1. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    "Why is your character xyz?"

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Link the Writer, Aug 31, 2012.

    A year ago, I wrote a small chapter for a creative writing class, and one of the students asked me why one of my characters was in a wheelchair, and I had no explanation as to why that was the case. Then I thought of something...

    Why is your character different? Does it matter if your character is different? Do they need a good reason to be different?

    I mean, Helen Chert, my sci-fi captain is a black woman because that is how I imagined her to be. Her race and gender aren't part of the overall plot, and there are other parts of her past that my story explores.

    And take Amos Garnier, my Colonial detective. He's a blind fourteen year old French kid. Now, in this case, you could argue that his blindness shapes his character, maybe wanting to prove to everyone that he's just as capable as anyone else.

    ...But then again, wouldn't that same be said of Helen? Maybe she has a bigoted superior who looks down on her because she's a black woman, and she wants to prove to that superior that she's just as capable as anyone else?

    Then I hear this phrase called 'different for the sake of being different'. What does that mean? Is it another way of saying, "I want to be original", or is it just saying, "Well, he/she doesn't have to be this way, but I'm going to do it just because."

    This is what I thought:

    It wouldn't be fair if you just said "he's this way, but it, in no way, affects his character at all!" true? I can't ignore that Amos is blind, or that Helen is a black woman. Even if the plot itself doesn't revolve around that, it affects how the character percieves the world, and how others treat them. So...I guess there should be some explanation as to why he/she is a certain way.

    Feel free to correct me if I got it wrong. xD
     
  2. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I tend not to describe my characters at all unless it's pertinent to the story. (I also tend to skip over descriptions of characters when I read, because I want to see them my way.) I have very definite pictures in my head of what my characters look like - but unless it's important for the reader to know something about the way they look, those pictures don't go into the story. If something about the character (the wheelchair, their color, their height) affects the story, it belongs. If it doesn't affect the story, then it just seems like the author wanting the reader to see the characters the way the author does - and as far as physical features, that seems rather demanding to me.

    JMO
     
  3. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    I describe my MC and MC1B only to differentiate, and the MC needs to be emphasized because of how she feels about the looks she's stuck with after being shifted into a cybernetic body. But the main question you brought up, which the first one seemed to be it, is why/how did the character end up in a wheelchair. Those are questions you need to answer. Mine's been a victim of physical, and mental rape, which lead to attitudes and a personality built from picking up the pieces of it. Different doesn't always have to be in looks, mainly it should be in personality and why they're who they are.
     
  4. marktx
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    marktx Contributing Member

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    I think you got it right. The character is the way you imagine them to be, and as they go through the story, the characteristics and qualities they have will inform and affect the ways they deal with their world and their challenges.

    After all, does anybody in real life have a "reason" to be in a wheelchair other than the fact that some injury or disability requires that they be in one? But the fact that they are takes on its own significance by virtue of the fact that that is the reality they live with.
     
  5. DanesDarkLand
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    DanesDarkLand Senior Member

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    That's like asking why I was born white and not black. I had white parents and its not integral to the story in any way, shape or form unless the writer says it is. If a character is in a wheelchair, they have a disability, but if that disability is not part of the story, it might only require the briefest of considerations. Maybe he fell from a large height as a younger child, or the blind person was blind from birth, and that is all you would say. The fact that the ship had disabled people on board and in a position of responsibility might suggest that the society has gotten beyond the small mindedness that the disabled can't contribute, and maybe that's all you need to mention. You have space travel, but medicine has not yet advanced far enough to completely fix his eyesight. Briefest considerations. If the disability is part of the story, that's why its there. but if it isn't and you just thought it would be cool to write that type of character, then you might have added an unneeded level of complexity.

    Either way, its your story, and you decide how its written.
     
  6. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    My answer to that question would be, "Because (s)he is."
     
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  7. JamesOliv
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    JamesOliv Senior Member

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    I concur!

