1. Neural

    Neural Member

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    Character details vs. target story length

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Neural, Nov 17, 2016.

    At what point do you really need to go through and create dozens of data bits for characters in a story? Flash fiction? Short story?

    I've been reading up on character development, and I've always liked character sheets where I can take a list of questions and answer them. The problem is that for a recent short story, I have two main characters (identical twins), two supporting characters, and .... a lot of info. In fact, I'd say that if I complete the character sheets for the twin sisters, that I'll already have a word count to rival a short story.

    Do you really have to put *that* much detail into a character that is only going to exist in a short story?

    Should the detail you put into your character and your characters backstory be based on the plot (thus meaning that the plot should be determined first)?
     
  2. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    I've never in my life made a character sheet, so I could be a bad person to ask, but I definitely think that for those who DO make these characters sheets, or do the exhaustive world-building worksheets or whatever, it's important to realize that the sheets can enrich your characters or world even if you never explicitly mention them in the finished version of the story. I sometimes do Myers-Briggs personality tests for my characters, but I would never dream of including the results of the test in the text--at least, not as such. But the test may give me insight into why some people act the way they do, and that will make the characterization I do include better.

    I definitely can't imagine anyone working with one of the more detailed/obscure character sheets trying to include all the info in the finished story - your character's favourite food, where she went on her first date, how she feels about her grandmother - none of that should be included unless food, first dates, or grandmothers are otherwise aspects of the story being told.
     
  3. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man or BayView

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    I'm not a fan of character sheets either. I can see the value in doing them for main characters, but for others? Unless you feel it helps you, sounds like a total waste of time to me.
    IMO there's no "should" - either way can work. With my first book I had developed characters and had to find a plot to fit them. For the second and third I started with a plot and developed characters to fit it. I can't say which has worked better, because I obviously learned other stuff in between my first, second and third... I think both methods are equally workable.
     
  4. Catrin Lewis

    Catrin Lewis Contributor Contributor Community Volunteer

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    For a short story your character should be painted with a broader brush. Too much detail will cause bloat.
     
  5. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Contributor Contributor

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    I actually would love to have a few of my characters mention their MyersBriggs types if I could find a good way to make a scene about a different character not wanting to be typed. ESFP, ESFJ, and ISTJ are important distinctions to me, but ESFP who likes MyersBriggs, ESFJ who likes MyersBriggs, and ISTJ who doesn't like MyersBriggs could be a good way to characterize my characters by way of the argument that they have about whether this is a good idea ;)

    If the argument fits into the narrative at some point. Not only does a lot of information not matter to the story, but even a lot of the information that does matter to the story doesn't matter in the explicit text, rather it should be left off-screen.

    For example: in one of my short stories, the college kid calls one of his mothers "Mom" and the other one "Mum."

    In my own head, I have this whole thing about how the mother who works as a homicide detective is the one who gets the British version "Mum" as a family Sherlock Holmes joke, while the stay-at-home mother gets the American version.

    In fact, now that I type this, I'm wondering if they started this when the family watched Casino Royale: Daniel Craig's Bond refers to Judi Dench's M as "Mom," the then-13-year-old son asked if Bond's mother was his boss. His mothers explain that in America, "Mom" means "mother" and "Ma'am" means "Madam," but that in Britain "Mom" means "Madam" and "Mother" is "Mum," and he asks if they could try calling his detective mother "Mum" because the most famous detective in the world is a fictional Brit. They start doing that and never stop :)

    None of this comes up in the story itself. We know that one is a homicide detective, we know that the other is not, and we see their son come home and yell into the house "Mom? Mum? Are you home?"

    Note: if this wasn't a 3800-word story, I might have had an opportunity to bring up which of his mothers he calls which, but even then I might not have.
     
  6. big soft moose

    big soft moose The Moderating Moose Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    I'm fairly sure bond is saying ma'am with a daft accent I'm British and I've never come across mom as an abbreviation for madam.

    things do get confusing in the north of England though where they use 'mam' for mother
     
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  7. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Contributor Contributor

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    Huh. I was certain people on Doctor Who had done that too.

    Now my backstory is that the family joke is based on an incorrect American interpretation of British English.
     
  8. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    I've never understood the appeal of character sheets. They seem to take up time and energy I would rather spend writing the character in the actual story. That being said, I don't think every detail about a character needs to be tied to the plot, but these details should add to or explain reasons for a character's action or behavior. Especially in a short story, things need to earn their page space. Have you thought about writing the story first and seeing if you even need to do character sheets? Characters without stories are just imaginary friends.
     
  9. CaitlinCarver

    CaitlinCarver Member

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    Well, I have a document on my computer called '1000 Questions to Ask Your Character,' and I came up with, well, 1,000 questions to ask your character. Most authors aren't going to ask their characters a thousand questions, though, or even a hundred. I'd say write down 50 good questions to ask your main characters, and 25 to ask your supporting characters.

    Just remember - you need to know your characters better than anyone else, especially your readers.
     
  10. Neural

    Neural Member

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    1000 questions? That must be interesting. "how often does he/she trim their fingernails?"
    "Can he/she hop up and down on one leg, while spinning 5 plates and singing Ave Maria?"
    "has he/she ever traveled over Niagra Falls in a barrel wearing only a spandex leotard?"

    (not mocking you, Caitlin, just pondering what on earth might comprise a list of 1000 questions. :) )
     
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  11. Infel

    Infel Contributor Contributor

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    I think there are two important things to consider here.

    On the one hand, the more time and effort and details you put into a character, the more fleshed out and complete they will be. That means you as the author will be able to write them more true to the character, and with that, they will seem more alive.

