1. Megs33

    Megs33 Active Member

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    Where do you find your character spark?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Megs33, Feb 7, 2017.

    I freely admit that i easily get overwhelmed when i try to wrangle my story ideas. too many choices and options start whirling around in my head, and then the hamsters go flying off the wheel and i need to walk away from my computer.

    I'm interested in how everyone works to build a character. I have vague cardboard archetypes built up in my head, but the challenge has been in finding that initial thread that weaves each character in to a real person.

    What was your initial foundation for your character(s) and how did you build from there? How do you structure your thinking so you don't end up careening in 15 different directions? and what kind of platform do you use to work through your ideas (typing vs handwriting vs any particular software).

    In a nutshell, what is your system to keep your creative process from spinning out?
     
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  2. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I find it works really well to base a character on somebody you know. I don't mean reproduce them, but think about the people you know. Realize you are the god in this game, and you can change this person any way you like. You can flip gender, social position, family connections ...anything. But they will already be real people so you've got something to work with.

    Think of somebody whom you find really attractive. I don't necessarily mean in a sexual way (although you can certainly do that as well) but attractive as a person. Whom do you admire? Not a celebrity from afar, but somebody you really know. Now start to make up a story about them. Get them doing something they wouldn't actually do, and see how they react to a new situation.

    One of my favourite female secondary characters is based on a guy I knew many years ago. I worked with him, and was also a friend—no romantic element to it. He impressed me because he was not only cheerful all the time, but he didn't mince words when he had something to say. And he was incredibly competent at anything he did, in a most offhanded manner ...from aceing his college courses, to running a kitchen part-time, to coming up with out of the box solutions to any problems that came up. He could multi-task like nobody's business. He seemed fearless, and would tackle anything that needed doing or looked like it might be fun. He never let on if something bothered him, although after getting to know him better, it became easier to tell when something did.

    He never wanted to dwell on unpleasantness, ever, but he wasn't above a certain kind of gossip. The kind that was funny. He had the knack of teasing people nearly all the time without making them angry. And yet, just occasionally, he would let on that there was more to him than just being a perpetual joker. And if you really needed support, he would suddenly appear with the one piece of advice or item that helped a lot. He was incredibly popular, and I don't know a single person who didn't like him a whole lot.

    So I created a character based on him, but flipped gender and totally changed looks and circumstances. Nobody will ever guess who this person is that I based my character on. But it guided me constantly. What would my friend have done if thus and such happened? And more importantly, it helped me with dialogue and the timing of the dialogue. I just imagined what my friend would have said ...and there it was.

    If you build a few characters this way, you'll be amazed what you can do. I based one of my not-so-wonderful characters on somebody I knew as well—and gave him the mild comeuppance the real person actually deserved and never got. What fun!
     
    Last edited: Feb 7, 2017
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  3. Megs33

    Megs33 Active Member

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    So here's where I keep getting stuck: i work on fleshing out a character, but i want their emotions grounded in something tangible. so i try to come up with a life experience or an idle moment in time that gives them more depth, but it always comes out tasteless and predictable, and then i get frustrated because i feel like my character is running down the same dime-a-dozen rails of every other "meh" character in the history of literature (or at least Amazon). a character that once seemed unique feels pigeonholed in to the same ol' same ol'.

    by this point i'm wheeled around to building up plot and setting, which is a whole different monster.

    to be fair, i know that a lot of my problems will be solved if i just WRITE. i can't expect to put perfection on paper on my first go of it, but i struggle with keeping a linear focus. basically, i feel like i'm chasing my own tail. any suggestions on how to break that cycle?
     
  4. Commandante Lemming

    Commandante Lemming Contributor Contributor

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    Don't worry about careening in 15 directions - that can be a problem if you can't reign it in but if you can focus on figuring out the main running point of the story, you're fine.

    Personally, I like to start my characters with some sort of central contradiction - two points that shouldn't exist in the same character - and then extrapolate how that conflict fleshes out a person who has both traits. This could be values vs. interests (a practicing Jain with a pop culture obsession - which is a materialism vs. antimaterialism problem) - origins vs. current practice (I have a fallen Wagnerian Valkyrie who shows up 900 years after the twilight of the gods practicing Orthodox Judaism - that one was fun to extrapolate.)

