1. ThePotato
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    ThePotato Member

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    Character development question

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by ThePotato, May 6, 2013.

    I am working on a story right now and I realised I hadn't been spending enough time developing my characters, but the trouble is that now I don't know how long I should be spending doing it. I've only spent about 100 words each introducing and developing two characters. Is this enough to simply bring the reader's awareness to their existence - their name, and a little backstory? The characters will be key in the story, but they won't be appearing for a while yet (another few thousand words).

    Thanks in advance!
     
  2. Xatron
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    Xatron Contributing Member

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    There is no one-size-fits answer to your question. It all depends on how you have used those 100 words to describe your characters. If it is done well, then it is good. If not, then it is not.
     
  3. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    You don't have to tell us everything at once. Reveal their backstory, etc. when it is relevant and natural to do so. Character development is a process -- it happens while we see the characters reacting to things that are happening. It happens when they talk to each other and when they ponder what has transpired. It happens when they determine what they're going to do next. There's no magic formula or number of words to spend. You can tell us quite a bit in 100 words, but by no means can you tell us everything. Conversely, you could also tell us almost nothing in 100 words.

    At the beginning of the story, it's not so much that we should already know the characters -- what we should want is to want to know more about them. (And that doesn't mean telling us so little about them that we know nothing -- then we wont' care. You have to tell us enough for us to either identify with them or find them intriguing, or know them at least a little, and therefore we want to find out more.)
     
  4. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    you shouldn't be counting words... what matters is how much info is really needed for each character... for some, the readers will need to know a lot about their background, description, etc., while others call for nothing more than a sentence or two...
     
  5. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I could not agree more with Chicagoliz on this.

    NOTHING develops character like watching them do something, or hearing them say something. This is how you judge people out in the real world, most of the time, isn't it? Show the character doing or saying something, and you're on the road. And the best news : it's painless and fun for the reader to meet your characters that way.

    You can fill in backstory as your story progresses. OR, if there's a lot of it that people need to know beforehand, then write a Prologue filled with dialogue, scene, action, etc. It will seamlessly begin your story, and you won't need to backtrack.

    I'd say be wary of only reciting "facts" to describe characters or to develop backstory.
     
  6. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I agree that it should be done wherever possible with dialogue, scene and action, but not as a prologue. A prologue by definition is separate and apart from your story, and an invitation to the reader to skate right past it. Incorporate it into the heart and soul of your story.

    It may very well be that there is a wealth of backstory that you, the writer, need to fully understand in order to really know your character. But you'd be amazed at how little of it the reader needs to know. As Patton said in the film, "It isn't important for them to know; it's only important for me to know."
     
  7. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Any reader who 'skates' past a prologue will be missing an important part of a story. I know it's fashionable just now to act as if writing a prologue is as antisocial as harboring a family of skunks under your front porch, but many popular books contain/have contained prologues. Examples off the top of my head: DuMaurier's Rebecca, Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park.

    Prologues are useful when:
    1) The opening scene takes place a long time before the main narrative
    2) The opening scene takes place a long time AFTER the main narrative
    3) The opening scene is written from a point of view that will not be used again in the book

    These are all perfectly legitimate and time-proven uses of a prologue. Nobody has to write them, if they don't want. Nobody has to READ them if they don't want. But those of us who trust our authors to tell their individual stories the best way they can, will continue to read prologues if they appear at the start of a book. Many of us will also include prologues in our own arsenal of writing tools.

    I presume this current 'fashion' against prologues will, like all things, pass.
     
  8. ThePotato
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    ThePotato Member

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    Yes, thank you, I was assuming that was the case. I will try to visualise my characters as people in the real world, and let them act in my mind without trying to control them too much. I am finding myself writing as if the character was me, forgetting that I am writing a character that is not like me at all - but I imagine this skill of visualising what your character would do, becomes easier with practice.

    I have decided to make myself the main character in my first story (well, my first true effort at making something readable) - albeit with a different name and slightly altered backstory - to try and make things a little easier for my first venture in to writing.
     
  9. TerraIncognita
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    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

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    Word counts mean nothing. I can mash my keyboard and get a word count. It's how you use the words. I don't think it's all that important to give me a character's entire life story when I first get to know them. When I write I think of it as working on a need to know basis. If the reader doesn't need to know it then they won't know it. That simple.