    On the other hand, characters are tools used to pull a reader into your story. They should exist only to serve their function. If their function is to be a bartender, then do they really need a name or life goal?

    As authors, I think we have a tendency to want the readers to know as much about our world as we do. That leads us to 'telling' a lot of things to the audience, rather then showing them through the eyes of our main character. As in everything, you should have exactly the amount of a given thing you need in the story--whether that's character background or detailing the sunrise--no more and no less.

    For me, that means I write out the lives of my truly important characters up to the point the story takes place in 10 pages of document ._. If they're not important, tags like "bandit" or "ass hole in the bar" work well enough for me.
     
  12. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll Contributor Contributor

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    I find it fun to fill those long detailed character detail pages. (I posted one on here somewhere that is about a 1000 questions for
    fleshing out characters, but it gets into a lot of intimate details. Which is great if you are writing a 'Never ending' series, or if you
    are just that in love with your characters).

    Anywho, character backstory works best with plot, if it is relevant to the plot. So if your town is being invaded by little green men
    from Mars, and your character brings up how great grannies cookies are.

    A: Grannies cookies better be the secret to defeating the little green men from Mars.
    OR
    B: Bringing up grannies cookies while running from being abducted and probed, might
    draw away from the problem at hand. There is an invasion of little green men from f**kin
    Mars that are abducting and probing people to death!

    This is an extreme example of using 'back story' or character 'memory' that is not helpful
    to the plot of the fictitious fictional story (say that 5 times fast). But backstory helps solidify
    them into their 'world', a 'history' if you will. Some like to put that in a prologue (chapter 0), the
    beginning first chapter or so, and some just kinda tap into it when it seems necessary or relevant
    to the events or situation. It is up to you to decide how much or how little backstory is
    needed for your characters. Secondary characters are about the same if not halved or quartered
    in the amount of backstory they get as @CaitlinCarver points out. Though if they only show up
    intermittently through out the story then their backstory will be next to nil. This does not make
    them any less important, just that they have not earned enough time in the lime light to warrant
    having much backstory compared to your MCs.

    Good luck, and I hope you sort it all out as it can be tricky. You got this though. :cheerleader:
     
  13. Neural

    Neural Member

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    Thanks everyone for the input :)
     
  14. CaitlinCarver

    CaitlinCarver Member

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    562. Who is your character’s archnemesis?


    738. Does your character believe in luck?


    911. Is your character generally consistent in their attitudes, actions, and beliefs?


    999. What is your character’s favorite foreign food?



    Things like that. 1,000 of them. One day, when I can finally get someone to edit it, I will try to market it as a writer's companion on Amazon. Wish me luck!
     
  15. big soft moose

    big soft moose The Moderating Moose Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    I suppose you could also have

    c) bringing up grannies cookies is characterful for a character that isn't very focused and thus builds conflict between the cast of characters

    "Man I wish I had one of grannies cookies right now" said Bob "I'm starved"

    "Fucks sake dude" snapped Bill "little green bastards from mars want to stick their probes up our butts and you're talking about cookies, get a fucking grip"

    "But Grannies cookies man" Bob replied " remember how she used molasses"

    Bill tightened his grip on the shot gun and fantasized about using it to end the argument right now, 'molasses yuech'
     
  16. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    I agree that this could, in some circumstance, be useful, but you could come up with it on the fly, surely? I feel like if you have predetermined that your character loves granny's cookies, you're going to be looking for ways to slip that information in. Subconsciously, maybe.

    I mean, the answers from the character questions may not have any effect on your writing at all, in which case why bother with them. But assuming they do have some impact, I think they may end up pulling the writer toward inanity.

    Real question, not rhetorical: Is anyone aware of any "successful" writers (like, writers most of us would have heard of) who use sheets of character questions pre-writing?
     
  17. big soft moose

    big soft moose The Moderating Moose Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    Yeah I agree - i tend to come up with everything on the fly , the only time i do character sheets is to record whats happened afterwards so that i don't then make a mistake later , or in a later book.

    for example early on I had my main character 'Blade' telling the female MC that "when you grow up with your mother selling herself in the village square to put food in your belly , going whoring kind of loses its appeal" so i'd record that on his character sheet so as to not wind up writing a scene later where he goes to a brothel
     
  18. Denegroth

    Denegroth Banned

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    I have a rule about description. If it's necessary to advance the story use it. If not, don't. Readers will fill-in what you leave out. They love to do this, by the way. They hate it when you turn the character into "somebody else". Not quite the same situation, but this was very evident when the movie makers tried to pick a "Frodo." I mean...yeah, right.

    Novice writers mistake description for writing. Advancing the story is description. Certain things happen only if certain things have happened, and certain people are there making them happen...the sort of people who would do certain things.... Only certain kinds of people say certain kinds of things. To get morbid on you; a benevolent saint wouldn't be drilling someone's kneecaps laughing as they did it, saying, "C'mon. Where's my money?" The sort of person here just becomes clear. Any added description would be on a "need to know" basis, no? Or, if it affects how the story progresses...how can a guy who drills kneecaps raise four saintly children? Well...then we'd need a bit more information.

    I don't describe unless something isn't clear. I don't want description sort of sticking out like a sore thumb, so having made the decision I try to weave it into the work. (I hate lengthy speeches with backstory or fill, it's so...tawdry). If you're keeping it small you can keep it simple. Don't underestimate the breadth of the reader's imagination. Readers love to fill in blanks. Just don't leave out the bits that make the story comprehensible. "How did that happen?" (Not good.)
     
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