1. That Secret Ninja
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    That Secret Ninja Member

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    Balancing a Character

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by That Secret Ninja, Jun 17, 2010.

    I realize that most people find static, no-fault, no-weakness main characters pretty boring.

    How important is it to balance a character to make them seem real? Are there a bunch of ways to balance a hero's actions with their words, their feelings, their intentions?

    I've found that my main characters often fall into the same category. I dunno if it's a bad thing, but since I've just started writing, it's prolly common.

    Basically it boils down to something like this: Their actions are marveled at by their peers, yet those around them always seem to mistake the hero's intentions for something else, often times their own selfish intents and aspirations. This often leads to provocations and struggles with those around the Hero=Conflict. Which most people say is the backbone to a good story.

    Yet, internally, the characters are frail and damaged. However, they try hard to identify their weaknesses and work toward improving themselves. While they can fix part of their 'being', they often do so at the risk of those around them, whether they intended it or not.

    To me, that seems quite human. And something that people can relate to. But does a character always have to be balanced in a way such as this?

    What other ways can you make a hero seem real and completely human, that doesn't play out like my example?

    I wanna tackle some characters that don't play out in this manner.
     
  2. Anonym
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    Anonym Contributing Member

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    Personaly, it's not how "human" a character is, but how inhuman he is that attracts my attention, and associated criticism.
    Or rather, I don't pay attention to humaness (it is the default condition after all), but rather how unrealistically exceptional a character is. In that sense I don't really believe a character can be "balanced", only 'realistic', which leads me to create relatively mundane characters and then test their limits, instead of creating an extraordinary character and then trying to inject normality into them. idk if that makes too much sense, i'm a bit durnk and all. hope it helps
     
  3. Thanshin
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    Thanshin Active Member

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    As important as it can be. If your character is perfect you may as well remove him from your story. Unless you're writing a religious piece, of course.

    The point is to balance his actions with his other actions, his words with his other words, etc.

    It's very common and it's one of the easier mistakes to evolve past, after a certain age. Essentially, our characters are perfect when we're at the "I'm immortal" age.


    I'd avoid the cliche but it did reach the status of cliche for a reason.

    Not at all. It's much better when the reason for balance is new and original.

    And that's the great mystery. The simple fact that you ask yourself that is a huge pointer of your growth as a writer.

    If you get a better answer than "watch the people around you and try to understand their behaviour", please tell the rest of us.

    It boils down to understanding the human nature, it's one of the qualities of a writer and if I knew a better or faster way to develop it than knowing people, I'd be happy to use it.
     
  4. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    > What other ways can you make a hero seem real and completely
    > human, that doesn't play out like my example?

    The character type that you describe worries me, because of the "actions are marveled at" part. I feel that a character generally not only needs flaws, but they need visible, external flaws. An outwardly perfect character who is always misunderstood is someone that's likely to annoy me. That's not to say that the concept can't work - it describes most of Dick Francis's characters pretty accurately, for example, and Dick Francis's books are fun to read. But after a while, yep, you do want to see something different.

    There are an infinite number of other ways to have a human character. I'm watching _Burn Notice_ right now, for example, so I'll use Sam as an example.

    Sam is a womanizer, who has zero ethical problem with living off a series of "sugar mommas". He's a mooch, who'll scrounge a dollar, a meal, a beer, whatever, from anyone who'll provide one. He tells bad jokes. He can never manage to be serious. His clothes sense is terrible.

    And he's a wonderful character. His flaws aren't little decorations painted onto an otherwise-perfect hero, they're woven into his character as deeply as his virtues.

    What are his virtues? Loyalty, at least after he stopped informing on his friend for money. :) And a career's worth of skills. And a pragmatism that can make him the voice of sanity that the other two more extreme lead characters need. And a Hawaiian-shirt often-slightly-drunken charm. And at the core, he's a good guy. When his attention can be dragged away from what's in it for him, he wants the right thing to happen, and he's even willing to try to make it happen.

    He's a great character. He's not a "hero", he's just a guy. And that's part of what makes him a great character.

    _Most_ good characters have lots of obvious flaws. Luke Skywalker (Star Wars) was a whiny impatient kid. Han Solo (more Star Wars) was a sharp operator out for what he could get. Miss Marple (Agatha Christie) was nosy and judgemental. Monk (Monk) is an OCD control freak. Spike (Buffy) was a psychopathic killer, and he was _still_ a fantastic character, even one that the viewer could identify with.

