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  1. B-Gas
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    B-Gas Contributing Member

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    What defines a character.

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by B-Gas, Jan 9, 2010.

    TL;DR: We need more information to be able to properly help you.

    A lot of people, it seems, give quick, short descriptions of who their characters are and seem to think that we can appreciate their motives, plot modulations and character from that.

    We can't. People can't.

    I can tell you that my character is witty, or cold-hearted, or aggressive, or patriotic, or vitriolic, or has an enthralling obsession with baked beans, or whatever. It doesn't help anything. Characters do not exist as lone souls, and they do not exist in a vaccuum.

    Tell us who the character is. Their role in both the world and the story. Tell us about their friends and how they get along- or don't. Tell us about the love interest that's caught their eye and why they work together so well. Humans are much better and invisioning characters when they're bouncing off of other characters or situations than when they're standing in a 3/4 pose on a flat plane against a white background- no matter how heroic that pose is.

    Here's an example. My character's name is, let's say, Renaldo. He's in his early twenties, and is trained in the use of a massive blade called a Horse Dropper, which is a common weapon in his world. He wears leather with odd blue cloth underneath, and has a scar under his right eye. He's arrogant but heroic, and desperately wants to become a hero in a real story that people tell each other over campfires.

    You've probably got a vague image in your head.

    Now, let's give him some more definition. Renaldo was trained by reluctant tutors in an academy that was far out of his league, but he managed to pass by virtue of never quite figuring out when he'd taken enough punishment from his more skilled competitors. The world in general doesn't know him and doesn't acknowledge him.

    His best friend is a girl from his hometown who he's known since he was very young- they met when he, in his first and, so far, only heroic act, chased off a bully who was picking on her- who supports him despite worrying for his safety, and more importantly, his pride. He can become verbally abusive to everyone around him if his temper rises too far, and she spends more and more time trying to calm him down. She's starting to get fed up with him. He's gotten into more trouble than most people do in their entire lives.

    Renaldo wants to be famous- he wants to be a hero like his older brother, who left when he was a child and who has been the focus of countless stories of bravery and heroics. He resents his brother, who has everything he ever wanted. His parents sent him to the academy because he insisted they do, and are worried that he is obsessing over his brother to the detriment of his own life and his own sanity.

    Then one day...

    You see? The one paragraph of description above is enough to get us looking at the character, and enough to let us know his defining features and personality traits. But he only fits into a story, into a "world" of sorts, thanks to the other paragraphs- and therein lies the rub. Characters are inseperable from their story, and we can't help with one without knowing the other.

    What am I posting this for? I don't know. Advice, maybe. Discussion as to what else defines a character- not depicts, defines. Mostly, because it helps me figure this stuff out to post it like this.
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Just like real people, characters are defined by the sum of their actions.
     
  3. B-Gas
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    B-Gas Contributing Member

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    Wasn't there a Batman quote for this one?

    Ah, here it is: "...it's not who you are underneath, it's what you do that defines you."

    Read it with a bad cough for maximum effect.
     
  4. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    cog nailed it... all that description is simply TELLing us who/what your character is...

    good writers let us discover the character of their characters for ourselves, by what they do and what they say, as the story progresses... an info dump like that wouldn't do it near as well, no matter how much detail you crammed into it...
     
  5. bluebell80
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    bluebell80 Contributing Member

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    I'm not 100% sure what the point of your post is, as it is rather confusing and rambles on and on.

    However, if I read what is in bold above in any type of story, I would stop reading immediately. It's an excellent example of what not to do in terms of info-dumping, because that's all it is, one big, fat, info-dump.

    Like Cog said, a character shouldn't be summed up in an info-dump, but shown to the reader through their actions, thoughts, emotional responses, and speach.

    How a character perceives the world, reacts to it, and lives in it defines them, not an author telling us all about them in an info-dump.

