1. Metus
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    Metus Senior Member

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    Refining Characters- advice for new writers.

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Metus, Mar 1, 2012.

    Browsing this and several other forums, I've noticed that many people restrict themselves to basic character building. That is, they give their characters interests, appearances, and a history, and that's great. You need those things. However, I rarely notice anyone discuss certain important personality details, such as the way a character thinks, and what kinds of things they say.

    It's easy to show that a sympathetic character is sympathetic by having him or her comfort someone else. It's easy to have that character give coins to orphans. It's harder to get the subtle things right. How do they carry themselves? Studies show that charitable people usually walk unbowed, with their head up and shoulders pulled back, but they aren't threatening. They're confident- confident enough to be charitable. How do they speak? You could have them say "Don't do that." Or, they could say "Please, stop." There's a huge difference.

    For example, one character might say "If you do that, you could wind up in prison." Another might say "Don't do that, I couldn't bear if anything happened to you." A third might say "Eh. Do what you want." A fourth might say "Don't do that, it's wrong."

    Person one is concerned with function and consequences. Person two is caring and emotional. Person three doesn't care. Person four has clear, absolute moral boundaries.

    There are clear differences in personality in all variations. When creating characters, it's important that you not only consider their interests and history, but that you also craft their personality by getting inside a character's head for every single line that they say. Even the complexity of words a character uses, for example, can indicate their level of education, or the amount of stress they're under. Short, blunt sentences might indicate high stress, for example. Then, you have to consider when a character gets stressed- you have to decide when you should modify their voice however you choose to represent stress. Does a character become stressed under little pressure? When they're around people? Are they always calm? Do some characters get angry under pressure? Frightened? Confused?

    Between people that I know, there are all kinds of small variations in the things that they say that somehow reflect their personality. They don't think about it- their personality shapes everything they do without extra thought or deliberation on their part. The same consistency should hold true in fiction, but it takes a lot of work on the author's part.

    There's a big difference between a person saying "I love you," and a person saying "I care about you", or even asking "Do you love me?"

    All are somewhat similar. They're all intimate in nature, and might be used (all too often, interchangeably) to advance a romantic subplot. But each one alludes to a different personality, and it's important to not simply use similar terms just because they get the point across. To create a great character, you need to pay attention to every action and word, and write what a given character would actually say. Person one is more confident. Person two is cautious. Person three may even be fearful of the answer.

    It's easy to just wing conversations and put in functional words, but truly great characters come from the little things.

    And then there are throwaway actions. Little things that you need to move the plot forward. Want to get a secondary character out of a house so the protagonist can be alone? The secondary character might decide to go visit a friend. He might visit a museum. He might go to a bar to get drunk. How long does he plan to be gone? If he's responible, maybe he gave an estimate when he'd be back. If he's more of a rogue, he probably didn't. Often times, little things like that get overlooked, and the author just fills in the first event that enters their head without thinking about it. But it's important for good writing to carefully consider the little things- over time, they add up to be phenominal.

    Choosing your throwaway lines and explanations may not seem to have much difference individually, but long term, putting in the extra effort can make a world come to life.

    Of course, many of the details you can save for a later draft. The rough draft should simply be about getting the story on paper. I actually find it easier to just write roughly before going back and analyzing the details at a later date without having to worry about actually writing the story as I go.

    That's just my 2 cents, anyway. I hope it's good advice.
     
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  2. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    excellent advice, thank you. it gave me a lot to think about and whether I'm doing this or not. You're right, this is important.
     
  3. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I had to quibble here. My interpretation of person three is that they used to care, and care and care and care, and after watching the person they care about determinedly take self-destructive actions just too many times, they're too burned out to try any more.

    Yes, I do know a lot of dysfunctional people. :) But, really, I think that there's enough social pressure on people to _pretend_ that they care that a clear and obvious statement of non-caring will generally mean that they do care, enough to go against that social pressure.

    ChickenFreak
     
  4. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    This is exactly why I get frustrated with people who make up character sheets or character profiles or whatever they call them before they begin writing their stories. Your character CANNOT be entirely defined before he goes through the story. The experience of the story is one of the things in his life that form his character, and if the story is significant to him, it can make significant changes to his character.

    You have to let your character grow and change in the course of the story. Don't predefine the character. Start writing the story and let the character become what he'll be by the end. That's what the story is for, isn't it?
     