    (Spike: "If every vampire who said he was at the Crucifixion was actually there it would've been like Woodstock. I was at Woodstock. I fed off a flower person and I spent six hours watching my hand move."

    Spike again: "She just left. She didn't even care enough to cut off my head or set me on fire. I mean, is that too much to ask? You know? Some little sign that she cared?")

    How can you _not_ love Spike?

    And so on. I'd come up with better examples, but it's late and I'm sleepy.

    One possibility could be to choose someone who annoys you, figure out why, and figure out how that person could be your protagonist, _with_ those flaws that annoy you. Real flaws. Big flaws. Baked-in flaws. _Flaws_!

    Ahem. Yeah, I'm sleepy.

    ChickenFreak
     
  5. That Secret Ninja
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    That Secret Ninja Member

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    To clarify and be honest, the whole marveling at the hero's actions part, only applies to the long 'short' story I have just finished recently. that example is simply a rundown of what my main character is like. It's my first real in-depth look at the mind of a deep but ultimately flawed Hero.

    In some other stories I have written, I have secondary characters that share similar character outlines, but often don't have others marveling at the actions they take. They differ given the context of each story and so on. The characters actions can be seen as barbaric, inhumane, selfish, and whatever I require from them for the narrative as a whole.

    I don't follow that guideline too often for my main characters. But they all seem to be quite similar in own their respects.

    Basically: MC is both loved and hated by those around him, for different reasons obviously. They are flawed and weak inwardly. They try to get past that by recognizing their faults. In the process they effect many others around them, for good and bad.

    This outline is a little vague, but that's the horrific beauty of it. I could apply it to so many different characters and stories. But that's the problem. I don't want to be the writer who always writes the same type of character.

    I feel like I have to broaden my horizons when it comes to character types.

    Should I try to attempt writing a character that doesn't follow that form? Are there any great books that depict character that don't follow that general guideline?
     
  6. Arvik
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    Arvik Member

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    I don't know... something in the use of the words "form" and "guidelines" makes me nervous. If a character follows a template, than that character has already been written before. S/he is a "type," a "stock character," and not a person (side note: I know, characters aren't real people, but they're like real people). Wouldn't you rather create a unique, individual character than worry about following some "form"?

    I struggle with this too... a wry, snappy young thing seems to have a propensity for cropping up in my work. Back to you- to figure what makes your characters unique, and not always "the same type," ask them about themselves. Seriously. Interview them- what do they most desire? Is there any line they wouldn't cross to get it? What do they most fear? When would they betray a friend to further their own needs? Besides the deep moral questions, you can ask the more general ones about family, favourites, etc. etc.
     
  7. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    A batch of random thoughts; sorry for the lack of coherence for this response:

    - Absolutely, I think that you should. Your guideline is just one of an infinite number of ways to build a character, so I'd say that the majority of books, great and small, probably depict characters that don't follow that guideline. As I mentioned, Dick Francis's characters are the only one that I can think of that _do_ follow it, although I'm sure that there are plenty more.

    - I'm getting a sort of prescriptive vibe here. That is, I'm feeling the way that I do when someone explains the mandatory components of a Shakespeare-era tragedy, as opposed to comedy, as opposed to history. A book doesn't have to follow a specific prescribed format to be good, and I get the feeling that you've been trying to identify, and follow, some prescription.

    - When you say "great books", are you only interested in big, classic, literary fiction? Or do you just mean "great" as in "really really good"?

    Because I'd say that there are fascinating characters in the pulp world, not just the English 101/201/301 world. And I'd say that trying to have a classic-literature-quality character _and_ plot _and_ message _and_ structure _and_ story might be too much to demand of yourself right now. You might want to focus, for your character creation exercise, on a fun, believable character in a pulp-quality story. And you might want to look at pulp-quality stories for examples, too.

    I have no classic-literary-book examples for you; let me know if you want pulpy ones. :)

    - I'm curious - have you deliberately designed your characters with the guidelines that you mention, or do you just find that every time you create a character, he keeps following this same pattern without your planning it?

    - I find myself going back to the term "hero". That term worries me. Now, if you're just using it as a synonym for "main character", and you'd still use "hero" for a main character who's a grumpy self-involved pickpocket who comes to a well-deserved bad end, then that's fine.

