1. Aprella
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    Aprella Senior Member

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    How to get to know your characters?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Aprella, May 17, 2013.

    To write a good, believable character, you have to know them: their back story, how they will react in certain circumstances, how they speak etc...

    I was wondering how you actually get to know your characters? I tried to imagine what a certain character will do in a certain situation... but I have to admit it's kind of hard sometimes. Normally I get to know them during the writing process and then go back and see if everything 'fits'. But I have this character who goes through a lot (another topic I opened) and I found that this way wasn't working well.

    How do you guys and girls get to know your characters?
     
  2. Youniquee
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    Youniquee (◡‿◡✿) Contributor

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    I don't know...as I develop my story, my characters develop along with it...thus I get to know my characters. I also jot stuff down to make their personality more concise and maybe backstory, as that highly influences how the character is.

    I think it's something that just happens automatically. Even to this day, I still haven't quite known my main character and I'm still trying to make his character concise and clear.
     
  3. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is one of my favorite questions, and I'll give you the answer I always give: By spending time with them. You spend time with them by writing scenes with them, even if the scenes are not passages you will include in your story. Follow him on a typical day, see how he gets home from work, where he works, what and whom he's expecting to see at home, who he interacts with when he gets home, what is he having for dinner -- does he cook dinner? did someone else cook it for him? Does he order take out? Does he go out? Who does he eat with? Or does he eat alone? Does he like eating alone? Does he wish he was with someone else? Who? Or does he wish he were alone? How does he feel about whoever is at home waiting for him? What does he do after dinner?

    Write him having lunch with another character -- where are they? What are they having? Where are they meeting? Why are they meeting there? Does he always have lunch with this person or is it really unusual? Who is this person? His brother? Sister? Best friend? Colleague? Wife? Ex-girlfriend? Friend from college who he hasn't seen in a while? Why did the other person want to have lunch with your character?

    Write the scene where he had his first date with his wife. Or his ex wife. Or maybe you discover his first date was with his boyfriend. Was there an immediate spark? Did they start out with a misconception? Where were they? What did they talk about? Or maybe his first date ever with anyone and it didn't go well, because he's socially awkward and lonely and didn't know what to say and goes over it again and again, because that's the only date he's ever had.

    I love these. It's like meeting new friends. (Even though they're imaginary. Yeah.)
     
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  4. Nee
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    Nee Contributing Member

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    You only have to make your character believable within the context of the story that they are written in. Your entire understanding of who your characters are depends completely upon their relationship with the story. To assign traits or behaviors that will not appear in your story is a complete waste of time.

    To know you character is to know your story.
    To know your story is to know your character.
    The two are symbiotic creations, and can't be separated.
     
  5. shlunka
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    shlunka Member

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    By reflecting on their decisions throughout the story.
     
  6. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm not really sure what you mean by this, Nee. You can never know too much about your character. And you should know A LOT more about your character than you've typed in the manuscript. Assigning traits or behaviors, via something like a character sheet, that is then never really consulted, would be a waste of time. BUT, if these traits or behaviors emerge while you are observing the character doing something, either at another time or in a scene that isn't really relevant to the story, those are part of his personality and will show up again. I think when you write scenes, you're really more 'discovering' traits, rather than 'assigning' them.
     
  7. ladyphilosophy
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    ladyphilosophy Member

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    I once had this character in my mind and thought I knew her, but then one day this vision just took over me, which elaborated into a scene, and just changed everything. I'll not tell you every single thing about my character before and after the experience, but I just heard this song on the radio - something Calvin Harris, I think ...I forget exactly - and I just suddenly had this vision of someone running to this track, running desperately down a street, like they were very late for something, and then that person turned into my character, and well, once the song ended I imagined the track fading out as she arrived at her destination, late. And then this scene just happened, in my head, like I was watching it in a movie. It was almost as if there had been some divine intervention and something had planted the scene in my head. It's quite exciting. I don't think I would have written the scene, it wasn't that entertaining in itself, but it did prompt me to consider the reason for her being late, and then I wrote the scene from the night before in my head, and then various scenes from weeks before, and then it just kept on going and going. It's like one idea is set off and then it's domino rally from there.

    This may not be very helpful, but I think it does just kind of happen sometimes. I suppose it is just imagining them in random situations, and trying to conceive of circumstances which would allow you to test the character to see how they react. This would let you get to know them better. I think music is a great prompt for this. Sometimes I just hear a song and I see someone sitting on a riverbank making daisy chains, or something like that, it's just natural for me to associate music with scenes. Sometimes that image turns into something bigger, as I start to consider who this person is, what brought them to the river bank and what they are thinking of, for instance - or sometimes they just fade into insignificance as the song ends.

    I don't know if this is very practical advice, maybe it has to be more spontaneous than that and cannot be forced. But perhaps you could imagine something similar, such as your character being really, really late for something, and consider what that is likely to be, and why they are late for it, and so on. Just allows for exploration, and may set off a string of ideas. Just try and see what happens.
     
