Open Thread: Characterization

Because a huge percentage of the readers here are authors, writers, fan fic'ers, and/or people who make up stories in their head:

How do characters come to you? 

I have been reading about this lately, and I think I may be doing some kind of primitive outlining/snowflake method with my writing where I start with a plot of a few sentences and a handful of protagonists and then I start pasting qualities onto them from there. Somewhere in that process the magic happens. I'm given to understand, however, that there are 8,572 other methods out there to creating/discovering/meeting new characters.


(Please try to be respectful that there are a lot of right ways and possibly no wrong way to go about all this.)


Will Wildman said...

Method #0587:

Sometimes I already have a particular archetype in mind when the time comes to develop a new character. It tends to start out as visual - I'll see a picture of someone, real or fictional, and my first impressions of this image will lead to snap judgments: 'Oh, I bet you're good-natured but kind of snarky and have trouble sharing, don't you?' And then, with those sorts of bare-bones concepts I can start throwing on other random traits and see what sticks, and then once I've got a firmer concept of the person's actual personality, I can go back and muck with their visual appearance again, because now that it's served the purpose of seeding their nature, it no longer needs to be a representation of whatever stereotypes I may have applied to it before. I do this for a lot of characters, and it usually serves me pretty well, although they may end up overly balanced and thus bland. It tends to be more magical when I can use-

Method #8472:

Sometimes a character's functional role in the story enormously influences their personality. 'I need someone to show up from the embassy and make Character A's life harder, which means this person will need to be quick-witted and thoroughly nationalist', or 'I need someone charismatic and distracting to make this scene seem safe and harmless before the assassin bursts in, so they will need to be charming and a bit flamboyant'. This character tends to continue to get made up on the fly afterwards, and I feel like a con artist improvising a fake history for an invented persona. As I said, I often really enjoy characters who come about this way, because it's easier for me to make them unbalanced and flawed and in general more colourful. The downside is that because they live on improvisational energy, it's much harder to give them a detailed backstory and I tend to feel at-sea when I don't know anything about where my main character came from.

Tangentially: there was a thread in some past age when we discussed the cast of A Knight's Tale in detail, and I think it was chris who observed that I had elected to leave the hero off the list of interesting characters. I've thought about that quite a bit, and thoughts have gone thus: the problem I have with many protagonists, particularly movie protagonists, is that they tend to fall into the issues of the first method I described, in that they are the viewpoint and thus (supposedly) need to be a bit bland in order to be broadly relatable. Whereas there are so many secondary characters that writers are willing to accept that most people will only like some and not all, which means they can have more unique flavour and flaws and strengths, and it's easier to throw in something fresh and unexpected with them because we probably never hear a lot about where they come from. (If, in A Knight's Tale, the hero had suddenly busted out hung gar kung fu, we would rightly want to know exactly when he had the chance to learn that and it would completely throw the story, but if Kate the blacksmith did the same, it could be handled by mentioning that she was the daughter of merchants and spent all her teenage years in Persia where she met some fascinating easterners.)

Maartje said...

The (admittedly few) characters I've actually fleshed out all have come from a snapshot image or idea, and then expanded from there going with 'what kind of person would ey have to be to act that way in that situation?' Everything sort of crystallises from there.

And, trite as it may sound, many of those snapshots have come from dreams - the funeral in which the deceased was sunk into a 'bottomless' mountain lake and the speech that was given for it; a captain of the guard who coordinates the inherited magic of her people to mount a guerilla-type defense against intruders of the city; the weird little snippet about suicide-by-possibly-evil-security-people. I have enough material there to write volumes upon volumes of the most gory horror, but I'd make myself sick so I'm only doing the not-that-evil stories.

I'm good at making up characters and background and plausible reactions. (Not saying anything about my ability to actually WRITE characters to make them come across how I see 'em.) Unfortunately, my plotting skills need work. For the big story I have in my head, I know how it starts and I know how it ends (although that's of course open to change if it stops making sense) but I have no idea where it goes after the starting ends.

Samantha C said...

