1. picklzzz
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    picklzzz Senior Member

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    Trouble thinking "characters"

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by picklzzz, Mar 15, 2012.

    Hi all,

    I've always thought of writing as very plot-driven, and as I'm trying to learn more about writing, I keep hearing the same message over and over: Stories should stem from the characters.

    So, I'm trying to come up with good characters, and I'm stuck. Everyone I think of is so cliche, and I still cannot stop my brain from trying to plot a story with generic characters.

    I have a new story in mind - I don't have it all developed yet, but it centers around three characters. Please tell me what you think of them - would you be interested in reading about them?

    1) An older woman (early 70's) whos is wracked with guilt - she finally convinced her son and his family to come for a visit, and while she and the son were driving, she had a seizure caused by diabetes because she was neglectful of her insulin dosing and following up with the doctor. She lives but the son dies.

    2) A mid-twenties girl who is stalking her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend. She is obsessed and it's spinning out of control.

    3) A teen boy who is a twin who has a lot of pressure from his family to be a football player and go to medical school, only he's secretly gay and wants to be an artist. He's torn because he wants to be true to himself, but he is embarrassed and doesn't want his family to look down on him.

    I have these three characters thrust together in a particularly disturbing way, and each one is experiencing some sort of anguish that needs to be dealt with.

    What do you think?

    Thanks for the input!

    Also, do you have any tricks for how you develop the character in your writing?
     
  2. superpsycho
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    superpsycho Contributing Member

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    I always start with the story. Then I look at the characters and ask how they contribute to the story. That for me drives the character development.
     
  3. funkybassmannick
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    funkybassmannick Contributing Member

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    The more you write your story, the more depth your characters will gain. While these short character synopses may seem cliché now, they will certainly grow over time.

    If you want to focus on developing your characters, there are a lot of exercises you can try. For example, you can put them in situations that they won't encounter during your story. Maybe the mid-twenties girl has her car totaled, or the teen boy experiences his first crush on a guy. It's kind of like building backstory that you will probably never use in the story, but now you know your characters a little more. I've also done an "interview" where I interview my characters where I ask them questions, "take notes" on what they say, and even "notice" their body language. That one is kind of fun.
     
  4. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    The plots around these characters sound potentially interesting, but to me the characters are, as you say, being defined by the plot. Aside from the plot elements surrounding them, the first two characters seem to be primarily described by age and sex, while the third is described by age, sex, and sexual orientation. Can you tell us more about the characters themselves?

    Edited add: Though, really, I don't so much believe in describing characters separate from the story. I think it would be fine to just start writing and get to know your characters that way. My main point, though, is that so far you still seem to be plot-focused.
     
  5. killbill
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    killbill Contributing Member

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    All my stories stem from my characters, but you know what, the initial characters I come up with are all cliche and generic. I give them deepest desires and then put them in situations (that gives me conflicts and plots). I give a lot of thought into how they would react to those situations, this gives me lots of insight into what the character is going to be like, and of course, this shapes my plot, and also this is when they seize to be cliche characters.
     
  6. Erato
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    Erato Contributing Member

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    Well, when people say that stories should stem from characters, it's not necessarily true; it's true of the story that focuses on characters. Stories can also focus on setting or plot or unraveling a mystery. If you write stories like that, you don't need to start with characters, because the characters are secondary. They are there for the purpose of furthering the plot or showing the setting or unraveling the mystery.

    Sometimes I start with characters. In that case, I find that the characters have to grow alongside the plot (in my mind). If the characters don't fit with the plot, something has to be changed until they do. Sometimes the nature of the characters makes the plot develop. For instance, I'm planning a story with a woman who's like a revolutionary, and so you can guess how the plot will go. But in that story the plot is also secondary; it's the setting I'm focused on, really. Don't limit yourself to starting with characters or not starting with characters.


    1) An older woman (early 70's) whos is wracked with guilt - she finally convinced her son and his family to come for a visit, and while she and the son were driving, she had a seizure caused by diabetes because she was neglectful of her insulin dosing and following up with the doctor. She lives but the son dies. (I don't quite follow this, but I'm sure you do)

    2) A mid-twenties girl who is stalking her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend. She is obsessed and it's spinning out of control.