    But if you require that your character actually be _heroic_, that worries me. A character can end up heroic, but if heroism is part of the job description at the beginning, I think that that's likely to seriously hamper character development. I'm not saying that you can't create a realistic character that way, but it seems risky. The best heroes start out as ordinary guys.

    Characters should be, IMO, just people. Sure, you don't want to go for such puritanical restraint that you make them really boring people all the way through, but I also think that you want to avoid the "oh, wow" factor, where small children would stare admiringly at your character.

    ChickenFreak
     
  8. That Secret Ninja
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    That Secret Ninja Member

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    I'm only using the terms guideline or outline or whatever, as a simple term that basically describes the most basic and boiled down version of what kind of person the characters come out to be.

    Strong to the outside world, yet weak internally. Tires to become stronger, either fails or succeeds, in turn, effects all others around him, or her.

    I guess what I'm asking for a character or book in that isn't like this mold. I don't set out to write characters like this initially. But when I'm actually writing their stories, I seem to use the same mold. A person can have so many flaws when it comes to the things others don't see. Weaknesses don't always have to be the same thing of course. And I guess that what I'm asking.

    I need human weaknesses that aren't simply based around the basic concepts of fear, regret, guilt, anxiety.

    The thing is I don't watch tv shows anymore, so I am not exposed to great characters that are flawed in so many different ways. and I've only recently actively started reading, so the amongst the characters I have gotten in-depth looks at, I don't have a great variety.

    I only use the term Hero, as another word for MC. Although it does seem that the actions my MC take are heroic in the end. Even when they only try to do things for their selfish pursuits.
     
  9. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you're looking for a hero that isn't given the flaws of fear, regret, guilt, anxiety, etc., consider reading The Posleen War series by John Ringo.

    The main character, Mike O'Neal, is retired from the US Army's Special Forces when he gets the call to return to duty. See, an alien invasion is imminent and...

    In any case, although O'Neal does occasionally feel some anxiety leading men into battle and some guilt at the loss of soldiers under his command, that's not the flaw that "makes him human" and a good hero. Struggling with command structure--including alien allies, seemingly insurmountable odds against a powerful enemy, and the like are what counterbalances his 'hero' aspect in the series. He's not a perfect hero, but he's a solid one.

    A Hymn Before Battle is the first in the series. Although the series continues, I've read the first 4 novels. Each stands on its own and the 4 complete a main story arc.

    Take a look and see if that might be what you're looking for and if it is, pick up a copy, possibly even at your local library.

    Good luck, The Secret Ninja.

    Terry
     
  10. writingchick8
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    writingchick8 Member

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    Here's my personal take on this. I'll try and make it concise. (yeah, right.)

    I don't like the Mary-Sue type characters that are absolutely perfect in every way and can do no wrong. No one is like that in real life, so no one in books should be like that (unless its, like, Jesus).

    On the flip side, I cannot STAND it when people put characters in that have not enough good points, and are just too...flimsy, I guess. The ones with no backbone at all. *coughcoughBellaTwilightcoughcoughFlimsyMarySuecoughcough*

    For balancing, you could make your character strong, and have the good points you want them to have, but also make sure you do bring some attention to their faults. Maybe they're selfish. Maybe they don't let anyone help them and it gets them into trouble where they can't escape.

    Balancing a character isn't necessarily about making sure they have faults, but it's about making sure that you character (which, if you're anything like me, has taken on a life of it's own) shows all facets of him/herself, the good, and the bad.

    Wow. That was concise. (not).
     
  11. That Secret Ninja
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    That Secret Ninja Member

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    thanks for the advice guys. I just gotta read more novels that show the many different facets a character can have that make them dynamic and real. The four dozen books I've read in the last year have influenced my writing greatly, but given that most are in the same genre, or follow similar narrative paths, they lead me to read characters that are similar to those I write.

    I'll try writing a story from the point of view of an anti-hero or even a villain. Maybe that will help me expand my writing skills.
     
  12. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    In that case, I'd say, read more. :) That seems to be the general advice anyway - if you want to write, you must read, a lot.

    I just wandered to my 'recently read or re-read' bookshelf and picked a book that has characters that don't follow your model: _The Masters Of The House_, by Robert Barnard.

