1. sadie kopp

    sadie kopp New Member

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    how do you know what your character's personality is??

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by sadie kopp, Aug 29, 2019.

    Hi there!

    I'm writing a story, and I have no clue what my main character's personality is. She is an impossible mystery to me. How does one know what their character is like? And once you know, how do you write it? Like, how do develop a voice for said character? How do you make it so each character is different and unique and not the same person but with different names?
     
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  2. Kaya King

    Kaya King New Member

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    This is something I struggled with for a LONG time. The answer is frustratingly ambiguous, at least for me: get to know them. This feels impossible, since these are beings of your own creation, but you can't force your characters to be anything. You can write a premise for them to start within (like someone who hates dogs, or is shaped by a traumatic event that still haunts them), but then you have to let them evolve on their own. Write different scenarios and see how the characters react. Talk about your characters to other people as much as possible. To separate characters from each other, consider how they might answer the same question differently, or act differently to identical situations. How do they act when meeting the president? Why? Look up random writing prompts and plop your characters into them to see what happens. Eventually, you'll realize you know them like you know a friend, and you will naturally write them to fit their personality because it just feels right to them and you can't write them any other way.

    If you're really struggling, it might help to just keep writing the plot, assuming you know where it goes. As you write new scenes, don't worry about making your characters realistic, and instead just write fluidly, almost without thinking. Write what feels right to happen next, or to be said next. Then, after you've gotten the scene(s) out, go back and pay attention to how your character acted or reacted and ask yourself why. What might cause a character to act they way you had them act? Is it something ingrained in them? And if so, what event or person ingrained that? If you go with this approach, though, be aware that your characters WILL change the plot once they develop personalities, so be open to letting your characters reshape the story once they start showing their colors, or else your story will feel incredibly forced and disjointed.

    Some authors also find character sheets helpful. Look up multiple character development forms (multiple because some of them won't click with you, and you shouldn't give up if the first one doesn't work) on the internet and fill in as many of the blank fields as possible to help you generate your character's personality or backstory. These can help you identify what you know about your characters already that you didn't know you knew, or help you brainstorm some aspects you wouldn't normally have considered on your own.
     
  3. Malisky

    Malisky Fortune cookie Contributor

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    Hello Sadie!

    From my perspective a character in a story is mainly configured by his actions/reactions and the reason behind taking such actions. A simple test is putting your character in many situations (daily or extreme, doesn't really matter) and then figuring out how he'd act or react and why. Every character has his or her own backstory that built up their character through experience.

    I can't give any feedback with the voice aspect, because I believe that this is a very personal matter of each writer individually and it comes as you observe and take notes of the people you took an interest in. For example, you and I might be observing the same person, trying to figure out his personality by how he moves or speaks and focus on different aspects or even decode one specific aspect of his differently, due to our different life experiences. So, I believe that voice comes through observation and rumination upon the personality of a specific individual and that's why there's not a simple, straight-forward method upon voice. It's pretty unique and personal.
     
  4. disasterspark

    disasterspark Active Member

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    I usually write personal what if scenarios (essentially crossover fanfiction) that depict how a character would react in a certain situation. Do it often, and you start to get a "feel" for the character.
     
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  5. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    Hi Sadie!

    In my own experience of writing, I'd say my characters develop when I daydream about them. I do a lot of this before I ever start writing. I like to picture my characters and my scenes. Get it in my head what they look like, what the setting is like, what they're doing and saying to each other. I don't worry about 'plot' or anything like that, at least not right away. Instead I spend time with them, as if I was watching a movie.

    If a group dinner is going to be a scene, I envision the whole thing. Who is cooking and serving the meal. How long does that take. Are they enjoying themselves or feeling harrassed? I watch the guests coming in, interacting with each other, taking seats, etc. And what does the place smell like? Is it a hot kitchen, or a cool dining room? What are they having to eat tonight? I watch each one taking servings, how they eat, and, of course, pay close attention to the dinner conversation. Who sits next to who? What are their voices like? Has somebody got a grudge against somebody else at the table? (How does this show?) Do they all know each other well? Does everybody like the food? Does somebody gobble more than their share? Does somebody just push food around on their plate and not eat much of it? Has somebody got a crush on somebody else at the table? How do they act towards each other? What develops?

