Where do you find your character spark?

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

  1. terobi

    terobi Senior Member

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    Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's difficult. It's rarely easy to predict which will be which going in.

    Personally, I find that a character's voice often comes naturally when I sit down to write in their POV. Certain ways of speaking or seeing things will jump out, and suddenly who that character IS hits me like a truck.

    Have you tried just writing diary entries or other unrelated stream of consciousness pages from their POV?
     
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  2. A.V.K.

    A.V.K. Member

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    I draw from personal experience. If I can remember a point where I was particularly determined or sad or happy, it's easy to apply to a character. I can give different aspects of myself to different characters, then it's just a question of filling in the gaps as to the why.

    If a character can get really determined like me, all I have to figure out is why? A fear of failure or a desire to persevere? Once the feeling is there the cause clicks into place.

    YMMV, of course.
     
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  3. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    Oh, I have already written a novel with this context! :) It's more than an idea for me; it's a story I've already written. I find the concept interesting as a source of story.

    One very classic example of this trope came in a childhood favourite book of mine—Anne of Green Gables, by LM Montgomery.

    When something new comes into your life, or into your community—or YOU are the person who enters a previously settled community—it's not so much a conflict as a shake-up. In my own novel, the stranger brings the story's main conflict with him, and the community that offers him refuge gets caught up in it. Nobody is the same afterwards.
     
    Last edited: Feb 9, 2017
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  4. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    One thing that can work along the lines you suggest is to come up with a 'story' idea ...a situation, place or idea for conflict, then throw people you 'know' in real life, into your story as its characters.

    My own novel is set in 1886 Montana, but I created several characters for the story based on people I have known in my lifetime—and I have never lived in Montana.

    All four of my main characters are based on people I know. Not people who ever knew each other, by the way. The relationships in the story are all new ones. It made an interesting mix, and threw real, fully-developed personalities into my totally made-up plot. I am very comfortable working this way. Of course my characters did develop on their own, once I got started. But they offered me a source of real personality to start with, and made them 'bigger' than the plot. I could now fearlessly throw any of them into a new plot, and they'll still be themselves.

    I feel that the danger of inventing both plot and character at the same time can (not 'will' but 'can') result in a story where the characters do what the plot requires, and no more. That can ('can' not 'will') result in a story that's efficient, but not gutsy.

    I love it when characters do unpredictible things, or say unpredictible things, or think and feel contrary ways. As long as these unpredictibilites don't derail the plot, they make characters come alive.
     
    Last edited: Feb 9, 2017
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  5. ChaseTheSun

    ChaseTheSun Senior Member

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    This is such a great description, @jannert - I found myself resenting the fact I have never met this person! Sounds like he'd make life so much more enjoyable! :)


    @Megs33, you might try a technique I found invaluable when I was getting my current story off the gound: conduct interviews with your character/s. Ask them questions, and then sit quietly in that space and allow them the time to answer. I compiled my own interview template based off several templates I found on the web, and ended up with an 8-page interview template that touched on almost every topic that I thought might inform me of my characters' personalities, goals, motivations, fears, interests and choices.

    Here are some example questions from this interview template:
    • What values do you have at the beginning of the book, compared to the end of the book (what choice do you make at the climax)?
    • Did you have a happy childhood? Why or why not?
    • What is your biggest secret?
    • How would you describe yourself?
    • What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
    • Are you lying about anything to yourself?
    • What special marks/scars/physical quirks do you have that make you stand out?

    Conducting these interviews with my two POV main characters was illuminating and fascinating. They really came to life. Most of the answers to the questions did not come forced or manipulated, but rather the characters really came to life and shared their secrets and truths and lies and personalities with me in a way I hadn't experienced before. I would be quite happy to send you a copy of the interview template, if you are interested! It took me about an hour for each interview, as I didn't want to rush any of the answers.

    Another slightly left of field idea: write letters to your characters, or invite them to write letters to you. I hit a particularly frustrating wall about six months ago, and grabbed out my pen and notebook and started writing a letter to the protagonist, outlining my frustration, my questions, my concerns ... and as I wrote to her, I had a massive brainwave that propelled me forward into the next stint of writing.