    Not great literature, but not pulp either. Interesting and a quick read, so it's not a big investment if it doesn't work for you. It involves several well-rounded characters who have to make some choices driven by morality versus pragmatism. It's a murder mystery, because I read a lot of murder mysteries, but I'd call it a novel that happens to involve a murder, rather than just a puzzle with some plot wrapped around it.

    If you happen to find that you like Robert Barnard, he's an author who creates a lot of interesting, well-rounded characters. In my view, he has three different types of books - the satires, where the characters are fascinating and funny but less believable, the murder mysteries, where the characters are well-rounded but the focus is on the plot, and the novels, where there's usually a murder somewhere in the background but the focus is on the characters, and sometimes you see the character change over a number of years.

    _The Master Of The House_ is a very good example of the novels, while _A Little Local Murder_ is one of the best of the satires. _Death By Sheer Torture_ may be the most amusing of the mysteries.

    Of course, there are hundreds and hundreds of candidates that are just as good or better - this just happens to be what I thought of today.

    ChickenFreak
     
  13. Aeschylus
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    Aeschylus Contributing Member

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    I know something worse than a character who is flawless: a character whom the author tries too hard to make flawed. A flaw should be given to a character because the author thinks that it fits the character AND has an impact on the story, NOT because the author feels that the character must have some kind of flaw.

    For example, in the novel Ender's Game, "Ender" Wiggin appears to be flawless, at least for most of the story. He is a child genius and brilliant leader/tactician. Yet all the while, he seems very human. This is not because the author tries to give him flaws, it's because the author envisions him clearly and as a human being. Moreover, he views him as a child, which makes him reflect childlike characteristics while still appearing to think much like an adult. The author clearly didn't try to stick random flaws into him to make him weak.

    That's the other thing you should avoid: weakening the character. A character should be made incredibly flawed unless the story is vastly affected by this, or specifically about this. Likewise, you shouldn't overpower a character. If a character is successful, make it because of his actions and decisions, not because he happens to be good at everything automatically; and if he IS good at everything, make him believably so. In fact, the story could even be ABOUT the fact that he seems flawless.

    Here's the thing: don't focus too much on making them balanced unless the story is about character development, or mostly made up of character interaction. If you're telling a crime mystery, you shouldn't focus too much on making the characters super deep because the important thing is what the characters do, usually what they're doing behind the scenes; however, if you're writing a story about a detective who really gets inside the criminal's head (or vice versa) and the way their perspectives change, characterization is not so important.
     
  14. That Secret Ninja
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    Thanks for the recommendations for books that detail characters that don't follow my basic outline. I'll be sure to check them out.

    Now I have another question.

    How do you balance a MC that is a villain or anti-hero?

    Obviously their actions won't be good things at all. No one around them is going to be marveled or the like. Do I focus on exposing their thoughts more than their actions? Or do I have to tackle something like that through their interactions with other characters?

    Or... Should it be a mixture of both?

    e.g.: A villain or anti-hero does something despicable. Other characters remark on how rotten they seem to them. The V or A-H doesn't plead for understanding, only states that what has been done, must be done. And then I go into their head afterwards and detail how their actions play out in their head after the fact. In turn balancing their actions with their all too human intentions.
     
  15. TerraIncognita
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    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

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    Thanshin has a point about characters evolving once we get past that stage ourselves. I think writers put a lot of themselves into characters whether it's conscious or not I see it happen a lot.

    Personally I think characters that aren't perfect and who struggle in one way or another are easier to relate to. Truth of the matter is no matter how invincible we may feel or may want to appear to the world we aren't. I think a character that demonstrates that is one that will touch people more deeply than one who never has major struggles or short comings. People cheer for the underdog because they identify with him/her.

    Make him multidimensional. Don't let the fact he is a criminal be his defining characteristic. Make him more than just that label. One of my favorite examples of this was John Dillinger (real person) in the movie Public Enemies. The man was a career criminal but he was so charismatic he was like Robin Hood to the people of that day. The movie was great because it really captured that. I found myself actually wanting him to escape. I was rooting for him to win, so to speak. All this because he was multidimensional. There was more to him than just his crimes.
     
  16. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, just to quibble, they might very well marvel, because a bad guy doesn't usually wander around with a hat labelled "bad guy", arrrring and gnashing his teeth like a pirate. He's going to want to pretend to be a good guy, and he'll often want to feel like he's a good guy, no matter what he does.