    I get that all going in my head, maybe for days. If you can get this kind of close imagining going with every scene, when you actually do sit down to write it, you'll know what you want to accomplish. It's not just you and a blank screen any more. You have people you want to write about.
     
    Last edited: Aug 29, 2019
  6. Shenanigator

    Shenanigator Has the Vocabulary of a Well-Educated Sailor. Contributor

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    I've written about this before, but when daydreaming isn't cutting it, I'm a fan of that weird subconscious accessing exercise in which you get really relaxed and start asking the character questions in your head. It sounds completely nuts, and I was skeptical before I tried it, but it's just a mind trick to get yourself out of your own way.
     
  7. badgerjelly

    badgerjelly Contributor Contributor

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    Metaphor, analogy and simile. I also pick my words carefully when a character is introduced - not merely in what they say/think, but the whole tone of the passage. I think it is also useful, for the important characters at least, to present a contradictory dynamic in their personality early on. This functions to intrigue the reader into seeing how they will deal with this and imprints the personality distinctly in their mind.

    In terms of portraying these things I used ‘water’ to show the vitality and power of one character is a desert. Descriptions of ‘cascading hair’, ‘like a fountain’, and ‘fluid movement’ subtly imbues the reader with a sense that this character is ‘watery’ in place where water is either very precious and/or rare.

    The character can also be extended to their immediate environment too. The weather, trees, dirt or food can be used to express something about the mood of the scene that relays something of their personality. As an example think of flowers, if you mention lilies, roses, sunflowers or bluebells, you can use them to convey something positive or negative - the ‘thorny rose’ or the ‘bold and striking sunflower’. There is literally nothing you cannot use to convey something about the character from the texture of rock to the sound of water, from the movement of birds in the sky to the stale smell of old dusty books.

    As for the contradictory dynamics you can have assassins who have a constant, almost intolerable, fear of death. A butcher who is a vegan. A war master who hates violence. Of course you can add several smaller psychological traits rather than one big in-yer-face contradictory element. It’s all about conflict and resolution. The attempts at ‘resolution’ are what defines the character (including how they avoid any attempt). There are rarely cases where one solution is possible and how or character approaches the problem is deadly important - are they systematic, are they willing to sacrifice everything, what do they have to give up, will they cheat, will they opt for the complex high risk approach or play safe, will they misunderstand the importance of the problem; and if so will they be overwhelmed by their own mistakes or rise up and take responsibility?

    In short, it is the options the character sees and has, and their means of navigating through these options, that dictates who they are and how they’ll develop. Secondary characters are just extensions of the main characters, they are there to represent something about the main characters by showing what they are not, by showing what they may become, or by showing what they once were.

    As for general resources I cannot overstate enough how extraordinarily useful this is to anyone even vaguely interested in writing/reading:

    https://www.amherst.edu/system/files/media/1812/The%252520Poetics%252520of%252520Aristotle%25252C%252520by%252520Aristotle.pdf

    Note: this refers to ‘plays’ rather than novels, but the principles are the same - I advice skipping to the part about “plot” to see about how character fits into this (the ‘reversal’).
     