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  8. heal41hp
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    heal41hp Contributing Member

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    I would just carpet bomb you with reputation right now if I could. I understand the restriction but still... Curses upon you, reputation restrictions!!

    You need to get to know your character inside and out. Find out anything and everything you can, even down to the silliest little detail. Nothing is too much when you're getting to know your character. Those little details are what make your character real. The preferences, dislikes, and idiosyncrasies are what make characters believable and what allow your readers to develop empathy with them.

    Now to the original question. First what I do is create bios. I take a single sheet of college-ruled paper and write their name on the top. I then have a list of traits I want to fill in, pertaining to appearance, religion, and family. I also fill in where and when they were born. I then move on to the most important part: their story. I write their history in first person, as though the character were telling me their life story. It really helps me get into their heads and understand their reality. I also consider their motivations for different actions. Always ask why something is done or why a character reacts to something the way they do. Finding those underlying motivations is crucial because once you find those out, they can generally be applied to other situations.

    Again I will smother some love on chicagoliz's post (though her first one this time). Write different scenes with the character. Get to know him or her through their actions. I highly suggest doing it in first person, though, so you can get into their head. Write scenes your character wouldn't normally be in and see how they react to it. Also, pair them with unusual other characters for the same effect. The more stress you put on your character, the more information you're going to get out of them. It's fine and dandy to see how they react to something they do on instinct at this point but you can really see your character's, well, character shine when they are under duress (as with any real-life person).

    I hope this helps!
     
  9. TerraIncognita
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    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

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    I write some side stories with them in it. It helps me get to know how they will react in a given situation. I may or may not use these in the larger story later but they help me understand my characters. :)
     
  10. PyrZern
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    PyrZern Member

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    There are many methods that I use for this, actually.

    1. You draw them out. Read your description of your character, then draw him or her. If your drawing skill is too poor to capture your character, then what I'd do is to make a Character Sheet. (like many artist do.) Look up pictures online that resemble your character. Tattoos, piercing, lipstick, scars, eye shape, hair style, poses, bodybuild, favorite dress, etc.

    2. Tell a joke. "Character A, B and C walk into a bar..."

    3. Play MMOnline games and name your Avatar after your character. Then as you adventure in the game, interact with the world and other players as your character would.

    4. I agree with writing side stories with those characters as MC.
     
  11. Nee
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    Nee Contributing Member

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    The story is your character/the character is the story: so when you are writing the first draft/or outline/or scotching out the story (whatever you call it) you allow the character to be known through their actions and motives and their personality. Keeping detailed notes of any aspects, traits, quirks, physical particulars that naturally come up within the unfolding of the story--for use in the revision and amplification process later on. Character sheets draw your time and creative juices away from the story on details that may never need to be hashed out. Think about it: if there is never a reason for you to be describing the character's eye color, then it will not be missed by the reader. Besides, the human brain can always be counted on to fill-in any detail the second it is needed with no prompting what so ever...so, use that phenomenon to your advantage; concentrate on writing the character's story as smoothly and concisely as you can.
     
  12. adampjr
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    adampjr Member

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    I usually operate this way. I make a very minimal character sheet that is part of a document where I keep track of stuff. I don't usually spend that much time developing my characters independtly of teh story (with side stories, detailed character sheets). However, I feel that my characters tend to be very shallow so I may experiment with some of these other things.
     
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  13. Aprella
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    Aprella Senior Member

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    Thanks for the great tips! I so want to get started on this but unfortunately I have to study!
     
  14. Mick Madden
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    Mick Madden New Member

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    This is a great idea, i do this myself. Both with the character sheet and making a gaming character out of them. It really helps me understand them and make my writing and stories better.
     
  15. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I agree with Chicagoliz, in that your character will develop as you put him/her into events and interactions with other characters. In fact, this will bring a character to life faster than any other method I can imagine. I also liked Ladyphilosophy's idea about envisioning a character via a piece of music or a specific static scene, especially as a starting point. These 'visuals' are never wastes of time.

    I do think that sitting down and writing a list of characteristics CAN be a waste of time, though. They are just words on a page, and won't come to life until you put them into practice.

    I suppose the quickest way to get the characters alive and working in your story is to write your story! However, you don't need to start at the beginning. Just write a scene or two which you plan to include in the story, put your characters in them, and go for it. If the scenes are detailed and strongly-felt by you, the writer, the characters will just slide in and make themselves at home.

    This creation of new characters is the factor I find most enjoyable about writing. These people would not exist, if it wasn't for you, making them up, making them tick. You want to play God? This is how you do it...! ;)
     
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  16. Aprella
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    Aprella Senior Member

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    a great plot but badly developed characters ruins a book :p

    Another question: do you develop every character in such a detail or only the ones who are important to the plot/are present a lot in the book? Since I will be working with a lot of characters, but some are there to fill the world. And it seems like a lot of work to develop these characters in the same way since the MC might only talk to them ones or twice.
     