    3) A teen boy who is a twin who has a lot of pressure from his family to be a football player and go to medical school, only he's secretly gay and wants to be an artist. He's torn because he wants to be true to himself, but he is embarrassed and doesn't want his family to look down on him.

    Ok. Not really sure how you can tie these together. The easiest is to make them all related, for instance, the older woman is the great-aunt of the boy and the boy is the cousin of the girl. I'n noticing, the last two have something in common: love. As in, amor. The first is a little misplaced. But you can still tie them up. For instance.

    If the woman is wracked with guilt, she will have one of two responses.
    a) She will turn to another person for comfort.
    b) She will contain her guilt/grief and let it grow, and with it her disappointment in herself, her conviction that nothing she does can go right, all the rest of it.
    Between these two, the one more likely to make a story is b. She contains her disappointment. Now you have to explain why. Why doesn't she look for help elsewhere? It would be so much easier on her if she could draw support from others. Perhaps she's had a difficult life up to now, which you'd have to reveal, and she's always found that grief is best kept to oneself; she has perfected an inner core of steel. So she keeps it to herself.
    If this is part of your plot, you'll need to resolve it with the woman finally accepting the death of her son as something terrible and devastating but which she couldn't help. She is not going to accept this unless she comes to terms with her loss, and she will not do that until she finds a friend/confidante in someone else. This is where the other two characters come in. Pick one. Say the boy knows her by sight and then runs into her at some point when she's thinking of her son. Maybe he reminds her of the son (facially?) and she takes him under her wing, to some extent, and he takes her under his wing, to some extent, and they both comfort each other and she gives him the strength to show his true colors to his family.
    Two characters are incorporated into a story. What about the third, the girl? Where does she fit in? Well, maybe she's the boy's sister. Maybe at some point the boy introduces the girl to the woman and they enjoy each others' company, and the woman helps the girl let go of the boyfriend.
    Notice that in this case, the woman is the protagonist, or so it seems. That's because when you posted the characters, the boy and the girl both had plots already. They had a struggle with a beginning and an easily assumed end. The woman didn't. Certainly she's got the incident with her son. But that's not a story. It introduces conflict. It doesn't give a way to resolve it. If conflict in a character story isn't resolved, the story's not over.

    I'm not suggesting you use this plot that I came up with. It might work, it might not; it doesn't delve enough into the girl, and for that matter, it doesn't seem to me that there's very much of her to delve into. But that's just to show that it's easy to come up with a plot if you just ask a lot of questions about your characters.
     
  7. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Stories don't have to focus on the characters, or stem from them. However, I think readers need to be able to feel something for the characters - they have to be able to connect with them in some way, positively or negatively. Though it's not as easy as it sounds, I think you need to stop thinking of them as 'characters' and start really (in your own mind, not just on paper) seeing them as real people caught up in the circumstances you've given them. Once you can do that, they'll start to show you who they really are. Plot driven or not, your story will be richer for it.
     
  8. AmyHolt
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    AmyHolt Contributing Member

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    Totally agree.

    Also if you think about it everyone of us can sound boring and cliche in discription. It's the small idiosyncrasies that make up our personities that make us so very different. If you have a cliche character you need to look deeper into their personality and find out what makes them tick.
     
  9. HollyWriter
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    HollyWriter New Member

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    I've been dealing with something similar, but what I've learned is that ALL characters are cliché to some extent. They become a cliché because we are able to identify with them, even if just by association/commonality. Then they are defined and rounded by the plot. So you might be starting with paper cut-outs, but once you start developing their story they will probably develop some subsance.

    I often start with characterization, and then build up the plot around that. I personally think that it is a lot easier and more natural to contrive events than it is to contrive a personality. Then again, I've done it both ways and it really just depends on the situation/event/character you are dealing with. I agree with funkybassmannick...interviewing your characters is a great way to discover who they are and what makes them tick. I "ask" stupid questions that will never make it into my book, such as "if a doctor said that you had only six months to live, would you still floss?" or "What would be worse, dying of a horrible, painful disease with family and friends at your side, or living on an island alone, with perfect health and plenty to eat, for the rest of your life?" And then I make the distinction between their answer and what they would really do.

