1. Wayjor Frippery
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    Wayjor Frippery Contributing Member

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    What does it mean to let your characters decide?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Wayjor Frippery, Apr 6, 2016.

    Hi everyone,

    My question here was inspired by reading through this thread about plot vs character.

    I've heard it said, and I've read it said, that one approach to fiction writing is to listen to your characters (I do this, I promise, I do, I do, I do). For those of you who identify with this method of writing, what actually happens inside your head when you write like this? I mean, it's you that you're listening to. There is no one else, so clearly this is a label for a particular mode of thinking. How would you characterize that mode?

    OK, that was two questions.

    Sorry.
     
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  2. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I have three modes of thinking when I write - the visual - I'm picturing this, the writerly - how can I put this visual into words that I like, and the tone - am I capturing the characters properly?

    I've been working on Falling Child Star and I got to a scene switch in chapter 4 where Finlay is in school after having just gotten the part in a TV series.
    In the first sentence I was to describe Finlay waiting at his friend's locker to tell her the news. That's the visual. LaCrystal, in previous scenes, has been described as an overweight, obnoxious, rich, black girl. And in the first chapter that Finlay likes tying things to her locker. I wrote the scene that he waves to her and she waves back and heads towards him. Wasn't good enough so I got writerly - what do I need to emphasize? I wrote that they spotted each other in the crowd no waves.

    And then I realized it's not in LaCrystal's nature to just wave. I have a moment to reinforce who LaCrystal is and how she treats Finlay. So instead I tweak the visual based on what I know - Finlay likes tying stuff to her locker. Now, what would rich, materialistic LaCrystal think of that? so I write. -

    She thundered through the crowd yelling, “You better not be tying anymore shit to my locker.”

    Which allows this new result to change the direction of the scene, instead of diving into the news, Finlay has to have a reaction and is mortified. Other people tease him. But with the news it allows him to gain some respect back.

    There's no real voice from the character asking me to change things - it's mainly just logic coming up and nagging me to change things.
     
  3. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    I get into my characters heads and then try to assess the situation at hand. Then rundown all the possible outcomes of what the characters can do, then choose the one that they will most likely decide. With extenuating circumstances where logic should dictate of course.

    For instance there is a full page of one MC literally beating a door down with a large warhammer, after sending the small squad of guys off to go and find a key card.

    On the other hand. Spending the final moments with a dying short term ally, also shows that one can care for those who are not important roles in the overall story line.

    Or for the sake of keeping things interesting, don't be predictable. Let somethings stray from the expected, while staying true to the continuity of the characters in your universe. :D
     
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  4. SadStories
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    SadStories Member

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    I struggled a lot with my main male character because I wanted him to be very confident and collected, since that's what my main character needs in her life, but none of his ideals or the things that he had to do made sense with such a personality. He constantly came out as a kind of frantic trickster in key scenes instead. Someone I let read some chapters even pointed out that they felt like this character had a contradicting personality. I thought about making it a point that he flips under pressure, but I've finally just given in and made him a complete bastard. Even though the chemistry between my main characters is completely different now, I think they have something more playful now which is just as fun. In general he also feels much more right and interesting. I feel like this is my most recent, very clear example where I feel like I "listened" to my character and benefited from it instead of sticking too much to what I wanted my story to be. Hope this is a relevant example, lol.
     
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  5. Lew
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    Lew Contributing Member Contributor

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    I try to BE the character who has the POV for that scene, what they are thinking, how are they feeling, what are they afraid of or angry about. At the same time, in another chunk of my brain, I have all of the other characters, their backgrounds, their own ways of reacting. Then I envision the scene and just let it roll, see what they see, let them speak, let the others react, feel their emotions. I often do this during my hour long ride to work in the morning, and again in the afternoon, driving on autopilot. Then I write it down. I try very hard NOT to consciously direct my characters because they are not me, and if I direct them, I am writing about myself, what I would do, not what they would do. After doing that, the characters become very real persons in my head, different from me, and I have an emotional bond with each of them. If this sounds schizophrenic, it's not - I don't think! I don't take any meds except alcohol, though I am more aware now why Hemingway became an alcoholic!

    As a result my scenes often unfold differently than I expected when I began the visualization process. And my readers find them very real.

