WRITING: Adapting and Re-Imagining Characters (The Emma Frost Remix)

There have been a rash of reboots and reimaginings in the last few years, ranging from literary switchups like Pride & Prejudice and Zombies, to the glorious reimagining of shlocky 80’s sci-fi Battlestar Galactica, to successful movie-to-series transitions like MTV’s Teen Wolf. This is alongside media where it’s common within a work to completely reboot things creatively, such as comic book series where the head writer changes every few years. The ability to pick out the essential traits of characters people know intimately, and successfully reimagine the characters and world, is a really cool skill.

What follows is an exploration of a recent time I’ve adapted and rebooted a beloved character for a project…

Writing for fanfic webisode script series X-Men: Rebirth at TEN, I became responsible for fleshing out their version of Emma Frost, mostly because I adore the character. A character who has a whole lotta history. Most of which I’ve read on Wikipedia over the years, but only a small chunk in the actual comics. I adored her in Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run: her delicately-written relationship with team leader Cyclops, her genuine intention to redeem herself for the many wrongs she’s committed, her snarky and distrustful relationship with grown-up Kitty Pryde that underlies a deep trust. What a great character.

X:R is definitely a reimagining of popular characters, with their basic traits remembered and their world much the same, but different enough for Tom and I to have a lot of fun with changing up the world. When I entered the series in Volume 1, Tom’s reboot was in full swing: it was an altered version of the original team from the 60’s: it included AngelIceman and Jean Grey (here working under the code name Phoenix instead of original moniker Marvel Girl), but also later addition Rogue in place of day one members Cyclops and Beast. Without Cyclops, leadership is taken on by Angel; meanwhile, without the epic romance that was Cyclops and Jean, she instead gravitates to someone else. The hints were in the little things: the group formed in present day, Xavier was much older than his X-Men from the beginning, Jean was Scottish and had a contentious relationship with Rogue… and Emma Frost, who would recur, was sixteen years old and a flat-out villain.

Which intrigued me.

Emma Frost had always been an adult in the Marvelverse, aside from occasional attempts to explore her backstory as a teenager. Starting her story much younger meant asking a lot of questions: what had happened in her life to make her fall so fast? How had things changed so much for her already? And what was her role in the proceedings? She still had her biggest, most beloved traits: her cool confidence, her wit, her desire for power and control… and, of course, her sex appeal. Of course, that forces you to remember: This is a sixteen year old girl, Why is she acting in such a sexualised manner? Why does she consider it a weapon in her arsenal, instead of a regular human experience? Why is her first move to manipulate to get what she wants? I found that really interesting.

Rebirth‘s Emma quickly diverged from the canon character, and I found myself really enjoying crafting this tricky, damaged character. When I started writing her, I was tasked with a simple project: Write an interrogation in which Professor Xavier elicits key information from her. This became episode nine.

The outline I was given was very simple, giving me a lot of creative freedom:

Emma Frost is being held prisoner by Xavier who is mentally holding back her powers whilst he attempts to find out Jean’s location. A fierce mental battle occurs but Xavier overpowers her and finds Jean’s location. [Other plots snipped.]

Professor Xavier is a good guy, and seeing a damaged young mutant, his first method wouldn’t be torture, if it was even on his list of plays. His skill is in connecting with young, distrustful people with these fantastical powers. So the entire dialogue becomes this kind of dance, as he tries to dig into her psyche and figure out exactly why she’s so distrustful, why she’s loyal to an abusive teacher, what her motivation is to work with his enemies. Of course, Emma is smart: she can see Xavier’s saviour complex from a mile away and does her best to belittle his attempts to reach out to her.

In building this conversation, I started to dig into her motivations, her psyche. Her cynicism. How she saw the world as a dangerous place full of the weak, to be dominated, and the strong, who will dominate you. How she learned to compromise herself to survive, bury her strength to use those more powerful than herself to survive. The snark, the sex, the derision of the canon character became defence mechanisms and weapons to ensure others saw herself how she wanted them to see her, or to deflect them from seeing her vulnerabilities. The diamondform, originally a second-stage mutation born from the comics’ need to have her survive Genosha, becomes a (possibly on-the-nose) symbol of her emotional shell, keeping anyone from seeing her true self.  And possibly I’m proudest of the fact that she isn’t necessarily wrong: Xavier sways her into giving him the information, but ultimately she betrays him to work for a villain to ensure her safety. The character spends her time negotiating a world where bad choices and good choices both have consequences, not a landscape full of black and white.

