1. devalois
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    devalois New Member

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    Do We Rely Too Much on Eccentricities?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by devalois, Oct 21, 2008.

    I was talking to a friend, who is usually a better writer than I, about character development. It's a hard concept. He showed me a line of his story in which a character is uttering some obscure Catholic interjection. He said he likes putting things like this in his work because it's an easy way to give a reader knowledge about the character. I thought, exactly, it's easy. I'm wondering if perhaps writers rely too much on a laundry list of eccentricities to develop their character or make him/her more interesting. Take for example Sebastian Flyte of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, who is nothing is not flamboyant, but is also a rich character with sexual, filial, and religious conflicts. Sometimes it seems so very difficult to create this depth in a character, especially those of us who like to work with shorter pieces.
    I'm being sort of spacey right now, but does anyone know what I'm saying? What do you guys do to show the meat and potatoes of your characters?
     
  2. Scarlett_156
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    Scarlett_156 Active Member

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    Every person, regardless of whether he/she appears eccentric on the surface, is always revealed on closer inspection to be a veritable quagmire of eccentricities, crotchets, and foibles. It just depends on whether you want to take the time to get to know him or her or not. Lots of writers, especially amateur writers, are more apt to reveal their own personal eccentricities, likes, and dislikes by how they portray characters in their writing. If they like a character they are writing about (for example) they'll make that character handsome/beautiful, and a paragon of conventional virtue with a rich, interesting, past--one can read on for page after page and never see that character pick his nose, tell a lie, or think something unkind about another person (unless it's the "bad guy" of course!). If they DON'T like a character, that character will be unattractive, and have a host of grungy habits and obnoxious sayings. (I could go on about this, but it would start to get off topic after awhile.)

    Personally speaking: My sole criterion for creating "depth" to any character is whether that bit of information is going to drive my narrative along the way I want it to go. If I need a character at a certain spot in my story, he's never just a mannequin--he's always a real person to me. I can see his every detail and engage him in realistic conversation. I can see how he wakes up and puts on his shoes, what he eats for breakfast, and so on. But what I put into my narrative will only be those items that I feel contribute to the story as a whole.

    To my mind there's no need to give a character depth anyplace except in your mind, but you DO need to give him depth in that arena before you set him into the arena of your story.

    Your minor character may only be an overweight young woman who works at a convenience store, and she may only have a couple of lines, or none, in your story, right? But you need to give her a personality and a history (that she just immigrated to the US from Guatemala, she is a single mother, and that her English is very poor, and that she saw her brother get shot by a drug dealer) IN YOUR MIND before you can have her react in a realistic and convincing way to a man coming into the store with a gun, demanding money.

    (In reading over what I just typed, I'm not sure that it makes a lot of sense. My excuse is that I'm currently quite hungry. If you find it confusing, feel free to shoot me a PM at any time.) I hope this helps. yours in Chaos, Scarlett
     
  3. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    You need to make characters distinct in your writing, so it doesn't look like a play performed by one person hopping from role to role. This does usually mean putting some emphasis on the unique characteristics of each character. The trick is to convey distinction without turning a character into a caricature.
     
  4. tehuti88
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    tehuti88 Contributing Member

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    I just put myself in their heads and write them, especially as if their "eccentricities" are considered normal by them. Almost everyone is eccentric in some way--some people are eccentric because of the fact that they AREN'T eccentric--but most people won't notice such things unless they know that person intimately. Hence why it seems like writers have to focus on what's strange about a person rather than what's normal in order to bring a character to life.

    One can't do this with a real person but with a character, they can put themselves in their head and write from their perspective (even in third person), and to me that's the best way to get a character across efficiently without necessarily having to focus on what's strange about them.

    I realize this isn't too helpful but it's the only thing that really works for me. *shrug*
     
  5. TheAdlerian
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    TheAdlerian Senior Member

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    Op,

    I think there might be a good point there.

    Personally, I love odd characters who have a strange way of looking at the world. But, they aren't the only kind of people, and certainly not the only people who do interesting things.

    Keanu Reeves gets made fun of for being wooden, but I've know lots of people just like him, especially cops and stuff, who he often plays. The original test pilots/astronauts had personalities like wet cardboard, for instance.