    Not every character starts that way, some just pop out semi-fully formed - but I get a lot of milage out building in that central conflict as the very first piece of character creation. That way I never have to think later about what's bugging the character, because the thing that's bugging them is at the core of who they are.
     
    Last edited: Feb 7, 2017
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  5. Phil Mitchell

    Phil Mitchell Banned Contributor

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    Take MJ's advice:


    Don't think so much about making the deepest, perfect character. Focus on understanding your characters. Throw your characters into the mix, have them play around and channel it through your own idiosyncrasies. When you do that, different avenues to explore open up. Ever have a quirk or pet peeve about fiction as it exists today? Use it. Think Eragon is a douche? Do the opposite. Use anything and everything. Don't bother with saving good ideas for later. Use them now.
     
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  6. izzybot

    izzybot Transhuman Autophage Contributor

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    It seems like part of what you're asking is how to make a character special or unique, and the problem is that no one's characters are actually special or unique. Everything is a remix. I don't believe that there is a 'spark' - it's just about writing characters who feel like real people. I know a woman who went to college, got an English degree, and ended up washing dishes for a living - the concept of English degrees being useless in the real world unless you teach may be a dime a dozen, but ... it's also her life. It's not special or unique, but it's real.

    I think that making a character feel real is in the writing itself, not the creation. I have this character who, at the center of all his issues, is a struggle with his own identity; this basic concept comes up in his attempts to distance himself from the father he hero-worshiped ("Am I my father?"), separate himself from the job that controls his life ("Am I my profession?"), deal with his deep-seated desire to have kids when he's physically unable to ("What am I if I can't be a parent?"), rationalize wanting to be a pacifist in a world that won't allow him to be ("What am I if not my ideals?"), and - because it's sci-fi - manage being a cyborg when he's basically technophobic ("Am I even human?"). I like all of these ideas, and not to toot my own horn, but I think he's a pretty well-built character - but he could still be written as boring, trite, overdone, predictable, and uninteresting. It's in the writing.

    There's nothing wrong with building off of archetypes. I've spent way too much time on tvtropes and such and can absolutely tell you what archetypes and tropes my characters fall into. If that's your bag, you might get some ideas by reading up on how certain characters you like play with and invert tropes. My thing is to try to build complexity into those archetypes, justify them, and at times undercut them. Interrogate the archetype. Why would a person be like this? What's the interesting way they could get there? What's the unexpected way they could get there? What's the simplest way they could get there? What would it do to them as a person? Because I like character-driven fiction, and characters whose main enemies are themselves, I like positing characters who appear to be an archetype while actually being the opposite - the one I talked about above appears to be a single-minded indomitable killer cyborg tough guy and largely functions in his story as one, while also being deeply conflicted and self-hating due to his innate personality rejecting all of those thing. Granted, like I also said above, that's this whole thing. He's a bit of an extreme example. But you get the idea, probably.
     
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  7. Mckk

    Mckk Member Supporter Contributor

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    I loved that image of "hamsters go flying off the wheel" :supergrin:

    I usually get a character along with the premise, and I discover him or her along the way. Later I flesh them out and give them more appropriate back stories and whatnots according to what characteristics I know they have, what beliefs I know they have, what they hold important in life etc. What made them think this way or think that X is important? Then I start making stuff up to match. In a sense, you could say they come fully formed, only I don't know them yet.

    My problem is more plot than anything else. I get character, I get premise, and I find writing easy. What I can't do is develop that initial idea into a workable story :bigfrown:

    But so far, for example...

    Shadow Walker - a character that came to me, complete with the name, basically fully formed and has been with me since I was 19. I still can't write his story because I can't make the plot work. Don't have one... But I always knew he thinks of himself as the good guy, that he's hungry after something, that he's the evil we can all relate to. That we would be him if we let ourselves, because none of us are as noble as we'd like to be. He's the character we can all understand and for that reason he is tragic, and he must be redeemed. Since I'm a Christian, I'm guessing this theme is heavily informed by my faith, to be honest, as the whole of Christianity centers around redemption, salvation, and unreserved, undeserved grace. I didn't deliberately write him this way - he just came out that way.