    It reminds me of that scene in Anger Managment, when the Dr. asks Adam's character who he is, and after describing his job, his personality traits, and his likes and dislikes, the dr. asks him again "who are you." That's when the character flips out and responds "What do you want me to say?!"

    People aren't the jobs they do, they aren't the personality traits they believe they have, and they aren't the likes and dislikes they hold dear, they are the sum of the behavior that they exude to the external world and the one that they keep hidden from the world in their internal lives.

    In a story, the author has the chance to show both, the characters external behavior and their internal thought processes, which in the end define the character. Both sides of the character are also fluid and ever changing depending on the situations they are put in and what they learn from them (either skills or psychological epiphanies.)
     
  6. B-Gas
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    B-Gas Contributing Member

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    Yes, that was an infodump. It wasn't a sample of in-story writing- and god almighty I would not want to find that lump of text in an actual story.

    What I was trying to put down was how people, on this site, should tell us about their characters. Rather than a quick list of traits and skills, they should tell us how they fit into the world of the story, how they react to others around them, who they are in other people's eyes- and what they do and what they want to do. A lot of people give us two sentences, one of which defines their manners, the other of which defines their profession, and leave us to figure out what they actually want- and from that, they want us to tell them how they should react to some stimulus.

    It was a rambling appeal for more information, really. Sorry if that was hard to follow.
     
  7. writewizard
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    writewizard Contributing Member

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    To me, what defines a character is his movment and actions throughout the book. His actions help me determine whether he is good or bad. In movies, I usally tell the bad guys by the way they move. Everything is important, even though it may seem unimportant. Don't let that overwhelm you though. :):) A character in a real book is like a person -- they take you places and develop through time, as a real person would. Imagine the character. What would they be like as your father, sister or brother?

    Done rambling now. Hope this helps :D
     
  8. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    For what purpose? It depends on exactly why you are trying to tell us about that character.

    Whatever you tell us on the site, or in a summary elsewhere for any reason, it will only provide a limited perspective on that character.

    How would you tell us about your best friend on the site? Your personal nemesis? The guy who tried to mug you last time you took a wrong turn into a bad part of town? The descriptions will be limited by your feelings about the person, and shaped by what it is you need to communicate. For the mugger, his description, in the greatest possible detail, is what you probably need, especially if your goal is to bring him to justice. For your best friend, the hairy mole below her left earlobe is probably a detail you will want to omit, and you'll focus mostly on the traits you most admire about her.

    On this site, why would you be describing the character at all, unless you are asking for help about specific elements of the character's development. In that case, you provide the relevant information, realizing that what you are providing will not and cannot be a comprehensive view.
     
  9. bluebell80
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    bluebell80 Contributing Member

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    B-Gas, like Cog said, I'm confused as to what the purpose is then. As far as how people should describe the characters they are writing on this site, it really depends on what they are asking help with. We don't just list characters we are writing here, unless we are asking something specific about character development within a story, and then we would give the relevent information. Thus a long, drawn out character description would not be needed, but just the relevent information pertaining to the story and that individual's question of need.
     
  10. ManhattanMss
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    ManhattanMss Contributing Member

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    I think I can understand where you're coming from, in terms of being frustrated by discussions about characters for whom there is little to go on, but I think the example you offer falls short of providing the solution. Key in your description here is the concept of "telling" the reader (those of us who might want to offer some helpful tidbit) rather than "showing" us who the character is through the story itself. Whether this "telling" is done by way of description--however excellent a description it is--about a fictional character in a hypothetical story or whether it's done in the story itself, it's still telling without showing and is a great example of why "telling" without "showing" doesn't work well within the fiction itself.

    The fictional character is nothing at all if not immersed in a compelling storyline of some kind. Whether the character has charm or quirks or is odd or annoying or baffling or brilliant is irrelevant except to the extent that those qualities show up in the story itself. So, I think I'd agree with what everyone else is trying to point out here, that there is nothing productive about "telling us" (anyone, really) about a character, because the character is entirely nonexistent outside of the story he's born to convey.