    These two exercises have helped me bridge the gap between the 'me and them' mentality we writers can sometimes have when it comes to our writing. Our characters need to be as real to us as our flesh and blood family and friends. When you start getting to know your characters, they will come alive and develop their very own spark!

    EDIT: I would also add that it has helped for me to recognise that my characters are not 'mine' - although I do have the power to make them say or do whatever I want, it's better when I don't. They are most alive and real when I take a back seat and let them simply live out their lives the way they need to, with me merely recording what I'm seeing in my mind's eye. Hope that helps!
     
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  6. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    I love your 'thinking outside the box' solutions to flat characters. What is impressive is that you're writing these solutions in the form of interviews or letters, not just thinking them. And yes, anything that jogs your brain into a new idea is well worth it.

    One question that I'm curious about. When you do your interviews, do you ask them questions that are pertinent to your story - time, place, whatever? I've tried doing these 'interview' ideas before, for my characters, and find that it falls into uselessness right away. Does your character prefer texting or emails and why? Erm. My character lives in 1886. Okay I could pretend he lives now, but he doesn't. So it's a bit of a waste, for me, answering these kinds of questions. Not that I use this method for developing my characters anyway, but I often wondered how it works.
     
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  7. ChaseTheSun

    ChaseTheSun Senior Member

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    Wait, you wrote an entire second paragraph?! My computer didn't show that, earlier. Oops!

    So, to answer your questions...

    I used maybe half a dozen different interview templates to inspire my very own tailored interview. So I didn't even bother including irrelevant questions. My novel is set in the mid-20th century, so obviously no questions about modern technology would be necessary or particularly helpful to acquaint me with my characters.

    I do have questions in there that are relevant to the specific story, but they are more thematic rather than semantic: instead of 'how did you feel when character C spilled your secrets' is 'how do you deal with betrayal?' This gives more scope for the character to express themselves in a comprehensive way that doesn't just answer a specific event but express an aspect of their psyche.

    I do a short list of specific details: place/date of birth, marriage/children, etc. But otherwise, it's more about getting inside their heads and learning more about who they are as people. I want to know the kind of things that they mightn't necessarily choose to share with the reader, but which will enrich my understanding of them and help me express them as more well rounded characters, with all the nuances and subtleties of real people.

    There are also some questions such as "Tell me about the relationships in your life and how they have shaped who you are," which would obviously have specific details referencing characters or events within the story.

    I hope that answers your question? :)
     
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  8. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, it does. It sounds as if you've worked hard on developing a system that suits you. Excellent. I'll think of doing that if I ever get stuck for a character. I'm starting a new novel soon, and while some of my old characters will appear in the new book, there will be lots of new characters and a new location as well. So I might try some of your techniques if I get stuck.

    I presume, when you do this kind of interview, you know what 'job' they are interviewing for? In other words, you know what their function will be in your story?
     
  9. Commandante Lemming

    Commandante Lemming Contributor Contributor

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    I really envy people who can interview their characters in dialogue. I've never been able to do that. Oh well, to each their own.

    Oh and last night I was at Russian class (grad school...yay...) and I think I had my best character creation moment ever. I literally decided to hijack the main character from the silly 90s-era language learning videos they have me watching. I keep watching the same basic conversations over and over again, and they have a plot and characters, but the story never resolves. I figured out that this was bothering me because I liked the main character too much - so I stole her and finished off her biography by merging her with the person on the cover of the newspaper that was sitting on the desk.
     
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  10. Rani99

    Rani99 Member

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    Most of the time I just watch people and get ideas like that for my characters, or I just write about my friends, changing a bit, making them even more interesting. Sometimes I take notes of conversations. Well yeah, I sound like a total creep right now. But hey, it works very well.
     
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  11. Commandante Lemming

    Commandante Lemming Contributor Contributor

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    Oh I totally steal lines of dialogue from random conversations - especially if people are being mean to eachother.
     
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  12. Phil Mitchell

    Phil Mitchell Banned Contributor

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    The best possible scenario is to find a friend to talk to who' s willing to hear you go on and on about your characters and story ad nauseum, but will ask questions,and point out issues. I remember wanting to not bore that person, so always wanted to come up with engaging characterization. Many nights a week online, it would be onto MSN or WindowsLive Messenger to talk about our characters and writing. That was the best time. Worth staying up for.
     