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  8. AnimalAsLeader

    AnimalAsLeader Active Member

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    When I create stories, I usually go about it in this way: 1. I want to tell a story, and my stories are mostly about interpersonal relationships or themes liuke vengeance, forgiveness, etc. 2. I think of a suitable protagonist as a vessel for the story. I start with just a caption of them at the start and then what they become in the end. Example: Say, you want to write a story about a detective who has to solve some kind of lovecraftian horror-crime. A good starting point would to have him/her be stoic and rational. At the end they could be overcoming their fears, they would become stronger, but at the same time aware of the existence of things you can't rationally explain. 3. I start thinking about how the character can get from start to finish, i.e. what character trait could facilitate such a journey. Example: For a detective this could be curiosity, the desire to win, the desire for justice, vengeance, etc. 4. I think of how this one dominant trait affects their personality as a whole. (Note: The dominant trait does not have to be dominant from the beginning. It can manifest itself later in the journey)
     
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  9. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    Characters come from us and our imaginations. So, if your MC is a mystery to you, it sounds like you just haven't made some solid decisions about this character. Same for your other characters. You know what your characters are like by writing them the way you want. I like to work with a lot of characters, and I don't worry too much about them not coming off as unique because I made them unique. They have different reasons for being in the story. If your characters are sounding all the same to you, I wonder if they're all needed.

    As far as voice, I'm assuming you are talking more about POV than dialog. One way of looking at it is that stories belong to characters. And depending on your POV character, the story will come out a certain way with a certain tone. But voice is one of those tricky things that comes easier and more natural with practice. Think about why your POV is telling this story and what you want this story to mean to your POV character.

    I like to work with backstories, but you have to be careful not to derail too far from the present narrative. If John can't read the menu, maybe he needs glasses or maybe he never learned to read. I little look back into why he doesn't have glasses or can't read, makes the character fuller. Then you have Betty across the table who can read. Who is Betty to John? Sister? Lover? Friend? How does she react to John. Maybe she's sick of him and his problems. A little flashback, saying or showing that this has happened before gives you a chance to illustrate what she thinks. Even if John is your POV character, he can see that Betty is frustrated and flash back still in his POV, but show the pattern that has caused Betty's reaction. And you can have as many characters at the dinner table as you like, but why are they there. Maybe it's John's birthday so there are a lot of characters. Maybe this is when Betty wants to leave John so it's just the two of them. Just make sure all your characters belong in the story. Give each character a job of sorts in the story. Each character has their own role and reason. Just remember you put these characters in your story. You have to decide why they are each there. This sort of thing should help strengthen their identities.
     
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  10. peachalulu

    peachalulu Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I day dream too
    … a lot - ;)
    I also like to start with a bit of a cliché or a stereotype. So much easier. From the cliché I can start to build some things. Branch away from the cliché and words like nice and kind or meanspirited or shy using concrete details and visuals. The idea is to leave your reader with an impression of the character based on their actions, how they speak, what they're goals are and what they avoid saying. You do this by creating a scene and utilizing every object in the scene. Think of a character like Miss Havisham - nothing quite describes her madness so well as the details of her continuously wearing her wedding dress, wearing only one shoe - stopping all the clocks and that rotting wedding buffet but her actions concerning Estella back up that first impression.
     
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  11. StoryForest

    StoryForest Banned

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    Sometimes I find designing "interactions" to be a very useful tool when it comes to defining characters. If you want to know how one character is, try putting them with another character you know very well and think about what would make an interesting "interaction" between the two. It's like leveraging the personality of one to help form the other.
     
  12. Roberta Parsnip

    Roberta Parsnip New Member

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    There's a bit of an art with this, but it involves understanding human nature. I think with beginners, it's best to attempt a very simple character structure based around the character's wants. And while this is a simple character development exercise, it's also very effective in creating dynamic and believable characters, albeit a bit simple.

    So how this character structure works is by finding something that your character can fixates on. And that thing is your character's entire world.

    Why this works is because people are motivated by what is most important to them. And emotions around developed around these things that are most important to them. For example, Katniss from The Hunger Games has her sister, Prim who is the most important thing to her. So everything she does, is based around Prim. From learning to hunt, to having that will to survive the Hunger Games herself. People can also be motivated by hate. When you hate someone, that someone becomes the most important thing in your life, believe it or not.

    Now, in real life, we all have a ton of things that we value. Maybe not all at the same level, but characters aren't real people. It's okay to have a character with one thing they value above everything else.