    Lynx - I wrote a couple thousand words on him before I stopped because again, I have no plot. But he belongs in a steampunk story and he's the master of a mansion. He loves his art and Victorian luxuries and has very refined tastes for everything he ever owns. He's a man of pleasure. He'd also do anything to get what he wants. And there's something he wants, badly. He's not a villain but he is capable of becoming one. Deep down I feel he's selfish, and ruthless. He's not a man who'd give without knowing what he could get in return, and he's smart enough to manipulate you in such a way that he'd definitely get what he wants.

    Tathelion - a new story I'm trying out, just because I keep not having plots but I am desperate to have something to write :wtf: he came to me as someone who'd just woken up in a winter forest with his memories wiped. I have 800 words on him so far and he's turning out to be a resilient bastard - bastard not because he's a jerk but just because if you wanted to kill him, you might find yourself horribly frustrated :-D He's got this edge, this anger, this "you will not defeat me, this is not the last of me!" about him that I like. He's a noble, loyal one, who makes stupid mistakes because he gets fired up. He's smart, but if you channeled his anger you'd be able to manipulate him.

    But yeah, no workable story for Tath either right now... I don't know if he has a wife yet.

    Anyway, so you see what I mean - they just come formed this way, and I find out as I write...
     
  8. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Contributor Contributor

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    Hey, some of my best ideas are saved for later :D
     
  9. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    .
     
  10. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    But it is the same monster. It's all part of the story. And asking for a character to preform or emerge without a story, really will only get you so far. Honestly, I have found that it works best for me to approach creating a story and all it's parts as one thing. The character becomes a character in the story they are telling or living wherever it is taking place. Trying to create a character outside of a story just is never going to produce the same results as creating a character in a story. This is how I see it. I know that everyone works differently. But if the way you are trying to create characters isn't working the way you want, I would suggest reevaluating your process.
     
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  11. Number 7

    Number 7 Member

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    I base a lot of my characters upon my inner most self, using pieces of my personality that exist only in my head when I truly allow myself to indulge in mindless thinking. I write my characters very specifically to my own amusement of their interaction, not because they'd make a great pair or great adversaries, that's not how life works. I write people, not characters, at least that's what I believe.
     
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  12. S A Lee

    S A Lee Contributor Contributor

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    I generally think about the sort of story I want to write, and I get the characters as I do. Sometimes they can be a bit cagey and I have to work with them to get how they tick, other times they just leap into the fray.

    And sometimes they give me one-liners when I'm trying to do my day job. Just shows that I'm bored there.
     
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  13. Lifeline

    Lifeline North of South. Contributor

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    Well, first of all that's a tall order. There's real and there's real :D but all joking aside: I go from the premise that my characters start out as 'fully' fleshed persons who are stuck in a particular charged situation. Of course, looking in from the 'outside' so to speak, I need time to get to know them.

    To give them flaws or quirks is not something I do rationally. They already are people, I just have to discover who they are. For that (just like in real life), it works to know their backstories, how they arrived where they are and what they screwed up (or got screwed up by others) in the process. Experiences make the person, so I learn their lifes before the story starts.

    Of course, my main characters are not the only real persons in my story, just the ones I focus on the most. Everyone they interact with (and some off the grid completely, third-tier characters who influence the storyline from the shadows) are real persons too. So how do I do it? I write backstories for my characters. Second- and third-tier characters get one or max two scenes: I write their defining moments in interaction with my main characters or other second-tier characters before the story starts. I don't put myself under any pressure with that, or write meticulously like I usually do when I write in the main story. The purpose of those scenes is 'only' backstory. And that leads to ...

    Lots of might-have-beens and turning situations on its heads. Don't be afraid of jumping in the mixer - play situations in a thousand varieties and note down if you stumble over a 'right, gotcha!' moment :D. Enjoy the 'Eureka' moment, and continually parse what happens around you into what-might-have-beens. Listen to your heart if a particular development fits with the main story, if it resonates. If it does, you are one step further :)
     
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2017
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  14. Phil Mitchell

    Phil Mitchell Banned Contributor

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    Yeah I've never thought this character needs a flaw or a quirk. In fact you have to consciously go against the flow of the narrative to keep them flawless and quirk free.
     