The most experience I have right now with original characters is for roleplaying games, and for those, most of the time it's the spark of a personality I get first. I tend to approach my stories and characters as a developing picture....I may not always know where I'm going, and I can certainly change the course if I don't like what's coming out, but a lot of it is just focus and brainstorming and waiting for something to click.

Two recent examples:

Forming a new game around cryptozoology and low-powered superhumans, I decided right away that I wanted to play a selkie. The only thing I knew at first was she'd had her seal-skin made into a fur coat that she could wear and keep her human shape. I did some work on her powers and the like, but she wasn't coming together as anything concrete, until I asked my group for ideas why she would be traveling with them (on an archeology mission at first). Someone suggested she was documenting what was going on, and suddenly I had it - a former fashion photographer/model, seeking to branch out into the world of Real Art as a photojournalist. A little more brainstorming, and suddenly she had been in Hollywood since the late 20's, and kept that sense of fashion with her into the modern-day. I named her Regina, I realized I was half-basing her personality on Rarity from My Little Pony, and she was ready to go.

For a game of mobsters using the Smallville system, I knew I didn't want to be a true villain, so I imagined someone who had reason to be watching and spying on the gangsters to go against them. Maybe a single parent, get a nice vulnerable NPC in the mix to use for drama. And somehow along the line, I started imagining a man. I've never played a male character before, and I kept trying to think of the character as a woman, but I just couldn't see him any other way after a little while. A single father with a young daughter, the mother lost to gang violence and driving him on to stop the people responsible, at any cost but his daughter's innocence. Jeremy was such a surprise to me, but as he solidified and became a coherent personality, he became something pretty cool (if a little cliched).

Marie Brennan said...

Mine tend to be intertwined with their setting, as I said in a previous thread, and then positioned to give me a good angle on whatever I know of my plot at that point.

I should clarify that I mean "setting" in broad terms, though, because I'm an anthropologist by training; it's the whole culture and worldview the story will be taking place in. To pick a fairly illustrative example, the Victorian setting of With Fate Conspire meant I was thinking about class (a major issue in Victorian times, and so I tried to show a broad range across the characters as a group, but I focused on the lower classes to contrast with previous books in the series), ethnicity (one of the protagonists is an Irish Londoner, which not only dovetailed with the class issues but gave me a way to bring the Fenian bombings of 1884 into the story), gender (a number of the major characters are female, dealing either with the restrictions of being a lady, or the lack of protection that comes with not being one), religion (Catholicism vs. Anglicanism vs. immigrants with non-Christian beliefs, and the popularity of spiritualism), social change (technology and its effect on society is a HUGE aspect of the story, and touches the lives of the characters in a variety of ways), etc. And, of course, folklore -- because the series is about faeries, and so roughly half my characters are based in some fashion on those stories and beliefs (the other protagonist is a skriker, a shape-changing black dog death omen).

But I don't tend to sit there and design the characters to provide specific answers to those questions. I knew from the start that one of my protagonists, Eliza, would be a lower-class Irish Londoner (born in the city, to immigrant parents), but I didn't try to plan her to make a statement on gender or whatever. If I go that route, the result is invariably preachy and unconvincing. Instead I did vast amounts of research, and aimed to have her character arise naturally from what I learned. She's Catholic, but goes to church only rarely; she can read, but scoffs at evolution as silly nonsense; she knows the factories aren't great places to work, but wants a job in one because she also knows they're better than being a servant in a lot of households; she's not a lady, and knows that society is stacked against her because of it. Etc.

I do sometimes back-fit stuff if it's necessary to make my plot go. Eliza developed a connection with spiritualism because I ended up making it part of the story, which it hadn't been initially. But that can only go so far; sometimes it just doesn't make sense for the character, no matter how helpful it would be for me. (Had there only been the "this disproves the Bible!" strand of spiritualism, I couldn't have built that into Eliza, because when all's said and done she can't give up her religion. Fortunately, there was also a "no, this totally proves the Bible is right!" strand of spiritualism.) And then the flip-side is sometimes true: I'll find myself writing some detail about a character I never planned at all. Usually those are the best bits; they come straight out of my subconscious, which is often smarter about these things than my conscious brain is.