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  13. Megs33

    Megs33 Active Member

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    I haven't! I really like @ChaseTheSun 's method of conducting interviews. i'm going to have to give that a go, mostly because i think journaling won't be narrow enough for my squirrel brain.

    you know what's interesting to me about this whole thread? it's opening my eyes to the fact that i suck at paying attention outside of my narrow sphere of influence. i don't know why i get it in my head that i need to come up with all of my ideas in my own head. what a terrible way to be creative. i need to look more to the people i know and interact with for ideas... who would have thought that writing would cause me to fix personal shortcomings? :crazy:

    YES. that would be awesome! I kind of love your method; just now in my head i looked at a character who has been giving me trouble, asked him a random question, and -boom- lightbulb. i kinda wish i wasn't sitting at my desk at work so i could go home and pull out my laptop...
     
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  14. ChaseTheSun

    ChaseTheSun Senior Member

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    @Megs33 How would you like me to send you the document? Is there a private message option on the forum?
     
  15. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    Actually, you've hit the nail on what makes research work for me. I know lots of writers cringe at the idea of doing research on a topic (historical, scientific, what-have-you) but that's exactly what research gives you. It widens the sphere of influence. Instead of having to make up the entire story and all its details out of your own head, research expands the horizons. Stuff you've never thought of is suddenly there to work with, and that, in turn, gives you more to write about. Research never makes writing more difficult for me. It ALWAYS makes it easier. More exciting, too.

    The one thing to be careful of, though, is a tendency to shoot EVERY idea or dilemma past other people for input. Part of writing is ferreting out your own solutions to problems.

    There have been umpteen threads on the forum from people who seem to need opinions on what their characters' names should be, what their jobs should be, what kind of personality they should have, what should 'happen next,' what the overall plot should be—all things that are a writer's job to create. I call that 'writing by committee' and it's not the same thing as doing research.

    Research allows you to discover new facts and information you didn't have before, giving you more to work with. Writing by committee is following somebody else's writing guidelines—and giving up on your quest to develop your own storytelling voice.

    Your original post asked the best kind of question. Instead of asking us to come up with a character for you to adopt, you asked us how we all come up with ideas for giving our characters the spark of life. That's a good question, and it will benefit everybody who reads this thread. By all means, do ask these kinds of questions. They are what make the forum such a good place to be.
     
    Last edited: Feb 11, 2017
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  16. LostThePlot

    LostThePlot Naysmith Contributor

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    I create characters by tugging on one thread. Sometimes it takes some writing to get there, sometimes I know it the second I start. Either way what I'm looking for what, in my personal lexicon, I know as the 'Oh shit' moment. As concisely as I can put it it's finding the inherent sadness in the character. This can take many forms, but broadly speaking it's something core to the character that makes me just get the character's psychology and see exactly what's driving them.

    Sometimes it does take work to get that. Sometimes I just need to start writing the plot and see where I end up, sometimes it's really obvious what I'm doing with the character right from the get go. Some characters are all about sadness other times it's something more complex but it's there and looking for that little shard of darkness in them; the thing that will make them cry; that informs the majority of what you need to do with them. It tells you what is a big deal in their life and what they will lie not to tell someone. If you can find that the rest is window dressing. The question is always how to get that 'oh shit' moment to appear. I do by, broadly, writing the worst thing that could happen in this situation. Not beyond the point of sanity, of course, but just as I write asking myself what is the saddest thing that fits here, how can I turn the screw in this really early scene.

    As a worked example; I wrote a book about a teenage girl pretending to have cancer. Initially the idea was shaped by a news story I saw where that happened; the girls mum made her do it to get benefits and eventually she and her boyfriend killed her mum. So that was the idea in my head. And I just started writing it. I knew I was setting up a family that needed money so I figured divorced single mum, dad who screws them for support etc because we're supposed to like the girl and understand why she initially did this. I wrote through some scenes at school where she tells people she has cancer and that's fine, it's all first person so she talks about missing her dad, and she feels shitty about this whole thing. The girls at school club together and raise a hundred quid for her; because staying positive is so important when you have cancer right? So far so obvious to what I was doing. It follow naturally enough.