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  15. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Banned Contributor

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    As I was having this problem... it was usually the story that was faltering, not the characters. Once I had the story sorted out, have some ah-ha! moments and develop a better plot, more vivid and engaging action, the characters come back to life again. Also, I write a simple synopsis for each character, a backstory, and that's it. They relate to the story as that character for evermore.
     
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  16. Arcadeus

    Arcadeus Senior Member

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    I start with appearance. I see an image of the story in my head, and I write the character. The personality builds itself from my subconscious thoughts about their appearance. Before anything though I generally have the story mapped out, so I know how they are going to fit into the story and that affects how they appear to me.
     
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  17. GeorgiaMasonIII

    GeorgiaMasonIII Member

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    I think finding my characters' motivations is the key for me. Characters will often pop into my head fully formed, and the hardest part of writing for me is creating a story for them. But if I can figure out what motivates the character to perform certain actions, then the story can move forward.
     
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  18. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Clever. I like it a lot.
     
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  19. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    One of the story tropes I'm always attracted to is that of a settled, somewhat isolated community that works reasonably well within itself. And then, in comes a stranger...

    This stranger may be somebody looking for a home, and will try to fit in. Or somebody who stirs things up in some way. Whatever happens, the isolated community will never be the same again. For some reason I find lots of my story ideas take this turn. In this kind of story, for me anyway, character is key. It's the KIND of person this stranger is and the kind of people he or she interacts with that forms the story.
     
  20. texshelters

    texshelters Active Member

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    Take a long walk or hike. Look at people. Read. Decide if you want this person to blow their minds or be subversive. Take time to get it right, because as you imply, the stranger is essential. Peace, Tex
     
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  21. Megs33

    Megs33 Active Member

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    i like seeing this. initially i looked up this insane character depth worksheet that was somewhere around 12 pages long and was like :bigeek:.

    narrow and simple seem to be what helps keep me from floating away. i did a creativity activity once that had the directive "name as many things as you can that are white" with a time limit of 60 seconds. then we were given the same amount of time to name as many things as we could that were white, but also fuzzy. a lot of us named more things on the second go-round because a narrower focus allowed us to run down one train of thought rather than spinning around in circles until our eyes crossed. funny how that works when you give yourself boundaries!
     
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  22. Arcadeus

    Arcadeus Senior Member

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    Sometimes I go on TV Tropes and pick one at random. Then I decide to build the character around that trope. lol
    Which isn't as ineffective as it sounds. The majority of tropes on tvtropes.org are in the Harry Potter book series. :p
     
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  23. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Contributor Contributor

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    There's a trope for that :D

    Trope Overdosed generally refers to works that writers have been adding material to for decades (like Batman), but Harry Potter is relatively new to the scene and exists at the same level.
     
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  24. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Banned Contributor

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    You hit the nail on the head!
    Keeping things narrowed, setting reasonable boundaries based on the time period you're writing, creating characters with real emotions, etc, forces you to be clever with the plot... especially if you've decided that any supernatural elements you employ in the story, must also have a more plausible explanation. You end up writing a story with more conventional (old fashion) plot twists that don't rely on slight-of-hand, or characters behaving out of character only when it's convenient.
    The other thing I've found that really helps to draw everything together, is nailing down the thematic hook in the story! Then you start relating to all the elements of storytelling with a common purpose. It's still super hard, in fact I'm finding writing to be ridiculously hard... but those brief times that I get it right, are all the more rewarding.:)
     
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  25. Commandante Lemming

    Commandante Lemming Contributor Contributor

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    Narrow is good - the other thing is to learn what data helps you and what doesn't, where you can be shallow and where you're deep. That's going to be different for every writer.

    I probably do a lot less physical appearance stuff than a lot of people - and I do absolutely zero on things like nervous ticks and strange habits (those come later, usually as symb0lism). On the other hand, I make sure I know a LOT of family history on the front end. Some of my characters have fully thought out siblings who the reader may never meet, and I've worked out the stories of grandparents who are dead by the time the narrative starts - which is because I get benefit knowing all the components of a person's thought process and how they developed over multiple generations, and that makes characters seem grounded. Most people aren't going to need that, but they'll need other weird things that work with their process.
     
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