, and most of all…it looks cool! Beyond his visual appearance, however, Sam also had to be sketched out as a person.


Once again drawing from my own adolescence, I took the pressure and intimidation I felt in transitioning from primary school into high school and multiplied it a thousand times. I knew I didn’t want to refer to my own experiences too much, however, as I’d basically included myself as the main character in the first manuscript I’d tried to get published, and it hadn’t turned out well.


So I thought through Sam’s life and his predicament – wouldn’t it make things harder for him if his life back home was happy, even idyllic? How would his parents feel about shipping him off to what amounts to the most high-pressure military school in the world? And what was the incident that saw Sam gain his powers? What got him to that moment, and in what ways was he changed after it?


These were all the questions I had to ask and answer in creating Sam, and they’re the same questions that are posed through the course of the book. Because it’s not just the flashy costumes that draw us to superhero characters, it’s the people beneath them.

…which sounds a little dirty, now that I think about it.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek behind the publishing curtain. Make sure to come back for Part 2 in the Making of a Superhero, to be posted…well, whenever I get around to it, really.


‘Til then.