    An example, a rather melodramatic one:

    Suppose that in your cast of characters you have a man whose love for his mentally ill sister (The Sister) has been well-established. I'll call him The Brother. His words and actions whenever his sister comes up show how much he cares about her, how much he understands and sympathizes with her illness. When he meets women that remind him of his sister, he's kind and gentle with them, too. We, as readers, like this guy, and we feel his pain for his sister.

    We find out that another character, one that has otherwise been a great guy, was in part _responsible_ for the sister's mental illness, ten years ago. I'll call him The Old Flame. Maybe they hung out together as teenagers and experimented with drugs together, but he was always the one that pushed the limits. He got lucky, and she didn't. Or maybe he's the one who drove the car, slightly drunk, when it crashed and she got that concussion that she's never fully recovered from.

    We like The Old Flame. He's charming, he's funny, he has a likeable vulnerability. The story starts out with him as the hero. But he's still a risk-taker, still a full-speed-ahead kind of guy. He hasn't entirely grown up. He's still drinking a little too much, and there's some evidence that he's still doing drugs, and that maybe he's still driving buzzed.

    It's been ten years since the incident, and the sister starts to get better. The Old Flame wants to make up for what he's done, and he thinks that if he helps to re-introduce her to life, gives her some fun, that he can help her, that he can make his sin go away.

    The Brother gently and worriedly tries to convince his sister that The Old Flame isn't good for her, but she goes out with him anyway. She clearly demonstrates to her brother that he _cannot_ stop her.

    The Brother is determined that his sister have nothing to do with The Old Flame. The Old Flame is determined that he's going to make amends for what he did to her. They are both stubborn to the point of desperation.

    What's going to happen?

    Who's going to get hurt?

    Who's the villain?

    I wouldn't deal with their actions after the fact, but before the fact, sort of as I explained above. A recap is no fun - the actions have happened, and we don't much care why - unless you can tell us why in one quick "Oh, of _course_" fact.

    For example, if we modify the above so that no one but The Brother knows that The Old Flame was responsible for what happened to The Sister, and even the readers don't know, then the statement, "Oh, my God, Matthew was driving the car that night." can suddenly explain all sorts of things. (Yes, yes, this is melodrama. Don't mock me.) But if you have to go through pages of explanation after the main events are over, then I think that the book is mis-structured.

    So in general, I wouldn't detail the actions after the fact, I'd detail them before the fact. Ideally - and I'm not saying it's easy or always accomplished - the villain's actions would be totally understandable to the reader. Not _excusable_, necessarily, but understandable.

    Another book recommendation: _Hit Man_ by Lawrence Block. About a hit man having a mid-life crisis. Just as an example of a quite likable villain.

    ChickenFreak
     
  17. Aeschylus
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    Aeschylus Contributing Member

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    An anti-hero is still your protagonist. You're being shallow if you think that the bad guys are less complex than the good guys. Your anti-hero may be widely admired, or feared, or both, or neither, it depends on the character. But an anti-hero might even be MORE unrealistic if you don't think of him in the proper sense.

    It comes back to the same thing I said before: don't try to "balance characters" as if you're balancing a chemistry equation; it's not a math problem. It's a matter of properly visualizing the character.
     
  18. That Secret Ninja
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    I'm only focusing on 'balance' in a narrative/prose sense.

    I've written a few dozen short stories (2,500-15,000 words).

    Now I'm try to write ones that bring into play really deep characters. So far most of my guys and gals are a little un-rounded in a sense..

    I just wanna know the narrative 'tricks' use to make a well rounded, realistic human, and not cliche.

    I guess my topic comse down to me wanting recommendations for books or series that portray deep and interesting characters. I have so much to read in the next decade. I've missed out reading for the first two decades of my wasted youth. I need MORE>!
     
  19. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    It doesn't come down to narrative tricks. It comes down to observing people as individuals, and paying attention to their inconsistencies, their moods, their unpredictability.

    The one recommendation I would offer for the writing is to swing the ballance toward more showing and less telling when it comes to characterization. For example, instead of saying Penelope is short tempered, show her getting on her high horse when someone makes an innocent remark she takes te wrong way. Telling a mood limits it to those few words, whereas leaving it to the reader's interpretation allows for a range of impressions.

    By all means, read everything you can get your mitts on. It will help.
     

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