For a story that isn't set in a real historical period, it's much the same, except there's more back-and-forth between character and setting, with the former being able to shape the latter. But people never exist in isolation from their cultural surroundings, so I can never separate the two aspects of the story, either.

chris the cynic said...

I... uh... write. Or at least try to. And if there are characters they get written. And if there aren't characters the page stays painfully blank.

Insofar as I know what I'm doing, it tends to involve thinking about things from the character's perspective, which since I'm not actually very good at thinking about things from other people's perspective tends to involved very simple, very, straightforward, "What would I do in their place?" which in turn makes me very worried that all of my characters are exactly the same. I've been told that they are not (which is a good thing), but I have no idea how they got that way.

That said, a fair amount of it doesn't even involve that because while I'm in one character's perspective, there are other characters still doing stuff, and god only knows where they get their direction from.

So... yeah. No idea. I have no idea how characters come to me.

BC Brugger said...

I kind of love the way the question is phrased because, well, characters come to me.

It's like they appear in my head more or less fleshed out and I can then poke at ideas and enquire as to their opinions or experiences. I have been known to explain it as 'the dwarves in the character building shop in the sub-basement send them upstairs to see me'.

I know, I KNOW it's me doing it. I stress this because sometimes I have gotten Ye Olde SideEye because people think I believe the characters are real or come from outside me or something. However comma it's me doing it somewhere down where I don't see it. A sub-routine, if you like, that goes on in the background until it hits a point where the rest of my brain goes 'Oh, hello, look here- well, aren't you interesting?'.

That said I have a character that came to me nearly two decades ago and has never fit into any thing I've written. She won't TALK to me, I don't have the faintest idea what her story is and ghu knows I've tried. I've put her into stuff and ended up taking her right back out because, no, not working.

I feel like a dress shop sales person on commission faced with a difficult customer.

"What about this one? Maybe just try it on? Not really you, is it? Doesn't seem to speak to you. Well, let's try this one. I know you've said you don't care for cozy mysteries but maybe if we add a sassy best friend and lose the love interest? No? How do you feel about fairy tales retold as space opera..."

So basically she's sitting in the waiting room in my head sulking and sharpening a knife and she can bloody well stay there until she gives me a hint.

Rakka said...

I am not good at solitary writing. I like thinking of the worlds and settings and cultures - the backgrounds - and characters arise naturally from the world, but I can't think of any grand narratives for them that don't seem silly and contrived to me. I write better as collaborative effort, when I can bounce character reactions from stuff someone else tosses at me, and things proceed from there. On my own things just meander and end up nowhere. Which would be ok for novellas, I think, and books that focus on character's effort to find a place in the world for them, but those are often somewhat preachy even when I like them. (I have a low tolerance for "issue" books, even when I agree with the writer, and they often seem to me to tip more into "this is what's wrong in the world" rather than the characters' own stories.)

I've mostly been writing characters for games - both as storytelling games with pre-existing world and societies (hello there, Elfquest, you keep popping up here a lot) where I usually read the "history" bit of that particular game, have a rough idea about what sort of personality would be interesting, and let them grow from there. This way the characters are sometimes somewhat archetypical, and flesh out during the game.
I have tried more "design"-y character creation but it just doesn't stick. It's the same for tabletop games - what would be interesting to do? How would these events have affected them?

I also write LARP characters. There, the process is a lot more coordinated and brainstormed, either building from the top down - this is the character, they would probably have their fingers on these plots - or from bottom up, which requires more coordination with other writers. There the plots are figured out first as rough outlines - this happened, this needs to happen, now this character is involved in plots A and D and sideplot G, this character gets A and F, and they have contacts to characters 2,5, 7 and 21. But even there things sort themselves out when I start writing them, for example I had no idea how one of my characters met her romantic partner until I wrote that she had a secret stash of savings in the woods and they happened to meet when she was returning from there.