    I ran into a very similar issue some years ago in the text based role playing world on AOL. A lot of people who write seem to think that if you don't craft a utopia, you are seriously disturbed. They cannot fathom why a story would include a character with the shortcomings they wish they didn't have to face.

    However many of us recognize that our characters are flawed in some ways we are not. They are perfect in ways we will never be. And sometimes, they are just plain different than us or anyone we know.

    I personally like to think that humans were created the way we create characters. The image of us existed in potentiality and then we were built around that image. We imagine a character and then we make that image visible to the world through words.
     
  8. Pheonix
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    Pheonix A Singer of Space Operas and The Fourth Mod of RP Staff Contributor

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    My main characters are usually, and this is going to sound terrible, white males ages 15 to 25. I am a white male, age 20, i write what I know. But, I know when I finally do break out of my comfort zone and try writing a different main character, whatever it is about them that is different is going to add to their character. I've said this before, as writers, I think one of the greatest things we can do is stay true to life. In real life, a person is ALWAYS defined, at least to some extent, by their appearance, race, upbringing, gender etc. Its those things, along with experience and whatever genetic predispositions a person has that come together to create their unique identity.

    In writing, that should be recognized. So, if you have a, to use your example, a black female MC, you couldn't believably write her the same way as a white male. What might start out as 'different for the sake of being different' can turn into a really deep, well developed character with unique personality and motivations. That's my take on it anyway.
     
  9. Exzalia
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    Exzalia Contributing Member Contributor

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    hmmmm... interesting points, but I don't think race is as important as it appears. Can you guess which ethnicity I am? go on...guess


    If you looked at my writings you would probably guess I'm white, most of my characters I have shown, so far are white and female. But you would be wrong I am niether.

    It's not the race that matters, but the culture. It will be easy for you to write about a black female MC, if she was raised in a culture similar to yours.

    At the end of the day we are all human, we all feel emotion, pain loneliness, suffering, joy. That's why we can make stories of people who lived thousands of years in the past, why north american teens can watch Japanese anime and still completely relate to the characters despite not even speaking the same language. We all share common humans characteristics and at the end of the day.

    The pigment in our skin counts for nothing.

    I encourage you to right out side of your demographic, don't focus so much on your MC's race, focus on their culture. More importantly focus on the events that shape them, if your MC has her parents killed it doesn't matter what her race is you can be certain she'll act sad about it. It is culture and life events That's really defines you. not ethnicity
     
  10. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Sometimes I think people are waiting for an obvious message in a story - a different race for a main character
    automatically has us thinking - okay, when does the subject of his race come into place , when does he overcome
    some obsticle that obviously must stem from his race? And when this doesn't happen the reader could be wondering
    ,not even aware that it seems slightly racist, - why wasn't this character white?

    Ditto for people with disabilities , or who are different - they are expected to either
    overcome or be fixed. You can't really blame the reader. It's built into
    us through years of movie, t.v. shows, and books.

    Work on creating a convincing character regardless of race or quirk and your readers
    will embrace the cultural difference , not question it.
     
  11. agentkirb
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    agentkirb Contributing Member

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    I'm perfectly fine with giving characters traits that don't effect the story in any one bit, that's fine. But you actually have to make sure that it doesn't actually effect the perception the reader has on the character. If you say that someone grew up with 12 siblings for example... there are certain attitudes and personality traits that are very common with someone that has a lot of siblings vs someone that is an only child. And you can't just mull over stuff like that like it doesn't mean anything because readers will pick up on that and it will confuse them. Like, I don't think it would make sense if you had someone that was really outgoing and an extrovert, and then it turned out that their parents were really cruel and physically abused them when they were kids.

    But if you take stuff like that into account, nothing wrong with choosing a trait just to choose a trait.
     
  12. psychotick
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    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi,

    I think you have to take a step back from your question and look at the more basic question. Is it possible for a character to not have any particular traits? And of course the answer is no. Everyone has to have some character background, be it gender, race, ability etc. So that's your most basic answer. Your MC is what he is to start with simply because he has to be something, regardless of whether it adds to the story in any way.