    I will try to give a short example from my WIP, and recover the process. My party of Romans were getting ready to cross the Yellow River and meet the Xiongnu. So I had researched the area, visited it on Google Earth, felt I had a feel for terrain. Then I began to visualize it from the centurion's POV. They were traveling with a Chinese man, Xian Bohai, sort of a cowboy like character, foot-long slender drooping mustache, who is their guide. He led them to an area well away from the regular crossing to find someone he knew who would get them across without asking too many questions; turns out he was a smuggler, I thought he was but at that time I wasn't sure. He said he was a trader. On the other side, by what is now Baotou, they would climb some low hills and look down on the grassy steppe below them to see the encampment of yurts and the herds of animals. As they ride down, they are met by a party of mounted Xiongnu who regard them with suspicion until Bohai greets them in their language, then they relax... apparently they know him, or of him. I envision what they would look like... some Mongols, some Caucasian, some almost Chinese in appearance. A very mixed bunch, consistent with my research. This is after a big battle (Ilkh Bayan) that broke the Xiongnu confederation, so this clan is a mix of survivors. Hmm, interesting. One is a tall, powerfully built red-haired woman, well armed, not given to smiling... shield on her back, with sword and bow crossed behind it, dagger at her waist. I wonder where she came from? The leader greets the Romans in Chinese, Bohai had told them that was all they spoke, and the Xiongnu speak it also, though not by choice. Then everyone goes off to meet the chanyu Bei in his yurt in the center of the encampment, the big one with a few flags, eagle feathers and animal skins for decoration.

    With that visualization complete, I am ready to write this up as description and dialogue for part of a chapter. Just rerun it again and type down what is needed.

    The woman became a major second tier character, essential to the development of my female MC, and for a brief time almost an MC in her own right in this segment of their nine-month sojourn with the Xiongnu. But I never met her before that first visualization, had no idea she was coming. In the next visualization, she began to develop and just took off... a very painful background, hers, by the way.

    So that is how I do it.
     
  6. Wayjor Frippery
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    Wayjor Frippery Contributing Member

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    Thank you all for replying. There's some interesting stuff here.

    Pretty much the same for me. And I enjoyed reading the example of your process. It's great to see how other writers work.

    The writer's mantra!

    When plot and character collide. Good stuff often splurts out from there, and sometimes you discover a Higgs boson and win a Nobel prize.

    Love it @Lew, really. As above with @peachalulu, it's fascinating to listen to another writer spell out their process.

    Cheers, guys!
     
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  7. Justin Phillips
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    Justin Phillips Active Member

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    I feel like it's a similar method to acting. Good actors have to completely get into the character, know everything about them, and perform as if they are truly that person. Hearing talk about actors on set who stay in character even while not shooting seems like a hyped up version of this. But for even a short amount of time, they become that character. It's like multiple personalities, but with the option to choose which one you will be exhibiting.

    Ok the question was about writing though. As I write, I feel like I use this same method. In my head, I see my character, and try to feel what he's feeling and say what he would say. Years ago when I first started writing, I used to catch myself having conversations with my characters in my head, just to see how they would respond to different things. It was weird and I never told anybody, haha! It was almost impulsive too, I didn't always mean to do it.

    Now, if I could just get my prose to match, I'd be golden.
     
  8. Wayjor Frippery
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    Wayjor Frippery Contributing Member

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    That's exactly it. The endless challenge. My stories are always perfect in my head, and then some kind of narrative static gets in the way as they travel out through my fingers, and the end result feels a bit fuzzy.
     
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  9. Feo Takahari
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    Feo Takahari Active Member

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    If a character has strong drives or principles, there's often only one thing they could do in a particular situation that would remain in-character and be true to how they've already been written. Depending on how well you thought through your character when you first started writing, this may not be the path you originally planned for them to take! I see it as a sort of algebra problem: with a constant place and time period and a variable character, what's the logical output?
     
  10. Justin Phillips
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    Justin Phillips Active Member

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    Nice one. Very true
     
  11. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    I try to clear my mind of all thoughts and just type.
    It's kind of like meditation, so you might Google meditation exercises to get you going in the write (sic) direction.

    It doesn't work all the time for me, but when I'm stuck, I go in some really preposterous directions doing this. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn't, but at least I hit my quota of words for the day.
     
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  12. Wayjor Frippery
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    Wayjor Frippery Contributing Member

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    I like this. But for me it only tends to work during the second draft. I spend the first draft — among other things — discovering who my characters are.

    I find this method of writing fascinating. When I do it, I tend to produce finely-crafted bilge water, so I admire anyone for whom it's a productive way of working. @Sack-a-Doo! are you a pantser by any chance?
     
  13. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    Let's say... I'm a reformed (or perhaps, reforming) pantser. I've written so much (how did you put it?) finely-crafted (or finely-drafted) bilge-water this way. It seems like the right approach at the time, but it's just the first stage in a huge amount of work (refining, rewriting, outlining, plotting) and I always wonder if it wouldn't take less time overall if I started with a good solid plot followed by an outline.

    I've yet to try it any other way, but I'm hoping to with my next novel. We'll see how it turns out... or doesn't turn out, whatever the case may be.
     
  14. Wayjor Frippery
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    Wayjor Frippery Contributing Member

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    For me, this is definitely true. I work up a plot until I know it inside out. Then I put it to one side and vomit the first draft, which always turns out like murky dishwater. Then I begin on the refining process that you've outlined above. If I don't start with the plot work, the first draft will be better crafted linguistically, but it will be bilge water (a whole order of magnitude more foul than dishwater, you see).

    I'm not saying the first-draft-pantser method is no good; only that, for me, it makes getting to the finished product that much slower.
     