    So here's how the exercise works. You figure out the following:

    1. What is the most important thing to your character? Now if you don't know, that's okay. That's what rewrites are for. Just finish your story and then take a look at it and see what could reasonably be the most important thing to your character. Then you rewrite your character with that in mind. It can be physical, but it doesn't have to be. It can be abstract, like honor.

    2. Why do they fixate on this particular thing? Again, it can be simple. In Frozen Anna fixates on Elsa because she's her sister. That's it. That works fine. Keeping things simple is often the best approach.

    3. Does your character currently possess this thing? Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. For example, if you have a main villain who hates the main character, they don't possess the main character, so to speak. Often that's the point of the story. They're trying to get the main character. Anyway, if not, what would your character do, if they did possess it? And if so, what does your character do to protect it? Again, simplicity. Katniss has her sister Prim, and she just takes care of her.

    4. Is this thing good or bad for the character? Frodo gets pretty obsessed over the One Ring and it certainly isn't good for him to have it.

    5. How does your character feel about that thing? Just because they fixate on it, doesn't mean they love it? A drug user, doesn't particularly love the drug, but they certainly are fixated on it.

    6. What does your character think will happen if they lost this thing? If you have a character who is all about honor, and they might think all hope is lost if he ever lost that honor.

    7. What would your character do if they ever lost this thing? Now, I asked what they think will happen, but here is the real question as to what would really happen.
     
  13. Baeraad

    Baeraad Senior Member

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    I use a similar trick. When I try to develop a character, I try to picture them in the environment that's the most iconic to them. An artist in his studio, a soldier on the battlefield, a decadent noble at his overflowing dinner table. Knowing where the character feels most at home and the most themself helps you get a stronger feel for what drives them.

    I've always felt like the old Smallville introduction was a great example of just what I mean. Note the background each character has when their actor's name shows.

     
  14. J.T. Woody

    J.T. Woody Smooth like butter Contributor

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    i never really thought about this.... my characters all have pretty distinct personalities.
    I guess, for me... I start with a situation or a scenario. I dont begin with the character... characters come last for me. Once I have the situation or the main problem, I think about how a character would respond to it. Would they respond sarcastically? timidly? angrily? would they tackle the problem head on or enlist friends to help? kind of like SIMS; if you build a house with no windows are doors, and drop your sims in to it... will they run around and try to find a way out? will they sit in a corner and cry? will they just sit there and resign themselves to starve to death?

    then, because my WIPs are mostly fantasy and sci fi, I think about what people would do in real life.

    For example, an older WIP of mine begins with a street smart guy who trades illegal goods. in his world, earth is destroyed (not as simple as this, but for now... its "destroyed") and people live in colonies wherever they can and the military really doesnt give a damn about them. All of the people of importance (scientists, politicians, doctors, etc.) have all been evacuated to a more stable and protected settlement elsewhere and anyone in the colonies who have the potential to be valuable to the continuation of humanity, are immediately whisked away. So, my guy lives in a colony on a moon, and its a crappy one. He calls himself and everyone else "rejects." He grew up here. He is hotheaded, but calculative. He can be thoughtful and caring (empathizing with the orphans and wanting to help them in any way he can because he knows what its like to grow up in this place, and he also sees himself as his family's sole provider and protector). He's mischievous, and while he doesnt like to lie, he's very good at it. He's a fighter and actually likes confrontation - its his drug of choice. But he feels guilty because he knows that if he dies, his mother and his best friend (who was an orphan and was taken in by him and his mother) will be all alone. He's a momma's boy because all they have are each other. While he believes family is important, he's not interested in romantic relationships or starting a family of his own, and he thinks people who want this are selfish idiots. He's hopeful and always dreams of a better place even though he knows it might not exist.
    Now, I have 2 other main characters in this world, and they are completely different from this guy. The other one is a defeatist, doesnt attach himself to anything or anyone, sees the worst in people, doesnt even entertain the possibility of a better place, is a realist, sees things in the "now" and doesnt dwell on the past or envision a future. This is how he responds to his environment. The 3rd main character is an opportunist. She adapts to her environment. She doesnt get personal with anyone and doesnt like to talk about herself or her past. She's an insomniac and prone to depression, and fills her time with making things from objects she scavenges. She is creative and resourceful and that how she makes her living. She doesnt trust anyone and is prone to paranoia. she doesnt like to be given orders or and can feel like she's trapped very easily; her automatic response is to disappear (this breeds conflict between her and the first guy because he naturally wants to protect people, and this makes her feel smothered). she is self destructive and doesnt care if she lives or dies, which puts her in situations where her life (and those around her) are at risk... like running towards a gun fight rather than running away.