  5. Henning
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    Henning Member

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    People who make up profiles usually do that to start, no?
    There's nothing wrong with creating a character before the story. I do agree with you, but on the other hand inventing characters and knowing them inside and out and THEN making them go through the story is not going to harm your writing. If you create a realistic character, he will go through significant changes as you write the story. But before the story happens, he is already a person isn't he?
     
  6. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I believe character sheets are worse than useless. They are harmful. They promote a perspective of defining a character in terms of attributes and adjectives, at a fixed point in time. They encourage the writer to lock down aspects of the character that have no relevance to the story, or that the writer may need to later redact to enrich the character or the story.

    I believe it is a beginner's error to overdefine a character prior to writing the first draft of the story. Leave the character flexible, largely a tabula rasa to be developed through his or her journey through the events of the story.

    Many new writers are inspired to write from an RPG background. For an RPG, predefining a character allows the DM 9or equivalent) to constrain the player's actions to remain "in character." That is also exactly why a writer should avoid the character sheet like a plague -- it overly constrains character evolution in an endeavor where "fair play" rules can get in the way.
     
  7. Henning
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    Henning Member

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    Maybe I'm getting this wrong here since I've never used one and I'm not 100% sure what a character sheet is.
    I'm just going with the idea that it's not wrong to know your character before the story happens. For example, I like writing about my characters in other situations that have nothing to do with the story, it helps me a lot later on. But then again, people change. Sometimes they change easier than others, sometimes they refuse to change some things they believe or do. It's all different aspects of people that's important to remember while writing a story.

    I still don't see what's so wrong about creating a person and then writing the story they go through. The character can still be flexible. Shit the character can do whatever you decide, you're the writer.
    Can anyone give me an example of how a character can't go through character evolution as you write the story if that character was already alive in the writer's mind before that story?
     
  8. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    I am a big fan of getting to know my main characters well and I have character sheets for some of them. I disagree the opinion that character sheets are harmful.

    The advice OP gave is interesting and I am sure very helpful, especially to the beginners.
     
  9. Pink-Angel-1992
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    Pink-Angel-1992 Active Member

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    Person 3 was absobed in doing something else and didn't really hear what was said and didn't care, because they were to interested in what they were doing, so was like whatever, maybe not thinking it was anything stupid. Just my input there.

    I say Character Prfiles but I asume there the same. Anyways, I don't see why there should be anything wrong with them. If you don't like them then don't use them, but if it helps people to organise the knowledge they have on their characters, then that should be fine write? It's who the character is before the story. In a story you're going to have more then one character, a main character and probably some important characters too and if you've alread writen many stories, wouldn't something like a character profile/sheet help you from getting confused?
     
  10. AmsterdamAssassin
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    AmsterdamAssassin Contributing Member

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    I just have files on my characters, where I jot down bits and pieces, like the location of scars and injuries, so they don't switch limping left to right. I don't build character sheets and construct stories around them, that sounds too much like roleplaying games to me.
     
  11. Henning
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    Henning Member

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    It's not role playing it's getting to know your character. But that's just my opinion, what works for someone won't work for someone else and vice versa.
     
  12. Helga
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    Helga Member

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    So you take care to make sure that your character isn't physically inconsistent, but you refuse to make them mentally consistent? It isn't roleplaying to ensure that your character is completely consistent. It is also quite hypocritical to care about physical consistency while insulting mental consistency.
     
  13. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Of course he is. What I object to is when writers make up character profiles before the write their stories and then use them as if they were set in concrete. The story changes the character, otherwise it isn't really a story, is it? If the character profile still defines the character as well at the end of the story as at the beginning, it's useless - worse than useless. Nothing significant has happened to the character.

    The reason we tell stories is that characters change during the story. They learn. They become stronger or weaker or wiser or, sometimes, sillier. But they change. If they don't, the story isn't really a story. The physical details of the character don't matter (I rarely describe my characters in any detail, physically). So it doesn't matter whether he has a tattoo on his right shoulder or his left. That kind of thing is incidental.

    But a story should take a character through an experience that is meaningful to the character. That, to me, means you start with a lump of clay and the story makes a man of him, if you will.
     
  14. Henning
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    Henning Member

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    I agree with that. But is there some kind of rule stating that if you create the character before writing the story then the character loses all ability to change? A lot of people seem to be thinking that...