    Getting to know your characters is like getting to know people in real life. You have to uncover their secrets and motivations layer by layer, and the more you know, the more you will discover. I once watched a documentary on the development of animated movies (i.e. Shrek). In order to give the animated characters some depth, the artists actually give them a skeleton, muscles, etc. before they designed the outer appearance. And so, although we will never see Shrek's skeleton, it has its own rules of movement that affect the final product (i.e. what the viewer sees in the movie). Likewise, you need to develop the underlying factors that drive your characters so that you can understand them better, even if the backstory doesn't make it directly into the book.
     
  10. Yoshiko
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    Yoshiko Contributing Member Contributor

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    This might seem counter-productive but it was the first thought that came to mind when I read your post: stop trying. Don't over-think it or try to force character development. The character risks feeling contrived even to the reader when they are developed in this way.



    Love character number one.
    Your approach to character two seems bland unless you're holding back info: she needs a reason to be so obsessed with him.
    Character three has me reaching for a knife. For the past six years I've been trying to change the way people writer's approach the gay stereotype in fiction, so hearing about a character like this irritates me unless used for comic effect (but your descriptions aren't giving me the impression that your novel is a comedy).

    Why are they all in one story? I think your most effective move would be to focus solely on character one.



    I don't consciously create characters - they come to me when I least expect it (most recent occurrence being when I was on-camera in an interview. I completely missed the director's cue as a result). I let them develop naturally within my mind over a period of weeks/months before I even put pen to paper for the very first time. Not even their name will be jotted down until I think I know them well enough to create some sort of physical acknowledgement of their "existence".
     
  11. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    The very best characters have the right amount of stereotype/cliche in them, because that is what readers identify with. I don't see anything wrong with your characters. Personally, I always start with a stereotype and then allow the story to round them out properly and allow them to breath, act and behave like real people.

    some suggestions:
    1) 'cast' the main characters with an actor I can stalk round youtube.
    2) make scrapbooks of what they would wear, where they live etc - I normally use google images.
    3) Listen to and read the lyrics of Dolly Parton. Ones like ''Me and Little Andy'', ''Jolene'', ''Joshua'', ''To Daddy'', ''Backwoods Barbie'',''Daddy Come and Get Me'' etc They show how to introduce, build and round out a character in a short piece of writing. It translates well to novel writing as long as the author remembers to include stage directions, facial expressions, body language etc Like Shakespeare, her work was written to be perfomed and as a writer of prose I need to include a description of the performance as well.
     
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  12. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    They don't have to, if you're writing a thriller, or an adventure, or a fast-paced action story, or something similar. For example, in my opinion, the characters in Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code weren't very believable, but the story kept me in suspense until the very last chapter, and it sold very well. Letting the story stem from the characters is a good way to give it more depth, though.

    I think all three characters you describe sound believable and interesting. But as always, the devil is in the details. How interesting and believable the characters will ultimately be, is determined by how well you describe them, their actions, and their reactions.

    If you find it hard to flesh out the details of a character, here's an idea: Don't go out of your way to create the characters in advance. Instead, imagine a situation in your story, and ask yourself what your character might do in that situation. Then, from their actions, you start to build a sense of who they are.

    Eg, "My character's name is Marge. She's just received a letter, telling her that her husband is dead. She doesn't cry or anything, she just stares at it and looks sad. I guess that means Marge is a very balanced person. Or maybe she just saw this coming and was prepared for it. What does she do next? Tell her children, I guess. Her children are adult and don't live at home. Does she phone them or go to visit them? I think she visits them, because I want her to be someone who gets involved. I don't want her to be distant or impersonal. So she gets in her car - what car is she driving? Not something fancy, something practical, because she's not vain, and not very wealthy. She drives carefully, because she's a very responsible person..."
     

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