Q & A: How did you make Nico different from a standard prince-charming character? (and thank you!)

Nico is a character that has gone through a great deal of growth since 1997.  In the beginning, he was a stereotypical prince, perfect in every way right down to his blonde hair.  But perfect is boring.

The Evolution of Nicoveren Aristo Verdian

As a teen, I was lucky to come across How to Write Sci-Fi and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card. This volume was my foundation for learning how to write.  The book suggested that the weakest characters in a story are actually the nobility.  They don't have the flexibility to go on adventures and they are always under public scrutiny.

Centernia has always had Castle Aurumice.  I needed to find a way to keep the castle, but tone down the nobility.  I couldn't quite figure out how until I was a college student living at RIT.  I lived five years in the dorms and loved every minute.  I was intrigued by the social dynamics, the arguments and the wonderfully crazy situations that occur when you lived in close quarters with a wildly diverse set of people. Through the years, I reinvented what I saw and twisted it into something new.

What if you had a castle without a clear nobility?  What if leadership could be passed from one person to another?  What if your castle was just a self-sufficient structure without servants, but people with a clear sense of purpose and career?  What unique rituals and unwritten rules guide the inhabitants of this castle?

In Book Two, readers will see the Ceremony of Brightpath.  Everyone born in the castle grows up both attending standard lessons and going through a series of apprenticeships.  At roughly the age of sixteen they're given a choice.  They may take a pile of money and seek fortune elsewhere, or follow a profession of choice within Aurumice.  Even if one takes the money, squanders their fortune, and comes crawling back, the castle still accepts them with open arms, (they just might not have the job they want).

I loved this idea!  A community in which everyone is taken care of.  No worries of food, childcare, eldercare, medical treatment or education.  Everyone has a roof over their heads, everyone shares, it's sort of like a hippy commune but with bicorns and ballrooms.   Life is never perfect, people argue, but when threatened from the outside they fight for their own.

Nico's Place in the Castle

Back to the evolution Nico.   I struggled for a while to figure out how Nico would act in this modified castle environment.  His father was a fighter with bravado and showmanship.  Nico wasn't like that at all, not really caring much for conflict. His mother was a character who still exhibited some monarchial traits, but Nico wouldn't care for formality or tradition.  The more I understood who he wasn't, the more I could understand who he was.  He finds himself as a leader in this scenario, but he doesn't want to lead, and easily passes control to Teren.

Nico is withdrawn but social.  He has an incredibly strong sense of loyalty to the people he cares most about— Teren, Misa, Kaity, Savina and then later, Jessica.  He's a follower, but level-headed enough to tell his friends when they're acting like fools.  In many scenes, he is the moral compass that steers the otherwise indifferent and overzealous personalities that surround him.  When Nico is caught in true crisis you see the influence of his parents, guiding him to lead and fight.

Nico's Mage Strength

For a while, Nico didn't really have any magical abilities.  Teren and Misa had their unique strengths but Nico floated along without anything special.  I began to ponder what if he did have a power, but it was unused.  I started to wonder who would have a magical ability that they willfully ignored? Maybe it was horrible and uncontrollable.  Nico's pure energy powers evolved, as did his foil in alcohol, and his overwhelming sense of guilt.

Once I had more sense of the character, I had to decide what he looked like.  In the beginning, he was essentially Jared, very blonde and attractive, but with a little more cat.  With the need to run away from this princely stereotype I took a step in the opposite direction, giving him dark skin, dark hair, and piercing blue eyes, (the stripes came later).  To this day, I still struggle with drawing a single concrete design for Nico. He has to be just right, and I don't feel like any drawing thus far does him any justice.

Working on the webcomic in 2010, I started creating designs for both Nico and the common spaces he occupied. I knew his private rooms would be filled with books, but I didn't know what else. Teren's chambers were immaculately clean, with evidence of his interests in music and art. Misa's rooms are an amazing unholy hell of earth and Centernia, complete with moldy pie hiding underneath a plethora of unfinished projects.  Nico was somewhere in between the two.

Nico gains Personality

There was a period of time in the late 2000s that I actually hated Nico as a character.  He bored and annoyed me.  I have old notes with my angry writing, 'why does she love him?!!!!'  I didn't want Jessi to fall for Nico because he is the lord of a castle, or because he is heroic.  Jessi needed to love him in a completely normal high school way.

The men I fell in love were always some variation of nerd.  They were insightful people who made me learn something new about the world but also shared my interests.  They were people who appreciated a good story and always wanted to know more about the way the things worked. The more I thought about it, the more I realized Nico had to have these qualities.

For a long time I feared creating a character I would care about. I didn't want people accusing me of basing the primary love interest of Centernia on my husband, (and for the record, Nico is hardly a perfect reflection of my spouse...Jamil writes software for a living and doesn't care much for horseback riding, I'm the one who owns a soldering iron, has a horse barn addiction and loves Home Depot).

I gave Nico the side of me that likes tinkering with things.  As a teen, I took apart toy cars and games just to see how they worked.  I liked to play with wiring and look at schematics.  When Nico started playing with electricity, it revealed an entirely new dimension to the character that I immediately knew was right.  He became independent of the rest of the castlefolk, following in the footsteps of Teren's father.

Nico lives in an old castle with decrepit wiring and rodents constantly making a muck of things. He's a person who is a bit withdrawn.  It seemed like an ideal combination for a homebody who just likes to fix things.  An ideal afternoon for Nico would consist of being wrapped up in some obnoxious technical problem, hands dirty and mind engaged.  He's also the type of person who wants to improve on existing structures.   Jessi arrives and Nico realizes she's a girl from a place where, unlike Centernia, electricity is not only legal, but in abundance.

When Jessi first meets Nico, she is oblivious to the magic and power of earth technology.  As a normal teenager, she takes for granted the everyday things that surround her until Nico brings it to her attention.  He teaches her what he knows and she runs with that knowledge.  This side of Nico was more important to me than any sexual attraction or princely benefits.  Jessica loves him because he is her friend, and like all true friends, they make each other better people.  Together they work on fixing and altering the world around them in a very tangible way.

I believe readers are drawn to Nico for his  human qualities.  If you strip away the cat-like physical features, the castle, and the tormentingly dangerous powers, what are you left with?  You have an awkward, kind, nerdy guy who has dysfunctional parents, but great friends to save him from the drama.  Nico is a reflection of the type of boy many readers already know, (or perhaps already love).  When you add back in the fantasy elements to this essential core, he takes on an exciting level of intrigue, strength and sexuality.  He's the type of person you either want to be or be friends with.

It's taken me over a decade to take Nico's character from cardboard prince to flesh and blood.  Now that he exists, I can't imagine writing him any other way.  I am ecstatic that people notice and resonate with his character.


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