    Off topic but, I don't think it's always wrong if one character that's not the main character doesn't change. It can be interesting depending on how you write it.
     
  15. Nakhti
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    Nakhti Banned

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    I don't think that's what Amsterdam meant at all. I do exactly the same thing with my characters - I jot down facts about their backstory, like dates and places, family members, significant life events, and if necessary I will note things I could possibly forget, like the fact that they have an injury that sometimes plagues them when they physically exert themselves (could be a significant plot point). In one case I actually charted the menstrual cycles of 5 female characters against the plot events of the novel!

    But in general I don't need to make notes about their character or personality - I have that all in my head. My characters tell me if I make them do something against their nature, because it usually snarls up the plot or comes across as really contrived dialogue. So I go back and edit it until it is something they would actually do or say, and then amend the knock on effects accordingly.
     
  16. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The problem is not in defining the character. The problem lies in overly constraining the character.

    A character sheet typically contains a bunch of catch-all questions that are irrelevant to 90% of the stories you will write. Why fill in the character's religion if it has nothing to do with the story? Or her middle name. Pointless. But worse are the "essay questions" to develop a back story. When you sit down and actually write your story, relevent bits of history will come to you as they reinforce the story. It's a waste of time to try to anticipate these befor the story begins. Worse yet, the pre-written history may get in the way of history that you develop to support the story.

    As minstrel say, begin with a lump of clay. As the story unfolds, you will discover and refine your character dynamically.

    As for notes, that's up to you. I prefer to consider my manuscript the character notes, although I might jot down small specifics somewhere for easy reference. A birthday, or the street the character grew up on, might be difficult to locate later in the manuscript. But appearance characteristics, and overall character attributes, should be easy to keep track of, even if they aren't burned into your mind's eye like the afterimage from staring at bright lights.
     
  17. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    No, you can define how the character begins the story. But don't be afraid to let the character change during the story. My objection is to those people who make character profiles that they use to define the character at BOTH ends of the arc, not just the first.

    This is how many detective stories work. Look at the old Columbo TV movies with Peter Falk. Columbo didn't change. He was the hero, so to speak, in the sense that he was the one who solved the mystery, but he wasn't the one who had a character arc. It was always the murderer who had an arc, and the real story was the murderer's. Same with most of the Sherlock Holmes stories. The trick in this kind of story is that the "hero" isn't really the MC. In some kinds of stories, I guess, the main character can actually be the antagonist.
     
  18. AmsterdamAssassin
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    AmsterdamAssassin Contributing Member

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    No. I just stated that I don't need a character sheet/profile to keep my characters mentally consistent. In fact, I rarely refer to the files I have. Like Cogito says, it's just for easy reference.

    I don't think I said that.

    It probably is, but I don't think I said that either.
     
  19. Newfable
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    Newfable Senior Member

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    Probably the best thing to take from this , to be honest. It's same with real people, so why not with fictional characters?

    I'm certain that even Holmes would agree :).
     
  20. Pink-Angel-1992
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    At bit of the characters history may define who the character is, so that would be something to know about your character before you start. For example, if your character became a detective due to an incedent that happened in his past, then you should have at least an idea of what that is. There will be a cut of point where you've gone to indepth with your characters history, but having some of the important event noted or an basic out line could help and will for some.

    Everyone has their own way of doing thing; some may dive straight into telling the story, where other will do planning, will develop their ideas. With that as well, some will note some initial ideas and start writing, where others will go a little more indepth to get a feel of their characters and the surroundings (maybe more so if fiction). With all development for the story, their will be a cut of point when their will be to much, but development will help some people to write their stories, where others won't need it.

    Some people have better memory than other and some have other thing that they need to do and remember that they may not be able to remember everything they need to about their characters. In these case a character profile would help them to keep that information. Plus stories have multiple characters and if the stories about a compertion or a game with different move that the players make up, then a profile/sheet would help a person to remember all those moves.
     
  21. Metus
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    Metus Senior Member

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    I was simply demonstrating that similar phrases which get the same point across can have very different, subtle implications. Actually, by interpreting this the way you did, it proves my point that you have to carefully pick your words, because what you can imply with dialogue isn't limited to the point of the sentence itself, "ly" suffix words (such as "happily") and punctuation (such as an exclamation point) that you use.
     
