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09 March 2012

John Carter, Tarzan, and Paul Atreides


I will spend a couple hours tonight with friends watching a film version of John Carter, a Disneyfied retelling of a tale that fired my imagination when I was an early teen. Edgar Rice Burroughs surged in popularity back in the late 70s. I'm sure a fair portion of that was due to some amazing Frank Frazetta covers, but once I discovered Burroughs, I read everything he wrote.

And when it comes to Burroughs, as great as John Carter is, Tarzan was really his ultimate creation. This gets me thinking about iconic heroes and how to create them.

In my opinion, Tarzan as a character will live forever, and I don't know exactly how Burroughs did that. Sure, Tarzan was strong and brave, powerful, noble, but the same could be said for a thousand other heroes created by other pulp writers of the day. What was special? What set Tarzan apart? Was it story? Prose? Setting? Character?

Burroughs himself wasn't necessarily a careful writer, not a master, one who ever improved his craft. He wrote pulp. He followed a template and, among other things, relied far too heavily on coincidence in his storytelling.

But the guy came up with Tarzan.
Any time a writer creates something that will last forever, he or she deserves notice. So I ask again - what did he do? The character Tarzan was more than just the sum of the words that described him. His creation was more than just an author breathing life into figurative lungs. Tarzan the character was larger than life, and I don't see that this happens very often. FrankHerbert did it with Paul Atreides. Atreides and Tarzan are characters that a reader discovers and not only comes to love, but is awed by. Every time I read Dune, I not only witness the transformation of Paul to Muad'Dib, I understand the fanatic devotion of his fedaykin. It feels natural. Muad'Dib's right to such worship is something he wears as naturally as his stillsuit.

Likewise for Tarzan. He was jungle royalty, a creature of absolute ferocity and strength, yet he had the noble heritage of his parents and the willpower to cage his nature when it suited him.

These are characters that could walk into a crowded room, say nothing, yet demand the instant attention of all. How did Herbert and Burroughs do this?

I imagine there are many writers who would try to dissect these stories, take them apart and point to various internal systems or organs, checklists of necessary components Burroughs or Herbert inserted, point to these and say . . . there, that is how it was done. I would be willing to bet none of these writers have ever created a Tarzan.

I don't think you can set out to create an icon by following a set of rules. In fact, if that is the formula you follow, I don't think you even have a chance at success. The only way, I suspect, is to cast your creative net into the vast unknown of raw story, that place in the universe that not everyone has access to, and trust that you will net a big one. We are all at the mercy of a creative power outside of us.

That's the answer, in my opinion. Burroughs didn't create Tarzan. Herbert didn't create Muad'Dib. Those characters already existed. They just needed to be found.