  17. Youniquee
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    Youniquee (◡‿◡✿) Contributor

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    Only the characters who have huge importance. Saves you less time and well, it happens automatically since they will be involved in the story a lot, thus you will be writing about them a lot more. It's important to not cram too many characters or they all become similar or it may be hard for the reader to follow. If the MC only talks to them once or twice there is no need to develop them to the extent of the MC. Also, I think every character should have some sort of purpose~
     
  18. Aprella
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    Aprella Senior Member

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    Aye! But the characters who are 'minor' mostly contribute to the world building, like a blacksmith or guards etc :)
     
  19. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I understood this part. What I didn't understand was the part that I quoted. But it doesn't matter.

    I agree with what you wrote above, with one slight caveat. I don't think that character sheets are a complete waste of time, although I would stress that one should NEVER become beholden to something that they've written on a character sheet. If you create a character sheet and fill in a blank, stating that your character attended college at Princeton, but later on in the story it makes much more sense to say that he attended the University of Mississippi, and the character even wants to tell you that he attended Ole Miss, don't refuse to incorporate this information and keep insisting that no, he attended Princeton. The story will suffer for that. HOWEVER, if you are done writing for the day and really would like to spend some time thinking about your character but for whatever reason don't want to or can't write scenes right then, filling in a character sheet can be a way to think about your characters and your story, and they might even give you some ideas for scenes to write with them later on. You can, for example, consider what car your character drives. You think about this and decide he drives a Honda Odyssey minivan. Picture when he bought it. Does he like it? Maybe he hates it, and when he got the minivan he had to give up his convertible. (You don't even have to get specific -- you could decide, "I feel like he drives some type of minivan," but there's no reason you have to determine the specific one.)

    So, if one night, you are trying mightily to go to sleep, but it just isn't happening, you could grab a character sheet (you could just answer the questions in your head - you don't necessarily even have to write them down), and answer some of the questions about your various characters. (Sometimes, if you're trying to sleep you don't want to open up your computer.) If you do fill in a character sheet, there is no law that says you have to fill in every single detail that particular character sheet asks. I don't think I've ever filled one out completely -- some things I've skipped, with a simple 'I don't know,' and that's not really relevant to my story, either. Others I've been able to answer immediately. But some questions let me think for a little while, and although it's not as good as writing a scene, it can enable you to know your character a little more. Just tread careful.
     
  20. heal41hp
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    heal41hp Contributing Member

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    Great point here. Even though I fill out little biographies of my characters, I never stubbornly stick to it just because it's written down. The bio of my main character doesn't even match what he's evolved into anymore. I make adjustments as needed as I go.

    As far as fleshing out "lesser" characters, I don't do much of that. I always try to give them realistic traits and come up with enough information to where they feel real and dynamic. I don't usually go into a lot of detail, though. Sometimes what I do come up with for these guys really catches my interest, though, and I'll expand on them more to expand on the world and give me opportunities for short side stories later. :)
     
  21. blackstar21595
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    blackstar21595 Contributing Member

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    Spend time with them.
     
  22. Aprella
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    Aprella Senior Member

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    All this tips are working! The only thing I cannot do, is write in 1st person. I feel very detached then, and when I write the same in 3rd person, it comes more easily and I 'feel' what he feels. I'm already starting to know him better and I enjoy getting to know him :D
    It's funny when I was writing about him getting ready for a date and I made him think back on how he met the girl... I decided to write how he met the girl because it looked like so much doing it! So I'm probably going to write down a lot about and probably feel sad that he isn't real...
     
  23. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I've said elsewhere on this forum that characters just pop into my head. This happens with minor characters, too - I just see them almost instantly when I need them. They often change the plot by behaving in ways I hadn't intended them to. For example, I once had to have my MC go to a tavern in a town he hadn't been to in many years. For this scene, obviously, I needed a bartender. It took me about five seconds of staring into space and he came to me - red hair, big red beard, red suspenders he didn't really need to wear because his pants would stay up perfectly well by themselves. He and my MC started talking just a little - typical conversation you might have with a bartender as he's serving you a pint of beer - and then suddenly, without my planning this, he started lying to my MC. I didn't know why; I just knew that everything he was saying about the town wasn't true. My MC soon caught him at one of his lies and didn't let on, but it aroused his suspicions about the bartender. What was the bartender hiding? What was the town hiding? What had happened in that town since my MC had last been there? These questions set my plot off in another direction - a more interesting direction, as it turned out, then the one I'd planned.

    My point is that I hadn't intended, when I began the scene, for the bartender to lie. He just started doing that and I went along with it, and it drastically changed my story for the better.

    Don't sell your minor characters short. They can surprise you.
     
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  24. Nee
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    Nee Contributing Member

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    And it was from within the story that this character sprang out to fulfill a need that wasn't apparent ‘til you reached that need.

    Story is character/Character is story.

    As the writer of the story all you need to know about a character is found within that part of the story that they are written in. (or for).
     
  25. Nee
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    Nee Contributing Member

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    By focusing on making a more believable story you will automatically be making more believable characters/By making more believable characters you will automatically make a more believable story. If you feel there are some deficiencies in either, you may need to immerse yourself deeper into the literary experience (expand both the number of, and the type of novels you read).
     

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