    I wish I could disagree with this. I want to but I know people who skip prologues. I always read them but I can understand how they can feel tedious to a lot of readers because many times they're being given information that is not necessary at the time and it's essentially an info dump. I do prefer to let things be revealed through dialogue and action. Info dumps are not good.
     
  10. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I know I'm probably banging my pet drum here, but there is a misconception that prologues contain info-dumps.

    The silly people who "always" skip prologues—and yes, I know a few as well!—are missing out on a vital part of a story. I'd be willing to bet that, further on in the story when they realise they've missed something, they'll go back and read the prologue! I know a few of these people as well.

    A good prologue is a lively scene, just like any other scene, with dialogue, action, the lot. It is vital to understanding the story, and differs from the main story ONLY in that it occurs at a separate time or place from the rest of the story, or is presented by a character you won't meet again.

    "Prologue" does NOT equal "Info Dump." Only bad prologues do. And bad Chapter Ones do too!

    Info dumps can occur anywhere in a story, wherever the author chooses to tell, rather than show.
     
  11. TerraIncognita
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    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

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    Which is why I said many and not all.

    I've read a lot of prologues that were good and I've read a lot of them that were completely useless. Same with chapter ones and any other chapter. I've read entire books that were filled with repetitive unnecessary information. I believe if I can stand to read something I should finish it because even terrible books offer their own lessons in writing. Well, I'd say cautionary tales. :p Info dumps can be a huge temptation for writers. I imagine that comes with the desire to share your characters and world fully.
     
  12. killbill
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    killbill Contributing Member

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    Yes, prologues have been used for many purposes, but the best use is when it creates a sort of mystery/foreshadow, seemingly unrelated to the many chapters that follow, but making sense of it when the readers reached a certain point of the story which may even be the last scene.

    When you feel the need to have a lot of back story, like feeling the need to have backstories as prologue, you should really consider shifting the timeline of the story's opening.

    To the OP, I say, if you give me genders and names (if the characters are going to have names) up front, all you need is to let them visit places, interact with one another, do actions, etc. I, as a reader, will humbly do all your work of character development: I'll paint detailed physical descriptions in my mind, I'll decide the personalities of the characters, and I might even fill up some of the gaps in their past lives. Yes, readers are that much imaginative and more.
     
  13. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Plan as much as you need in order to get you started. At this stage you won't know exactly what you need in order to tell the story - let some of it come to you as you write, plan other sections where you can.

    So, for me, first, I need a story: what is the character trying to achieve?
    -- My MC must break the curse that's upon her, as well as fix the havoc she's wrought by running away

    Great, now I need to know why she was cursed before I can start.
    -- Backstory time! Fill in as many gaps as is necessary

    If she's cursed, how did she manage to run away in the first place?
    -- Need reason or scapegoat

    What could break the curse?
    -- No idea, need to plan

    How will she fix the mess she's caused? (what effect does the chaos have on the rest of the world?)
    -- Need more planning

    So, when I have those major gaps filled - the basic thread that keeps the story together - I'll start thinking of side characters and what-nots. Certain details, MC's personal back story etc should emerge naturally from this first bulk of planning. I'm also collecting images that I think would inspire scenes for the novel, settings I might wanna include into my novel, as well as doing some research on the religion and countries that I'm basing my book off of.

    But once I have the basics of all the required areas (I know roughly what my world would look like, I have a system in place by which my world is governed, I know how my MC goes from A to B and the reasons behind it, and the ending aka resolution, which will give me a direction in which to follow), then I'll start writing. I'll do the rest of the research and creating as I go :) There will always be new things you realise you need as the story goes, so there's no point stressing too much at the beginning anyway.
     
  14. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    But that's precisely why I hate prologues - it's not immediately relevant to the actual story or setting or even characters. Btw it's not true that prologues are presented by a character you won't meet again - but of course it can be, and that would annoy me too :D

    The thing is, if the prologue was good, then I'm interested in what happens next in connection with the prologue, and I'm interested in the character presented to me. To then jump into Chapter 1 and find that I'm no longer in the same place, time or even with the same character, and on top of that, the story doesn't seem to be related/relevant to what I'd just read, all of this serves to completely reduce my interest right back down to zero.