    I think of it this way: Real people are born with some traits and then acquire others as they confront life and live through it. Same is true of fictional characters, except they're born into a carefully crafted fictional (or imagined) world. Real people have a historical past that may or may not have anything to do with the persona they present to significant and insignificant others. Same is true of fictional characters, except that the fictional character's "past" can (and must) shift and change to coincide with his fictional present and future in ways that the history of a real person simply cannot be designed or reshaped. A great fictional character's history is, in many important ways, the consequence of the story surrounding him, whereas a real person unfolds his life from the kind of history you describe, much of which has already unfolded in advance of our introduction to him. And, importantly, in advance of an understanding of how much we care about him or do not. And, maybe most important of all, the fictional character posesses no qualities that are irrelevant to the fictional story he's designed to deliver (as real people inevitably do).

    To a good degree, that allows for the reader to insinuate himself into the story and fill in the sizeable blanks for himself. The key to good storytelling is to present the story in a way that the reader can fill in those blanks in a way that supports and enhances the theme and sensibility of the story.

    Real people are important to us or are not based upon how we're related to them and how they behave in various real-life situations. Same is true of fictional characters, except that (1) the fictional world must be plausible, compelling, and interesting on some level that makes us feel like we've experienced something quite different from real life or have experienced real life in some unusual or enlightening way. While it's fun to imagine real life would be equally plausible, compelling, and interesting, the truth is reality has no such requirement. And, (2) the reader is always related to the character only through the tenuous umbilical cord of the author.

    So, if the aim of a character description is to find out if a character is interesting or plausible, then the writer must simply create the character by writing a story and determining what the reader of that story concludes on the receiving end of the story itself. The writer is the only person who can "give birth" to his own fictional character who simply doesn't exist unless and until he's shown to exist in a compelling fictional world.
     
  11. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've just been involved in a 'reflective teaching programme' that involved being filmed while teaching, among other things. I hadn't seen myself on film for a while, and it made me realise once again how sometimes things I feel and attempt are really not clear to the outsider--and also that they are frequently open to an alternative interpretation.
    Writing is very similar. Even if you think your description is clear, you have to realise that what the reader is visualising is going to be unique to them, not the exact same picture the writer has. Also, they may put a different construct on things.
    If the writer shows people's reactions to the character, and the effects of the character's actions, in the end the impact of his creation is likely to be nearer what he was aiming for.
     
  12. Operaghost
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    Operaghost Contributing Member

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    It helps to know all these things about your character, I find it useful to write facebook style profiles for instance about their main aspects, , their hobbies, political views etc. This has no relevance on the story at all, just allows you as a writer to become familiar with the character, so you can get some idea of how they might act in certain situations, (their views on a subject for instance maybe defined by their personal life) however these are things the reader may never need know about and the character will evolve as you write, they should be used as basic starting points only, after all, just because a person follows a particular religious view for instance, doesn’t mean that they will act in the same way as everyone else with that view, but it will influence things they do as opposed to someone without any view or differing background, just as people are complex, so should your characters be
     
  13. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Or that they will not change their view next week, especially if subjected to life-changing events.

    Fiction has a tendency to revolve around such events.

    On a TV hospital drama last week, a devoutly religious man who survived a near-death experience concluded that there was no God, because he did not see a light or sense a divine presence. You could argue that his faith was never that strong to begin with, but the point remains that his outlook changed radically, and that absent that event, no one would have predicted his views would ever jump so radically.
     
  14. bruce
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    bruce Active Member

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    Besides what others have said, a character is also defined by his reputation.

    There are other aspects. Look up this book by Orson Scott Card, "Characters and Viewpoint".
     
  15. Blackspade2012
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    Blackspade2012 New Member

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    For me its all action, the past does matter. But I believe the common-man/woman would be bored of reading countless paragraphs on descriptive/back story of one or two characters. Although I suppose I am a little biased. Im used to writing screenplays where the image is brought into consideration more then internal thoughts or a characters history.