Already, after this episode, this character was very different from the canon character. And yet, I think, very clearly an adaptation of the original. A complex and interesting character in her own right without betraying the original. And readers responded strongly to the character, noting the episode and the character as a favourite. (For more on this specific script, I penned a commentary at the TEN blog here.)

Based partly on positive reaction to the character, and partly on my own desire to dig into her even further, TEN released a miniseries of webisodes exploring her backstory. Based on a very sketched-out outline provided by showrunner Tom East, I fleshed out the story and wrote each episode, digging into how Emma saw the world and why. I got to dig into the moments giving a sense of, how she learned about the world, how her reactions to challenges evolved. Her dysfunctional relationship with parents she was convinced didn’t love her, the intrusion of sex into her already-troubled development, the series of dangerous men she found herself serving under in order to ensure her safety. Just as I’d develop an original character, I built a backstory I felt made sense of decisions that might have seemed opaque early on. And because this was an adaptation of the original Emma Frost, the development of this version intertwined and intermingles with the original’s history and with reader’s views of her: as an example of shallow sex bomb female villains, as Whedon’s strong, complex vision of a woman seeking redemption, as an important character in a long-running mythos whose psyche has been molded by many, many pens.

And when she returned as villain for the series’ third season, it was with this backstory laid bare to the audience, I got to write a second story focusing on her character. I got a chance to revisit her dynamic with Xavier, and the question at the centre of her mind: how would joining Charles Xavier’s X-Men be any different than studying under the abusive Shaw or being the odious Trask’s second-in-command, other than which side of the fight she was on? The moment where she turns her back on the man she’s hoped would be the good male mentor she’d long wanted and strikes out on her own, even if it could kill her, is one of the moments I’m proudest of writing.

I got to complete a character arc with a side villain, turning her from a stock villain to a complicated, detailed person with desires and fears, and what I hope was an emotionally resonant exit. And why I think she was successful is because of that: I thought hard about what parts of the original I wanted to emphasise, which I wanted to twist to question and interrogate, which didn’t work for this universe. I made sure she went on a journey that was interesting independent of the original version, without (hopefully) making her a character that disregarded or betrayed the original. And I think I made a female character that earned the respect and interest of the audience, which was a key thing I wanted to accomplish with her.

This isn’t intended to be me bragging about what I see as a success in my own writing, but as a start for a conversation about how to successfully adapt characters not your own. Which is what many of you will have to do, whether by writing a TV spec script to get hired, adapting a work from one medium into another, or even by writing comic characters like Charles and Xavier with many, many authors in their history. For more professional examples, study Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Joss Whedon’s The Avengers screenplay.

Some key points:

  • Know the character you’re adapting, how readers feel about them, and why.
  • When adapting, keep the work you’re writing and the differences from the original in mind.
  • If the adaptation is faithful, find what is relevant and interesting about the character and focus on it.
  • If the adaptation is extreme (such as in an original derivative work like Gentlemen or a radical reboot like Rebirth), find a way to make the character your own and memorable.
  • Have fun.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to write a novel in which the leads from all of Jane Austen’s novels fight an alien invasion.

4 responses to “WRITING: Adapting and Re-Imagining Characters (The Emma Frost Remix)

  1. Kara Lalalala October 7, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    Man! What a fun thing to do, to write a villain. Especially Emma Frost, who is possibly a crazy awesome character and very rarely handled well.. Send me this!

  2. Kara Lalalala October 9, 2012 at 12:09 am

    Weird I cant read any of that it wont let me. Ill have to register I guess! Anyway all 16 year old girls are villains!

    • R. Lackie October 9, 2012 at 12:10 am

      Weird, I totally thought the boards were open to the public! I’ll have to have a word with the boys…

      Indeed, haha. All 16 year old boys too…

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