Jean Johnson is a multiple bestselling author in military science fiction and in fantasy romance, with nominations for awards in both genres. She lives in the greater Seattle area, loves chatting with her readers, and is currently buried under a rather large number of plot-bunnies and their deadlines. If you see a flag waving at any point from somewhere in the pile, please send chocolate chip cookies and non-fat milk. Otherwise, she’ll be at WorldCon at the end of August 2013 in San Antonio, Texas, and will be one of the Guest Writers at Chattacon in January 2014 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
by Jean Johnson
People love asking authors “Where do you get your inspiration?” Sometimes it’s about where they get an actual story idea, but sometimes it’s about where they get the idea for a character.
Now, my characters do not represent any one individual person. I cannot even point to a physical archetype for Ia. But I can tell you a few of the many influences that went into my creating her as a character.
Physically, I didn’t have any single person in mind for what Ia would look like. I do remember quite clearly picking her to be Asian in looks because then — and still somewhat now — there were and are few Asian heroes and heroines in American entertainment. Living as I do in the greater Seattle area, and attending college way back when I first conceived of the overall universe, there were and are a lot students visiting from Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, and more in the area. So I was used to seeing Asians as well as Caucasians, Africans, and more every day in real life.
But not nearly so much in entertainment.
Because of this disparity, I made the conscious decision over twenty years ago that my heroine would look Asian. The white hair to represent the shock of her abilities impacting on her life, the height that was tall for her homeworld and the muscles demanded by its gravity, these were all meant to be signs of her alien heritage. But otherwise, I wanted her to look and act normal. Human.
Character-wise…I have admired many strong women through the ages. From the ancient tales of women like Mulan and the Greek Amazons, to the crossdressing soldiers of the Civil War, from female medieval knights to the women of entertainment: Red Sonja, Xena, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, even Inspector Lynley on that BBC mystery series in the 80s. Lots of good, strong, female role models who didn’t have to be manly to get a job done, but who didn’t have to rely completely upon being a sex object to get what they needed in life.
But I think the closest inspiration I had for women warriors, real-world female soldiers, would have to be my Aunt Eleanor. Technically my mother’s first cousin — everyone of that generation is called “Aunt” or “Uncle” — she not only served in the U.S. Army, she served with distinction alongside her husband, both as NCOs, and raised two children in multiple locations around the globe.
My aunt looks nothing like Ia. Caucasian, dark-haired when young, short, slender—at one point, she was considered too thin by the Army, to the point where she was assigned a vehicular escort to and from meals, because of the fear that walking from her office or from the barracks to the cafeteria and back would burn up too many calories. But she was always a strong-willed woman, and a kind person, and she served both in active duty and in the reserves as a clerk for decades.
Through her, her husband, and her son — who also went into the Army for a while — I learned what it was like to be a family member of someone serving. I learned of the worry of whether or not he’d come home alive again when my cousin fought in the Gulf War, and I learned how vital a letter from home could be for a soldier’s morale.
I learned these lessons and more from my many other friends who served in various branches around the world. The more I learned, the more it made me determined to show people through my stories how normal, ordinary humans can display that extraordinary conviction nearly every soldier, airman, sailor, marine and more has deep down inside to stand between the innocents of the world and everything that would harm them.
I’ve had the honor of interviewing a lot of Service personnel through the years. Not just in the American military branches, but in the Canadian military, Israeli, British, French, Mexican, Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian, Russian, Egyptian, Indian, Thai, Taiwanese, and Australian armed forces, plus South African, Moroccan, I’m sure I’m forgetting others…Mostly American, British, Canadian, and Australian, I’ll admit, but any time I found out someone served in a military position, I made sure to thank them, whether or not it was my own nation’s military. It doesn’t matter to me what flag is saluted; the real proof of how heroic a soldier is lies in the fact that he or she is willing to serve, despite the very real, very lethal dangers of the job.
Ordinary men and women displaying extraordinary humanity, on a daily basis, and for years on end. That was where and how the concept of Ia as a character was born.