    Some people are just like machines and I think they get a lot done because of it.
     
  6. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    A good painting is not equivalent to a snapshot of the subject. Good paintings interpret the subject, present it in a light which enhances some features and deemphasises others.

    So it is with writing. You don't write the boring moment os boring lives of boring people. That would be - you guessed it - boring. Instead you tell a story that conveys the illusion of reality to a greater or lesser degree. You exaggerate some elements and play down others. Dialogue is not a transcription of real chatter. Instead, you select, filter, and enhance dialogue to convey impressions. If someone has a mouth that would make a freighter deckhand blush, you don't reproduce every flippin' curse that rolls off his stinkin' festering lips, you sprinkle in just enough to get the idea across.

    It's the same with characters. In real life, we distinguish them from the timbre and volume of their voices, their facial image, their posture, etc. I writing, conveying all that is ineffective. So to compensate, you exaggerate the little quirks of character, jusssst enough to give the reader something to help identify that character in his or her mind while reading.

    The perfect illusion is one that distorts in a desired way, without the observer being consciously aware of the distortion.
     
  7. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    To extend Cog's simile just a bit, one could consider the format of a play presented on stage. No one behaves in the manner of the performances in a play. They are always bigger then life because the medium demands that kind of presentation in order to hold the audience.
     
  8. Cheeno
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    Cheeno Contributing Member

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    Bang on. The reader needs to be held, otherwise the only shelf the novel with make is the agent's Slush shelf. The ordinary must be transformed into the extra-ordinary to make it believable. Dialogue must be specific, used only to move the story on, as with characterisation. Eccentricities are only useful if they contribute to the character's existence relative to his or her part in the story. Sticking out isn't necessarily right.
     
  9. TheAdlerian
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    TheAdlerian Senior Member

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    I disagree, in painting there's trump l'oeil which can take mundane subjects and make them interesting through the painting.
     
  10. Cheeno
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    Cheeno Contributing Member

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    Sorry, no disrespect meant, but...painting? I'm referring to, em, writing?
     
  11. Acglaphotis
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    Acglaphotis Contributing Member

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    I think he means that even mundane subjects are interesting if written in the right manner.
     
  12. Cheeno
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    Cheeno Contributing Member

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    Oh, quite possibly, but, I personally feel his use of painting as an example didn't suit the point I was making. If the mundane is portrayed in such a way as to make it unmundane (?), isn't it the same as the ordinary being portrayed as the extra-ordinary? The ordinary is no longer ordinary, as the mundane is no longer mundane. Oh, I'm feeling nauseous from all this circling. Anyway, painting is painting, writing is writing. Oh, my stomach...
     
  13. Acglaphotis
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    Acglaphotis Contributing Member

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    Yes, I agree that his metaphor was rather awkwardly phrased.
     
  14. Cheeno
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    Cheeno Contributing Member

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    Yes, metaphor! Bloody word was on the tip of my tongue, metaphorically speaking of course. I'm knackered, it's 01.38 here in The Land of Saints and Scholars. I'm away to my bed. Night all.:)
     
  15. Ti Odio E Ti Amo
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    Ti Odio E Ti Amo New Member

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    With characters I agree with Scarlett.

    When you create a character, for it to be believable, it needs to reflect a possible person. The character needs a face, things they like, things they don't, how they act, their personality... You need to think about them like an imaginary friend, that the only obstacle in the person being real is the fact that they are imaginary; otherwise you wouldn't be able to tell the difference.

    When a character is formed, you need to use it with how you made the imaginary friend. If the imaginary friend named Jake doesn't like apples, but then he changes his mind another time, the reader becomes doubtful of his real qualities as an almost real person. When using the character, you need to switch gears and remember what kind of imaginary person Jake is. If Jake starts to become a different person without it being purposfully, it creates doubt.

    At least that's how I think of it...
     
  16. AnonyMouse
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    AnonyMouse Contributing Member Contributor

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    The only way to keep things interesting is to take a character out of his/her normal patterns. That means they have to be eccentric. Who would be interested in reading about a normal person doing normal things? Whether it be an inner or outer eccentricity, something has to upset the balance.