Larp characters are a whole different breed, since they are just a starting point for the player, so I tend to write them pretty gently, and give the player the past facts and the character's reactions and thoughts about them, but skip the "you are this sort of person" and let the player do that. Show not tell, basically.

Cupcakedoll said...

My method may be in the first ten since it's simple and not too interesting. Mostly it's a case of "I need a character to X therefore he must know how to Y so what's a good backstory for knowing how to Y?" and I just knead it in my head while sprinkling liberally with ideas from whatever I happen to be reading/watching/playing until something clicks into place and it works.

And when I'm really lucky I dream stories and then wake up with the characters sitting on the front of my brain like a ton of bricks and I spend the rest of the day frantically turning this blob of emotion into a description in words that won't fade away. These random gifts from my subconscious don't happen often, and don't always turn into good stories, but they're one of the absolute coolest things my brain does.

Ana Mardoll said...

"What would I do in their place?"

This makes perfect sense to me, though, because if you go sufficiently deep with "their place", then it's not you at all, it's them. It makes sense in my head, but I can't find the words.

"What about this one? Maybe just try it on? Not really you, is it? Doesn't seem to speak to you. Well, let's try this one. I know you've said you don't care for cozy mysteries but maybe if we add a sassy best friend and lose the love interest? No? How do you feel about fairy tales retold as space opera..."

This made me smile so much. I don't have direct experience with this, but I love the way you've described it. :D

chris the cynic said...

This makes perfect sense to me, though, because if you go sufficiently deep with "their place", then it's not you at all, it's them. It makes sense in my head, but I can't find the words.

I think you're right about that, the thing is that I never feel like I'm going very deep.

Ana Mardoll said...

Well, I kind of think we missed the footnote where I said:

* Exceedingly over-simplifying for purposes of this post. It's a multi-layer process for me right now.

So, yes, I do start with an A-starting point and a Z-ending point. "I need four girls and I want them to end up in the same house supporting each other while two or more of them are pregnant." Then I start gathering up personalities, backgrounds, religions, identities.

Now I have to start asking "what would cause 1 to join this situation?" and "how would 2 feel about all this?" and "what choices are open to 3 that aren't open to 4 because of their religious differences?" (for instance, my atheist is open to the idea of abortion; my Protestant Christian, for various reasons, is not). "How is 1's racial background in a primarily white state going to affect this story and her attitude towards events?"

The backgrounds, identities, and families of the characters fill in sub-plots, side-plots, and the essential process of getting from A (four girls who don't really know each other) to Z (four roommates working together for a better life).

If I'd decided to make all four girls Protestant Christians across the board, the A and Z would be the same, but the entire novel would be entirely different.

I hope that clarifies somewhat. I didn't want to dig into all this into a Twilight post because (a) mega-post and (b) at no point did I want to convey the impression that there is one "right" way to write a character.

Marie Brennan said...

I did see the footnote, yes -- but of course it's hard to guess how the actual process differs from what you had described. I could only respond to the description, which seemed really problematic.

Saying you lay out your plot first (when you referred to yourself as an outliner) made it sound like you go a lot further than "four girls, house, pregnancy, etc." For me to think of something as a plot outline, it would be more like "there are these four girls, and for the first one, she's got a boyfriend, but secretly she has more of a thing for his best friend, and then he finds out when they're all at this party, which makes the best friend get angry at her, too, and in the meanwhile the second girl isn't allowed to date anybody because" -- etc. What you describe here, I'd more call a premise and a goal. (Premise: a little hobbit from the Shire gets dragged out of his comfortable life into epic adventures. Goal: he saves the world from some kind of evil magical artifact. Actual plot: ???? Note to self: need to figure out what magic artifact is, why it's dangerous, how exactly to explain the fate of the world resting on the shoulders of a random hobbit.)

I don't see nearly as much of a problem with your more detailed explanation here. But what you posted before gives a really bad impression -- in the sense of both "negative" and "inaccurate" -- of what it is you're doing, especially when you included it as a side note in a post on an entirely separate topic (which diverted people from addressing it).

Ana Mardoll said...