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  15. Lew
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    Lew Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have had conversations with may characters in my head all of the time, I think that is what makes them real to me and to my readers.

    I had good news from my ($$$) editor yesterday. She likes it, couldn't put it down, loves the many characters weaving in and out, and had only minor changes. She has already talked to agents who are interested in a long (250K words) story not done before, a Roman diplomatic mission to China. So talking to your characters in your head works.
     
  16. Justin Phillips
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    Justin Phillips Active Member

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    wow, that's great, I bet you are excited! Be sure to let me know when it is released.
     
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  17. Lew
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    Lew Contributing Member Contributor

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    A few more months to go. My editor looks like she is worth the money. She not only is doing the editing but she is also providing me all the publication support for that one price (I thought I was just buying editing). She lives in Arlington VA, so if that is convenient to you, I will share her info when you are ready for that.
     
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  18. Justin Phillips
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    Justin Phillips Active Member

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    I live in florida, but I suppose we could do it remotely. That would be great, I will take any and all connections I can get! VERY far off from that necessity though, haha, as you might could tell. If you are still active in the forums at that point I will PM you.
     
  19. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, at this point I agree. My next novel I'm going to plot the crap out of and see if it takes any less time...

    Although, it's probably too late already. I got the idea for the story almost six years ago and even though I've written a feature-length screenplay version as well as the first draft of a novel version (with a whole different set of characters) I've been absolutely dissatisfied with both stories.

    But yesterday I drew up the main beats to an amalgamation of the two, the MC's 'path' if you will. I still have a ways to go, though. It's a 3rd person omniscient POV, so lots of characters to nail to their story throughlines before getting started.
     
  20. zoupskim
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    zoupskim Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you have a good idea of who your character is, then this is really common.

    One example was I was writing a scene where a MC just was trying to just drive somewhere while having strong emotional withdrawals from an addiction. The scene was stressful, and in my outline the scene was going to be just all the little details of driving, the road, and the little idiosyncrasies of other characters that irritate the MC. As I worked on it I played with writing one of the secondary characters doing a repetitive, normally benign action that reminds the MC of their vice. Quickly, this became what the scene was about. Because the MC is hurting, trying to get over this problem they have, and it made sense that they would get drawn into watching this secondary character as a form of coping.
     
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  21. Cat Cherry
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    Cat Cherry Member

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    When you get that little nagging feeling in your gut that something about how your characters respond to key events in the plot isn't right, don't ignore that feeling. That's how you listen to your characters.

    My case in point (in case you haven't already gotten enough examples from everyone else, LOL) is this: I had an 18-year-old protagonist who was commitment-phobic and sexually adventurou...okay, promiscuous. My original plan for the story had her ending up happy with Mr. Right. The problem? She was a commitment-phobic, promiscuous 18-year-old. Most people don't end up forever with the person who seems like Mr./Ms. Right at age 18 anyway, never mind someone who is ambivalent at best about the idea of long-term relationships. It felt like knifing myself through the heart, but I wound up with a better story when I acknowledged to myself that the character I had fallen in love with would probably not fall in love with Mr. Right and stay in love forever.
     
  22. Sidetrack
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    Sidetrack Member

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    When I make a character, I think of a kind of person I know. I even mix people together to get a unique combo that seems realistic enough. Already, I have an understanding of the kinds of choices they would make and the things they would say. At a point in the story where they may be confronted with a conflict, I have a good idea what they would do. If I'm not sure, I just ask, what would they do, what would they say? It usually comes to me. If it doesn't, I've made a character and haven't put the time into understanding who they are supposed to be.
     
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  23. KokoN
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    KokoN Active Member

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    When I develop characters, it starts with an idea, and then I start thinking and brainstorming to figure out just who that character is and what motivates them, what do they like, etc. As I go along some things just work and make perfect sense and that's when you know the character is speaking to you. You're like, "Aha! That's why you did that!" Or whatever. And then some things just don't work and you know it's wrong.

    That's how my current MC decided he likes basketball even though I'm not a sports fan at all and don't even know where to begin my research on it, which annoys me. I know I can't change it because it just works for the character so I can't just alter him even though I don't want to write conversations about basketball because I know nothing about it. :p To make him like something I already know about would just be stupid and not work.
     
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  24. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    As I'm slowly learning, it means that your characters decide for themselves what happens. You don't decide for them. Basically, when you're writing you're not writing about your characters. You are your characters. You become your characters and write what they would do with the knowledge and skill sets they have; not the knowledge and skills you have.
     
  25. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    For me, it's about understanding a character and letting that understanding take me in whatever direction suits them. For example, my current, and hopefully final, incarnation of Talia Kane has gone in the most sympathetic direction of any version of the character in any of the things I've tried to put her in. Because that's how I started feeling about her. it makes sense in this context. And ever since she's been pulling me in that direction. Same with the narration for ATOT, which I spent a lot of time on deciding Oscar and Luke's voices.
     

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