  22. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    People aren't mentally consistent. They certainly aren't "completely" mentally consistent. What they say they believe, what they truly believe, and what actions they take, are often wildly inconsistent, and they often change from day to day to day or hour to hour.

    (By the way, what's wrong with roleplaying? Some roleplaying games support fine character development. I don't believe in setting a roleplaying character in stone, either; IMO the smaller and less detailed the initial character sheet, the better the game.)

    I don't know that writing up a character's characteristics ahead of time is _necessarily_ bad, but I also have trouble seeing when or why it would be good. I think that the randomly creative mind comes up with better and more detailed things than the logically creative mind.

    For example, let's say that I "see" my MC in a slightly shabby handmade wool dress with 80's-style shoulder pads. I need to discover why she's dressed that way, and I find out that her mother recently died and she's broke, so she's wearing her mother's old clothes. I'd rather get there that way than by sitting down to write a character history and deciding ahead of time that her mother just died and she has very little money and, hmmm, what might that lead to?

    That's partly because that image tells me more than just "Mom died" or "Mom died and MC has no money." It tells me that Mom sewed her own clothes. Since in my mind's eye I saw the dress fitting the MC and it's unlikely that the MC and her mother are exactly the same size, it also tells me that the MC sews, and she cares enough about her appearance to alter hand-me-downs before she wears them. But she didn't remove the very out-of-fashion shoulder pads. That tells me that the MC isn't particularly aware of the world around her, and also that perhaps the well-fitted dress doesn't come from self-regard or joy in her clothes or any interest in fashion, but out of a need to fulfill the expectations of those around her.

    I'm expressing all those thoughts here, but I wouldn't express them in any sort of character sheet if I were using this character in a book; doing so would tend to prematurely establish a personality, and I don't want to do that. I'd put the character in a situation and watch to see what she does. Maybe I'll find out that she's a vintage clothing collector with a delight in the fashions of the eighties, instead of finding out the depressing story above.

    I realize that I'm talking about what I "see" and what I "find out", when it's really me that's creating the image or inventing the facts. But I'm not _aware_ of consciously doing that; I'm under the illusion that scenes are playing out in my mind without my consciously and laboriously assembling them. I think that that state is a better creative state, more likely to produce the fine-grained quirky detail that creates a really believable character and story. Systematic logic is not, IMO, a good basis for creation.

    Oh, I'm not disagreeing that a character's personality needs to be extremely detailed. I would disagree (and do above) with the idea of determining those details, or even the basic outlines of the personality, before starting to write using that character.

    And I'd also disagree with using "ly" words - I think that the character's words and actions should communicate the message, without the writer telling the reader how to interpret those words and actions. Only when the description is completely contrary to the words would I consider a description, as in:

    "Me? Oh, after lunch I'm going to kill myself," she said cheerfully. "I'm still thinking over the exact details; right now my favorite option is jumping off the roof."

    ChickenFreak
     
  23. Metus
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    Metus Senior Member

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    I should have been clearer- I wasn't telling anyone to use a lot of "ly" words- I was saying that you don't need to use many of them, given all the other things you can do with dialogue.
     
  24. Henning
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    Henning Member

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    Interesting conversation but people need to stop forgetting that anything you write can be unwritten. My opinion is that there's nothing wrong with having a character in mind before writing. Others disagree.
    In the end who really cares about what you've decided to do to make your story better? If you end up with weak characters or bad writing or a steaming pile of manure, notice it and change it. If you wrote a great book, great. They won't bring out the guillotine if you OH NO made a note about your character. Do what works for you.
    Just what I got from the conversation.
     
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  25. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    Ok, first of all, no self-respecting girl would go around looking like an 80's nightmare. Clothes can be altered with a needle and a thread and that costs next to nothing ;) (joking)

    But seriously, I see what you are saying and I agree. But I still do character sheets not so that I constantly refer to them as I write, I rarely even open them as I write, but having spent x amount of time getting to know a character, writing down their traits, deciding on the type of personality, writing out a backstory that may be relevant, by the time I start writing, I am bound to be more consistent, and it helps me hone the voice for them. Because part of my character sheet is also, who the character reminds me of, real person or another character. It is tremendously helpful in writing dialogue. If my character Willem is based on a man I know called Bob, then I can easily write his voice, I just need to think what would Bob say.
    That kind of thing.
     

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