Hopefully this will not sound like the sleep-deprived moving-frenzy muddle that it is, but here goes:

What I posted before is not "inaccurate" to me. It is simplified, yes, but so is what I posted above also simplified. I do start with more of an outline, but I'm also willing to revise that outline based on how the characterization affects it. It's a cyclical process for me: create outline, create characters, revise outline, revise characters, fine-tune outline, fine-tune characters. But the process -- as I've explained in both places -- is accurate to how I understand my process.

If there is one thing I've learned from working on writing boards, it's that pretty much everyone has a special process they use and it's difficult to explain in depth, which is one of many reason why I usually don't try to explain mine in depth. :)

As for "negative", well, I think that's probably more subjective. I think it's negative to throw in a minority for the purpose of solving a plot point, but others do not and that's okay. :) You may think it's negative to deliberately go the Burger King Kids' Club inclusionary principle where everyone is a minority, but I write what I would like to read, and as a member of several minority groups who are never mentioned casually but almost always an Very Special Episode character, I *like* reading books with normal people who also happen to be unusually (for books, not real life) diverse. :)

As for diverting people from addressing how I write, I felt like the ramble-topic at hand was relevant to what I was saying about Twilight and I think I've tried to always be super-encouraging of derailing. :)

Ana Mardoll said...

And I do mean that about wanting more diverse people in the books I read. Every single Wiccan character I read has to have a whole bunch of "how I came to the Craft and what it means" narration and I know the author is trying to introduce it as something innocuous and I appreciate that, I do, but just once I want someone to be Wiccan and it not become a Wiccan 101 tumor that consumes the book. An ye harm none, get ye on with the plot, is what I say. But that's just me. :D

And I cannot even *remember* the last time I read a book with a character who was Disabled Like Me. I'm sure it'd be some kind of Tuesdays With Morrie best-seller about them being saintly and patient all the time and never pissy about being in pain for 8 days constant with zero relief and almost no sleep. And the narrator would learn a Very Special Lesson. :P

Marie Brennan said...

It isn't inaccurate to you, because you know what you mean. But it can give an inaccurate impression (as well as a negative one) to those who only have what you said to go on, because it made it sound to me -- and to several friends I ran it past, to see whether it was just me missing something obvious -- like character identity was an afterthought, like you (metaphorically speaking) played Mad Libs with your characters' backgrounds, and plugged the results into a story that was already fully outlined.

What you've said here makes it clear that isn't actually what you're doing. But it required clarification, because the original statement was not at all a good representation of what you meant to communicate.

And I don't mean to give the impression that minority characters should only be included as Very Special Episode content, or that every Wiccan character has to muse on her relationship to the Craft. But I do think the author should think about background -- whether the character grew up Wiccan or converted later on, that tends to be much more in the way of a conscious religious choice than growing up, say, Methodist generally is -- and let that background inform the way the story goes, whether or not it ever gets talked about directly.

(This should be true of every major character, of course. But -- to use myself as an example -- I don't have to put much thought into the background of a white, middle-class, suburban, vaguely Christian by which I mean we went at Christmas and Easter before we stopped doing Easter and now is really more agnostic, book-reading, nearsighted girl, because those kinds of details and attitudes and behaviors are the ones I default to. The further I go from my own experience, the more work I should put into thinking about it.)

Ana Mardoll said...

There will be an open thread to announce this, um, Friday -- getting my days mixed up here -- but as a heads-up:

Husband and I received the keys to our new house today (Wednesday) and will therefore not have to live in Parents' garage, yay! We spent a lot of tonight moving things and tomorrow (Thursday) we move out of Old House forever, and leave the keys with the new owners and everything. They seem nice.

I will not have Formal Internet until, um, NEXT Friday (omg AT&T, ya'll), but I do have Smartphone and Laptop + Smartphone Tethering and Work Internet. So I'll be able to see all comments, respond to most, and post-wise we're good up until the next Saturday Twilight.

And then I will hopefully be able to get back to making every second comment on the blog something from me going OMG THIS because I certainly THINK IT OFTEN ENOUGH. :D

Hugs to you all. :)

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