    I remember the prologue in James Patterson's Maximum Ride book was pretty appalling. EVERYTHING he introduced in the prologue was later repeated almost exactly later in the book, between chapters 1-3. I was left wondering why on earth the prologue needed to be there in the first place, considering he was gonna give me the exact same info just 10 pages later.

    But I did come across a very good prologue by Brandon Sanderson, his debut novel Elantris, it was quite a page-turner. His prologue introduces a city that has gone from being a blessing to a curse, around which the whole book and its mystery revolves. And then chapter 1 has the MC cursed and thrown into this very city. He had me hooked from p.1 - and I mean p.1 of the prologue. Chapter 1 connects perfectly with the prologue. The prologue provided a sense of awe and mystique rather than necessarily information.

    Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere also had a prologue, and it was also good. Again it served to set up the mystery and atmosphere rather than give information, and Chapter 1, after a short snippet, immediately goes back to following the MC introduced in the prologue, as well as picking up where we left off at the end of it.

    Killbill - that's precisely why I don't like prologues :D I'm not interested in "seemingly unrelated" chapters - if I cannot see immediately that they are definitely related, I will not have the patience to get through it because it's the prologue's story that I'm hooked on, and not wherever Chapter 1 starts.

    It seems that good prologues need to be immediately relevant - prologues are not a space where you can entice the reader because Chapter 1 just isn't that interesting and you're hoping the prologue would be enough to get the reader through to Chapter 5 before the good stuff happens. That would be a rather bad use of prologues and would likely lose you a lot of readers.

    I just recently read a prologue by a self-pub author. The prologue was an introduction - too clearly an introduction rather than the beginning of something (a storyteller comes to tell a story) and I just didn't really care about the story? Why would I? She's set it up in an idyllic place with flowing fountains and sweets for the children. So I was bored anyway, but I persevered. Then Chapter 1 - in comes a character I did not know (because this is now the story the storyteller is telling). 2 flaws: I know it's a story, so in my mind it's either fictional even in the world of the book, meaning it shall have no significant impact in the real world, or else it's a real epic story that affects the real world, but since the storyteller is telling it, I already know how it's going to end, that is, happily. I was bored previously and now I have to connect with yet another character I did not care about, for a story that's already lost all its tension due to how it's set up. So I closed the book and moved on. I never even read the first sentence of Chapter 1.
     
  15. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, Mckk, totally agree with you. I'm not defending every prologue ever written.

    You did list 2 prologues you did like. Myself, I just discovered that The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch, published in 2006, also contains a prologue which looks pretty entertaining to me.

    My point is that people should not refuse to read a prologue, just because it's called "Prologue." That makes as much sense as refusing to read anything called "Chapter One" because some first chapters aren't very good.

    I keep saying: Trust the Author. Good ones know what they are doing. And some good ones still write Prologues!
     
  16. Gallowglass
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    Gallowglass Contributing Member Contributor

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    One tactic I like to use is to put characters you've created into situations you've been in and writing their reaction however feels 'natural.' You can see and study their personality from two angles - theirs and your own - and you'll gain much more insight into why they do what they do, and how.
     
  17. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    True, but the bottom line is that our first task is to engage the reader, and prologues, whether we like it or not, are an invitation for the reader not to be engaged. All the more with a prologue written to tell the reader background on the character without embedding him in the story.

    Rebecca was written in 1940. "A lotta water under da bridge."

    Has nothing to do with "telling rather than showing". It has everything to do with providing information the writer finds interesting but that the reader does not need to understand the story. What some writers derisively dismiss as "telling" can often be an effective technique for telescoping action and moving timeframes.
     
  18. ThePotato
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    ThePotato Member

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    Thanks. This sounds like a brilliant technique! I'll have to do this with my characters as part of the planning process. I think I might try visualising myself interacting with the character: say a scene in a pub, where I have just bought a beer, but I have forgotten to buy the character a beer - and then see how they react! Maybe that isn't very adventurous, but I think I could visualise that quite easily. Muchos gracias for the tip!

    I don't think I'll be having a prologue, especially not after hearing how unpopular they are!
     
  19. Gallowglass
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    Gallowglass Contributing Member Contributor

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    You're more than welcome. It is indeed a great tip for getting to know all your character's nooks, crannies, and idioms, and also you can come up with some really whacky stuff if you, say, have them gatecrash your eighteenth birthday party :)
     

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