    Not to say history is unimportant, it is. like the old saying goes. "those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat" (unless the author/character really wants to haha)
     
  16. InkDream
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    InkDream Senior Member

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    There's no one thing that defines a character. To me the character's portrait is painted throughout the story by their thoughts, actions, emotions, or lack there of. It's not the kind of thing that you can spell out for the reader in a lengthly paragraph about what they look like and what you want that image to project. Its all in the writing.
     
  17. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    everything sums up a character. The past, present and future wishes blend into one thing just like it does for us. My MC has had such a hard life-including dying once and being brought back-that life has started to become depressing. She just wants to be left alone and to have a little peace now...
     
  18. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, but I guess your 'images' ARE the description/backstory (is the person 'average' looking/unusual in some way, do they have a large house/ragged clothes but an educated way of speaking etc etc). Without recourse to these visual clues, a novelist or short story teller has to call on all their skill to show some 'history', as you call it, in order to make the character more rounded and interesting--although for some movies the character may take back seat to the action, of course.
     
  19. Blackspade2012
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    Blackspade2012 New Member

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    Yeah im no expert on writing novels lol, I've taken a few creative writing classes and learned some basics there. I just try to keep writing to keep ideas fresh and get feedback from other students/teachers.

    yeah unfortunately, a number of films become plot driven, theres little character development. Not to say its not entertaining, or marketable, its just starting to rely more on what computer graphics can do.

    I personally write stories where the characters themselves becomes more important from the beginning, and gradually increase throughout.
     
  20. JTheGreat
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    JTheGreat Contributing Member

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    *Giggles* The name of that sword sounds a little too similar to that of a certain farm animal excrement.

    I'm not exactly sure what you're asking, but usually I don't make too detailed of a character description, because it leaves more room for me to discover new traits as I keep writing the story. But when I'm in the boat you're in, where you don't have a story for your character, I keep thinking over my character until I develop a story around them. Pursue all of the what-if's until you discover something truly amazing.
     
  21. Norm
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    Norm Contributing Member

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    You were doing it correctly with your one paragraph description. All you need to give the reader is one solid paragraph to describe your main guy. After that, let them figure it all out on their own by reading about your main guy's actions, feelings, words, etc.

    Hell, if you are a very skilled writer, I'm sure there are a lot better ways than even having a paragraph of description. You could mention things here and there mixed in with the narration. You could reveal information through dialogue, you could even just show everything through your character's actions and never give any description through narration. This'd be pretty hard to do, but I imagine it's possible.
     
  22. Anonym
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    Anonym Contributing Member

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    wow, that was pretty helpful. Raenaldo reminds me of Cloud Strife/FF7, the girl = Tifa, brother = Zack. great example tho
     
  23. B-Gas
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    B-Gas Contributing Member

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    You can read the TL;DR even if you are going to read it. That's where I put the point.
     
  24. digitig
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    I think there might be some confusion about the role of a description like that. No, it certainly should not go into the finished work. But many writers work out a detailed back-story like that as part of the process of getting to know their characters. Much of it might not appear in any form the finished work at all, but it will inform the author's understanding of how the character reacts in any given situation.

    If somebody wanted advice on something regarding that character, it would take a few chapters to show us all of that stuff. Telling is a lot more boring than showing, but it's also a lot more concise, and so for communicating what a specific character development problem (or any other writing problem) is, telling is simply more efficient and would almost always be the way to go. And the second version of the character description really does give us a better idea of how the character would respond.

    On the other hand, I can't help suspecting that if you've developed the character to that extent then you probably won't need to ask questions about them! I remember one sleepless night when I was kept awake by a character I had written angrily complaining that I'd seriously misunderstood her, and that her bitchiness and alcohol abuse that drove her husband to suicide hadn't been because she despised him but was actually her defence against the pain of his rejection (as she wrongly thought) of her. When your characters start doing that to you then you don't need to ask how they will react in a situation. You just have to watch them.
     

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