    After that you can start tweaking him / her / it, to better fit the story, maybe add some realism, poigniancy etc.

    Cheers, Greg.
     
  13. Celestey
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    Celestey New Member

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    I make my main characters different because of two reasons. First, that is how they are in my head, that is how they are supposed to be in my mind. For some reason if I try to make an Asian character white, it will nag at me as if my character were trying to tell me. "HEY! I'M ASIAN! DON'T CHANGE IT!" If a character just seems to be that way then I'll leave my character Asian and not change it. The second reason is because I want my character to be different. I know that sounds shallow, but if we look around, we (people) are all different. There is no normal so why should characters in fiction be any different? When i walk outside, I don't see a bunch of white girls with brown hair and sparkling blue eyes walking around. I see men and women of all types of races, ages, and personality traits. I want to make my characters seem real, so I'm not going to be stuck with the same old template. Though I'm not saying that white girls with brown hair and blue eyes are bad characters, because they are great but I don't want all my character like that!

    I hope this helps!
    Celestey
     
  14. FirstTimeNovelist91
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    FirstTimeNovelist91 Senior Member

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    Unless the story specifically deals with racial issues, I don't think it is necessary to point out that the character is black. If anything, it just induces eye rolls (I'm black, if that means anything), and I take the story less seriously. I start asking myself, "Why is her race SO important that it needs to be stated? Can't she just be treated like a person without her race being made a top priority in terms of description, plot and personality?"
     
  15. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Well the truth is, in the west at least, I'd venture a guess that unless it's stated that a character is black, we all end up imagining an entirely white cast of characters. I'm this way, and I'm not even white (I'm Chinese).

    I think if a character's black, it should be mentioned tastefully - so not draw attention to it, like you say, but I think it deserves to be mentioned unless it's set in a black-majority country. You want your readers to picture them right, if nothing else!

    I liked how Neil Gaiman did it - his character Hunter was described as having "caramel" skin with a perfect "caramel smile" - it was pointed out very smoothly and very naturally. The attention was drawn to her skin colour because the POV character found her stunning, and she's stunning partly because of her skin colour. There was another black character in his book, and I didn't even know he was black until very late in the story - it was dropped in at some point because it was the most natural thing to do, not because special attention was necessary. This black character was around from like p.30 and I didn't realise he was black til near the end of the novel lol.

    I've personally never written a black character before. I contemplated it for my crime novel but in the end I chose a white woman rather than a black man - one type of minority is quite enough (it would've been a novel that explored discrimination, hence why I was choosing between either a woman or a black guy).
     
  16. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Mckk is correct. In the West, most folks will assume the MC and everyone else are white unless told otherwise (and I say this as a white guy!) It's what we've come to expect. If I were to write a story set in Japan, readers will likely imagine everyone there to be Asian.

    And the way I see it, if I'm going to be saying Helen is black, I should also take other races into account and describe them as well. Treat all races as equals. By saying Helen is black and not bothering to describe the other races, wouldn't that be treating her like she's different? Not treating her like anyone else.
     
  17. FirstTimeNovelist91
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    FirstTimeNovelist91 Senior Member

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    I'm a little insulted by that statment as a black woman, but whatever. :rolleyes:

    I do agree with what you are saying, and it is quite sad. We do live in a very Euro-centric world, and I find that literature is very deprived of minority characters and when they do exist, they are there to be killed off, stereotypes, or villians.

    If nothing else, I want to understand my character's personality, their motives, their lifestory...race is only secondary if the plot surrounds racial issues, imo.
     
  18. FirstTimeNovelist91
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    FirstTimeNovelist91 Senior Member

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    Well, if race isn't a major plot point in your story, then I really don't see the point in going into detail over the race. I just say "brown skin" and leave it at that.
     