    I didnt set out to write the character's personality this way, it just kind of evolved from the environment I put them in and all of the possible ways someone would respond if they were put in those situations in real life.
     
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  15. Glen Barrington

    Glen Barrington Senior Member

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    I try to build characters that are capable of performing the actions I need them to do.

    So while I go through all the usual character-building exercises you see in all the books on writing. I also try to identify all the things they NEED to do to advance the story and determine if they are currently capable of doing that thing based on what I know about them. If they are not, then they need to be modified or abandoned as characters.

    Logical consistency is really important to me.
     
  16. Vellanney

    Vellanney Member

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    I came here because I was curious what people were responding to your post. I've never had this problem before, so it puzzled me a little. However, the question itself made me think about each of my characters personalities. Especially my MC's. I'd been stuck on a problem concerning them, and I think I may have thought of the solution because of this post. Thank you!
     
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  17. cosmic lights

    cosmic lights Contributor Contributor

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    Everyone does this differently so you'll need to find your own method and that will come the more you write and use your imagination.
    But I tend to try and fit a square peg in a round hole. I tend to look at what my character's need to achieve and then make them the least likely candidate to perform the job. This opens the door for a lot more natural conflict and difficulties for my character. I find someone hired as a thief who is against stealing but has no choice more interesting than someone hired because it's what they do all the time. There is conflict of morals in the first character - so internal conflict.

    If someone will become a team leader I try to make them the opposite personality so they have to learn those skills and push themselves to expand their abilities. This creates a character arc that feels natural and not forced.

    Sometimes it's impossible to make them completely not fit the role, but I try to do so as much as possible, since we all have the ability to take on all personalities.
     
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  18. animagus_kitty

    animagus_kitty Senior Member

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    My MC ended up being a sort of bastardization of what someone would think of William Riker if they'd only seen the first season and were trying to write a Riker who was trying to be Picard. He's trying, he really is, but he's an emotions sort of guy. But not, like, emotions, more like gut feelings because he's a pilot and those are important.
    But what I started with was someone who tried a little harder to be funny. My first few intros were almost comedic, before I found his voice. It wasn't until I realized the character I had wasn't a comedic sort of fellow, but just a man doing his job the best he could who would occasionally be funny that I was able to write.

    For other characters, their personality was very nebulous until I wrote short bits from their perspective, and then they were crystal clear. Others still, I wrangle with regularly because their personality keeps causing problems for the plot and I have to dial back some aspect of what they might or might not do to keep things from imploding.

    tl;dr: unfortunately, the only way to really know your characters is to listen to them. And not just what they say to other characters, but what they say to themselves in their downtime. In grief, and in joy.
     
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  19. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Funky like your grandpa's drawers.... Staff Contributor

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    AKA the beardless Riker, who was nowhere near as "redoubtable," as Q derisively referred to him, when clean-shaven.
     
  20. animagus_kitty

    animagus_kitty Senior Member

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    My ability to know words is never so poor as when Q was involved. just when I think I know words, Q shows up and uses ones I've never heard.

    But yeah. Kinda stupid, impulsive, beardless Riker, except he's heard of the Prime Directive.
     
