I recently answered a single question interview by Kenneth W. Cain, the author of such novels as The Dead Civil War and The Saga of I trilogy. Yep, exactly as it sounds – an interview with only one question. What are the challenges in creating a believable character that is younger than you, the writer?
My answer? See below.
Since creating this blog, I’ve certainly gone into detail about why and how The Cage Legacy was created – however, I haven’t yet had much of a chance to discuss the novel’s characters. Since the interview above concerns the difficulties of writing from the perspective of younger characters – in this case, that perspective belonging to 17-year-old Ethan Cage, The Cage Legacy’s protagonist—it makes sense for this blog post to continue exploring Ethan’s identity. The Cage Legacy is very much a character drama; it’s a story that is intensely focused on Ethan’s mind, his inner weaknesses, his traumatic background and his (often poor) decisions.
Ethan Cage is an introverted loner, a kindhearted older brother, and a devoted boyfriend. Though quiet and soft spoken, he’s also a rebel – and if one looks past his self-consciousness, he’s clearly very intelligent. He’s the kind of smart kid who, instead of applying himself, tends to sit in the back of the class making sarcastic comments, poking holes in his teachers’ arguments and, as a result of this, falls in and out of suspension every other week.
Ethan doesn’t know who he is. He doesn’t know how he fits into the world. He struggles with his sense of identity, constantly feeling lost and powerless. But Ethan has other, more overwhelming problems; he’s haunted by the knowledge that his father, Carter Cage – the adoring father that he once loved so much—was, throughout Ethan’s childhood, hiding a double life as “The Mutilator,” a ruthless serial killer who performed sadistic science experiments on his victims.
So, yes, Ethan certainly has some fairly extreme father issues, which naturally results in trust problems. Despite his craving for human warmth and understanding, it’s horribly difficult for him to get close to people. After all, if even his seemingly wonderful father was secretly a psychopath, how can he trust anyone, ever again? The situation with his father has caused an enormous amount of possibly irreparable damage on Ethan’s psyche. Ethan is a wounded idealist. He wants to believe in the world – his natural tendency is to see the bright side of things – but the terrible life he’s been given has destroyed much of his optimism.
“Sorta. Yeah, okay, I can. That’s the only thing that keeps me going, despite everything that’s happened to me—because deep inside, damn, I really think there’s good in people. It sounds corny as hell, but that’s what I think. People have issues, but they’re still compelled to do the right thing, aren’t they? But then I wonder, because . . .”
He stopped. Whitney looked at him intently. Ethan leaned away from her. He let go of her hand; he couldn’t touch her while he was saying this. This was too intense for him, and he felt horribly uncomfortable.
“Because of my father, you’re right. He destroyed everything like a nuclear missile, and I hate him for it. Every time I think there’s good in people, I remember what a wicked great guy he seemed like until I found out he liked plugging sharp wires into other people’s brains and sewing the remains of their bodies together. When demons like that are out there, it’s just . . . it makes me wonder, is everyone like that?”
Although Ethan’s estrangement from his father is clearly a major factor in Ethan’s isolation, his lone wolf tendencies appear to run deeper than that. If Ethan were to take a Myers-Briggs test, it’s highly likely that he’d be classified as an introverted intuitive. He’s territorial, inward, possessing a constant need for space and privacy in order to make sense of what’s going on. Though Ethan has developed a pretty good ability at mimicking extroverted behavior – he knows how to put on a face for the world – the real, inner Ethan is generally hidden from everyone, even those close to him.
Ethan handles his stress internally, staying closed off with others and often bottling up his anger to dangerous levels. People can sense that something is going on with Ethan, but they don’t know what.
Ethan’s emotional side desperately longs to open up to people, but he’s terrified of a perceived darkness within him that feels as if it could lunge out at any moment. Ethan’s wildly fluctuating and often painful emotions are hard for him to control. He’s highly prone to emotional outbursts. As a result, he’s a bit of a control freak; in order to have some semblance of power over the world, he attempts to meticulously organize every single aspect of his life.
Ethan sat down in front of his giant wooden desk, right next to the bedroom door. He opened the drawer and took out one of his five pads of sticky notes. He wrote himself a reminder, aggressively pushing his pen against the pad as if he wanted to stab it—“CHANGE BRAKES ON CAR, A.S.A.P.”
He tore the sticky note off the pad and tried to find a place on his desk for it, which was no easy task; he wrote so many of the damn things that the entire top portion of the desk was completely covered in color-coordinated rows of them. He dangled the note in the air for a moment, then gave up and stuck it on the wall behind the desk.
Ethan constantly attempts to represses his emotions, and he constantly fails at doing so. He’s driven by a desire to do things, to get involved, the make a difference in the world. However, because stepping up in such a way would mean potentially letting go of the control he so zealously desires, he often finds himself holding back and not acting when a crisis occurs, despite the fact that every bone in his body wants him to act. It’s important to recognize that this isn’t because Ethan is incapable of action; the problem is that, when situations become tense, the contrasting sides within him collide so cataclysmically that he feels utterly paralyzed.
This problem also inhibits Ethan’s ability to openly display the affection he feels for his loved ones. He struggles to open up to Whitney; he’s afraid that if he pulls back the curtain, she’ll run away in a heartbeat. He carries deep resentment for his father, and is similarly angry at his drug-addicted mother, but he’s scared of expressing that anger. Possibly the one person who Ethan is openly affectionate toward is his seven-year-old little sister, Mary. This is no accident. Mary is the only person who he knows will always accept him, unconditionally. As a result, Ethan is highly protective of his sister.
Ethan’s background has caused him to be split in two. He is torn between his meticulous, thorough nature and the dangerous volatility of his emotions. The result of this is a character who, despite his good intentions, intuitive morality and intelligence, is also highly unpredictable, unreliable and untrustworthy. Even Ethan is afraid of himself. And why wouldn’t he be? He’s the son of a serial killer. A man’s identity – or at least, his perception of his identity—is defined by his father. Ethan is understandably terrified of the darker corners of his mind, and he’s not sure how to confront some of the more repressed aspects of himself.
But pretty soon, as the events of The Cage Legacy gets underway, Ethan isn’t going to have a choice anymore. He’s going to be forced to put together the fragmented pieces of his past. He’s going to be ripped away from his hiding places. He’s going to be thrust out into the open, and he’s going to have to face the light.
In The Cage Legacy, Ethan Cage must finally learn who he is, for better or worse. There’s no more hiding. No more running away. No more excuses. Ethan must decide who he’s going to become, and if he makes the wrong decision, everyone around him will have to suffer the consequences.
“I don’t want you to think differently about me. I’m not always the same nice kid you think I am.”
– Ethan Cage