    On the flip side, alot of writers try to make non-human characters interesting by emphasizing their normal traits. Think of all the children's fairy tales about animals who talk and do human things like live in houses, cook, clean, and work. But even in these cases, those things are all eccentric for animals. The rule still holds true.

    My point: If it isn't eccentric in some way or another, would you bother to read it? I wouldn't. Even the local newspaper can't sell without something out of the ordinary going on. Why would fiction be any different?
     
  17. TheAdlerian
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    TheAdlerian Senior Member

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    This is almost too easy: you paint pictures with words when writing.
     
  18. Sephie913
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    let's not dilute this with colorful words. Okay, maybe that wasn't the best way to put it.

    Let's not get into tiffs about metaphoric painting. The expression is apt, but not expressed quite right at first attempt. so.

    Back to topic. I sprinkle my characters with eccentricities. For example, on of my characters is a thief. but if he owes a debt, he is determined to pay it. ironic, and a thing that causes a lot of trouble, but the two traits can exist simultaneously, and it makes for a very eccentric character. not to mention conflicted.
     
  19. TheAdlerian
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    TheAdlerian Senior Member

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    I've done a lot of painting over the years and you literally have to have a story in mind if you're say a fantasy painting. From painting I started wanting to write, and you must explain the painting you have in your mind, and that's a story.

    It's not a metaphor.
     
  20. Emerald
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    Emerald Contributing Member

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    The most important thing when making believable characters is to know people. Understand them. All the anime or high fantasy novels in the world wont compensate for simply getting to know real people, because real people simply don't behave that way. I think it's one of the contributing factors of depression among teenagers in modern society -- this kind of expectation that life should be fantastical and amazing every second of every day like on TV or in movies.

    For example, in the real world, the average person is an insecure coward. Badass heroic types aren't common at all. Since you're trying to appeal to the average person, you need characters that they can relate to.
     
  21. TheAdlerian
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    TheAdlerian Senior Member

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    Well said, about the depression idea. Some people like Sartre believed that works of fiction are bad for this and other reasons.

    However, for those of us who try to deal with the real world, novels do provide a break. But, I bet for large numbers of readers the excitement and power of the characters actually makes them feel powerless in comparison, so they do nothing. Thus the "fat/skinny nerd" stereotype.

    I'd also bet that a book with practical directions about how to fight and subvert authority, with weapons and such, would never get published. Some might say that fiction actually serves to suppress people.
     
  22. Etan Isar
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    Etan Isar Contributing Member Contributor

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    But what about escapism? After all, maybe you can't relate to a bad-ass hero type, but wouldn't you love to be one? I'm an insecure coward all right, but gosh, I wish I weren't.
     
  23. AnonyMouse
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    AnonyMouse Contributing Member Contributor

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    Sounds like scapegoating to me. Fiction isn't here to help us relate to reality.
    I think you're looking for nonfiction; go read an autobiography, or someone's memoirs,
    or a textbook, or an encyclopedia. That's not what most fiction is meant for.
     
  24. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I do see Emerald's point, but a writer can focus too much on the weaknesses of the character, too. Real people, and therefore the most believable characters, do have flaws; but they also have moments of outstanding strength and courage. too. Neglecting this aspect can make for very dull stories, as well as depressing characters.
     
  25. Emerald
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    Emerald Contributing Member

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    I'm obviously not saying every character should be a sniveling, down-trodden wreck. I'm just saying that everyone has their little fears and insecurities. When you have a character who's overly eccentric/tough/whatever it tends to detract from the reality of the character as a living human being.
    And I find speculative fiction to be the main culprit, usually putting the emphasis on the carefully-crafted world surrounding the characters rather than the characters themselves.

    You can have someone who's badass and heroic -- after all, there's plenty of badass heroes in the real world -- but you have to remember that very few people are badass and heroic 100% of the time. Everyone makes mistakes. You need to understand people and their limitations, otherwise how will you know where the border between 'human' and 'inhuman' lies?

    Everyone can relate to characters founded on reality. But very few can relate to characters founded on the dreamy perceptions some writer has of reality. And those few are the people with dissociated views of how people really behave to begin with.
     

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