  19. JamesOliv
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    JamesOliv Senior Member

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    Part of the issue is research and experience. I was in the Navy, so I can write about things that take place in the Navy. I lived in a monastery, so I can write easily about monastery life. But, I've never been anything but a white Italian-American. I never experienced being "the black guy" in my unit any more than I know what it's like being "the Czech guy" in my unit.

    In the monastery, our local community never had a Brother of color (or a Brother who was a "brother," if you will. Sorry, I couldn't help it). So I don't know how easily that transition would go. I don't know if any of my brothers had latent racist tendencies that were just unknown to me. So I don't know how those interactions might have been different or if the tone of the place would be the same as I remember it.

    So maybe I need to step out of that comfort zone a little bit.

    Thanks for the inspiration.
     
  20. Tolsof
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    Tolsof Member

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    Cool post. I agree that a characters traits don't have to have any meaning behind them (sometimes they actually do though), it's just how you imagined them.
    These differences also make your character more destinguished and "real" feeling. By giving someone an eye patch they are now the guy with the eye patch instead of just bob if you get my drift.
     
  21. funkybassmannick
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    funkybassmannick Contributing Member

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    Passionate rant, don't take it personally:

    Living in Chicago, I know it would be EXTREMELY awkward if I ever mentioned that to a person of color. In every culture I've ever encountered, white people are idealized. It's insane! What did we ever do that makes us so special? Other than a lot of terrible, terrible things to people of color. Also in every color, the darker your skin, the more racism you experience. In India, fair-skinned Indians are idealized, while dark-skinned Indians are scorned. They're the same race! I know the same is true in Mexico, and it is probably true in many other countries as well.

    So, skin pigment counts for A LOT, because the darker your skin, the more racism you would experience. I would be a much different person if I experienced racism on a daily basis, rather than, let's see, NEVER.

    And yes, we do have a tendency to think people are white unless told otherwise. At least I do. And diversity is a problem in science-fiction/fantasy. Star trek was awesome because they had a black woman, japanese man, and russian man (during the cold war) all as main characters. They had the first televised interracial kiss. But where are the gay people? White, black, and yellow, but no brown? And fantasy is 98% white.

    So, yeah, there should be a lot more diversity in fiction, particularly sci-fi/fantasy. The fact that a side character is asian doesn't have to punch you in the face, but
     
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  22. Exzalia
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    Exzalia Contributing Member Contributor

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    Let me rephrase my statment...Skin colour SHOULD count for nothing

    Can we atleast agree on that?
     
  23. funkybassmannick
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    funkybassmannick Contributing Member

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    So it sounds like you're saying that, in an ideal world, skin color wouldn't matter because there's no racism. It's a nice idea, but I still think individual differences should be celebrated, not ignored. Even though there's no racism (that I'm aware of) against eye color, I think the fact I have hazel eyes has significantly affected who I am today. It's a part of my identity, and I think I "see" the world differently because of it. :)
     
  24. Exzalia
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    Exzalia Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's wonderful you feel that way but I disagree. why should the color of anything count for anything? Did you know? that the reason people have blues eye's is because the gene which all humans have, that is responsible for making eye color is defective?


    That's right, when the gene isn't working you eyes look blue. many babies are born with blue eyes in every race because the gene has not gotten to work making pigments yet. But in some gene pools the eyes stay blue because the gene does not turn on.

    And here hitler thought it was a sign of supremacy, in reality it just means your eye's are handicapped. skin colour is the same thing, people have clear skin because the gene that makes melanin the substance that darkens your skin and shields you from the sun, is recessive. The gene's shuts off. It has in no way made you a different race of human, your just an African with a skin condition XD

    colour.... It Really, really counts for nothing. at least from a scientific and logical stand point.
     
  25. FirstTimeNovelist91
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    FirstTimeNovelist91 Senior Member

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    No. I'm just sick of black/minority characters ONLY being used when there is a racial problem and their race being emphasized to the point it overshadows who they are. I would LOVE to be able to pick up a book where the MC just happens to be black, but race isn't such an issue or part of the plot.
     

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