  21. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Funky like your grandpa's drawers.... Staff Contributor

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    This eventually added gravitas to his character:

     
  22. animagus_kitty

    animagus_kitty Senior Member

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    I've seen that, and it's wonderful. He said at one point that he didn't even realize he did it until someone pointed it out to him after three seasons
     
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  23. jmh105

    jmh105 Active Member

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    I like to start defining one character by how he treats others or interacts with them. How Joe might be talkative and outgoing or forward with his friends at school might speak to why he may be like a shadow in his own home.

    If you have multiple characters, outline their relationships first and then try developing their personalities from there.
     
  24. animagus_kitty

    animagus_kitty Senior Member

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    I remembered rather suddenly that I had a very nebulous character whose motivations didn't make sense, and I solved the problem by writing her an 'intro' to the story. Not the first moment she becomes significant, because she always was in her own story, but where she first crosses paths with the man she works for. I took what little I knew about her, what little I had for her tone, and I turned that into a few hundred words in her POV. When I was done, I had enough emotional basis to write her a POV chapter in the book--she was still somewhat nebulous with motivations that didn't quite make sense, but she was a whole person who just doesn't have to explain herself to me or anyone, rather than a one-dimensional moving prop.
     
  25. Katibel

    Katibel Member

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    I'm late to the game, but thought I'd add my own thoughts anyway.

    I used to fret over character "personalities" when I was much younger. I think a common problem new / young writers run into is believing that people can be defined and that they are defined by traits they exhibit. What I personally have come to see is that people are not the traits they exhibit--they're rarely even their own temperaments. A person's "personality" is determined by who that individual decides to be, where they decide to head in their life, and where they ultimately want to end up, which are all decisions determined by that person's earliest and or most influential experiences up to that very moment. It is our foundational beliefs (conclusions that we make based on our most influential experiences, also called principles) that drive us into making or avoiding certain decisions.

    Our beliefs can even be circular in reasoning. Any of us can choose to act for or against our beliefs, each with predictable outcomes. If we act against our beliefs (typically due to some type of reasoning which circles us away from acting honestly) then we tend to become embittered and feel helpless. If we act for our beliefs then we often feel content and empowered (unless those beliefs are skewed).

    So, in that way, we're all very similar. The more I've delved into psychology the more I feel a oneness with every other human being, simply because I know I could have been them had my earliest scenarios matched their own. It's the millions of environmental nuances that seed thoughts, ideas, concepts, and views into our head from infancy which then influence our later motivations and make us appear "different" from one another. This same system is how change happens and why we can't change others, because belief in the things we witness (which comes from within) can change our base motivations, which, in turn, changes the directions we choose to go. No one can change anyone but themselves.

    Take the anti-hero: he's popular because your stereotypical "hero" is depicted as a nearly flawless being with enormous power. The old comic heroes get tiresome with their single, often material weaknesses and self-righteous one-liners, all of which no real human being can relate to. Their only opposition is an external, generally ambiguous, evil. So, inevitably, the anti-hero gained status, because with his laundry list of both material and mental flaws, lots of mistakes, and internal struggles he's far more relatable; there's far more room for character growth. The evils he faces are both external and within, just like with us. The former hero is almost nothing but an ideal.

    All said for this point: maybe try focusing on making your character "real" and not a personality.

    Trying to shove a person into a box never works, whether that person is real or imagined. I once based a character entirely off of my own "personality" when I was young, but she ended up developing differing viewpoints and motivations as I matured, all because her experiences were different from mine. If you try not to get tied down by "defining" your character and simply experience them through their eyes, their circumstances, taking care to pull perspective from yourself and others, you will become a master of inventing believable fictional people.

    [TL;DR: Voices, characteristics...these are all things that come into existence after already having had some experiences. So what are your characters' earliest experiences and how did those influence them? What are some later experiences your character had that left an impression and changed the way they view their world? The rest of the story will be a play on that.]
     
    Indigo Abbie likes this.

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