    The 'oh shit' moment came when I was writing the first time we see her mum. She catches our heroine with an envelope of cash. So I twist the screw. "He sent it didn't he?" Oh hello. This is something I wasn't expecting. Her mum is supposed to be the bad guy here. But that reaction; that snap right there that was something else. So I wrote on. "You can have it, ok? Just please don't call the lawyers." Now we're getting something. She doesn't want to get her dad in trouble. But it was her money, and she's had nothing since her dad left. So she says something stupid. "Why would he send me money now mum?". And her mum just flips on a dime; busy mum working two jobs to pay the mortgage, never sees her daughter, has to work every day she can get, even when she wants to be home. Even on special days. "I didn't forget... I promise...". Oh shit son. Now we're cooking with napalm. And one last twist of the knife:

    I prefer when we don't talk. At least then I don't have to win.

    I take a drag and pass her my last ciggie.

    “Happy birthday love.” Her voice is still shaking.

    I sniff. “Thanks.”

    We used to be so happy.


    Scene.

    And suddenly I've tapped into a whole other thing that is so much sadder. It's a more banal suburban sadness, but it just comes from no-where and knocks the shit out of what I thought I knew about the characters here. The dynamic that I just found by tugging on a thread hits like a gut punch. Just that hammer blow that took them from being antagonists to just crying together because it's fucking awful living like that; missing your dad and never seeing your mum and so desperate for anything to get better. And maybe to a kid like that, starved of attention, with absent parents, with no money whose depressed and alone, maybe that's a kid you can forgive for pretending to have cancer; just long enough so they can have Christmas presents this year. The sadness in her, and in her mum too, just spills out of them and is something it's easy to sympathize with. Suddenly this is a different story. This is not about manipulation and avarice; it's about loneliness and divorce and quiet desperation. And that once scene informs the whole rest of the book. The girl sticks with this absurd, insane lie because the money she makes on youtube and patreon means she can see her mum again, means even that finally her parents relationship begins to thaw now it's not a constant fight over money. It all flows just from seeing what makes them cry.

    So; piece of advice; really fucking hurt your characters. Do it early, do it hard. Figure out what makes them cry. And that connection to them will give you a really deep insight into who they are at the start and the start point for their arc. By the end of the book they should have solved that internal conflict and grown into someone else; what makes them cry at first won't at the end.

    At other times it's really obvious where this will come from. The next book I need to edit has a teenage girl who's foster dad hits her; and that's so obvious that it barely needs work. Her whole drive is to escape; be anywhere but home, do everything off her own back, can't count on anyone but her. I still played with that a lot; the big moment in that book is halfway through when we finally see for real that she's covered in bruises but as a writer I always knew that this was who she was and what she was constantly running from. The next book I'm writing has our heroine (I write teen romances, alright? I write a lot of teenage girls) as the daughter of a biker and the story starts with him going to jail and her wearing his 'cut' (the leather vest bikers wear with the motorcycle club name and logo on the back) to school and refusing to take it off. That's kinda self explanatory too; just writing that scene as the head teacher is yelling at her and she finally just tells him "...It's my dad's." and won't say anything else.

    In all these cases though the thread for them all is this emotional center to them, this single black speck that seeps out into everything else that they are. All the rest doesn't really matter. How they look, how they talk, how they act, that's all a sideshow here. The emotional core; the ennui and angst; that's what I'm looking to engage with. I want my first chapter to have a tear jerking moment and if I can't find that then I'm doing something wrong, fundamentally. These things that make the audience instantly understand who this character is and instantly sympathize; that's so much more important than anything else. Without that a character is a mannequin not a person. They might be well made up and good looking and all kinds of things. But they aren't a person.

    Inside all of us is a little shivering naked core of shame and hurt and pain. Find that in your characters and you'll write great characters.
     
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  17. Megs33

    Megs33 Active Member

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    That is fantastic. I actually just finished reading a book where I knew it was going to end well, but holy crap did the author do a good job of giving the main characters a raw and bitter past. i legitimately shed tears because their pain seemed so tangible and real. it made the resolution that much more satisfying. plus, who wants to read about perfect happy characters anyways? :)

    Thanks! i've laughed to myself at the number of times that i went to post a question on a board, thought about it, and deleted it. more often than not i picture the semi-snarky replies and realize that i can answer the question myself because it's a lot simpler than i'm willing to admit.

    Interestingly, these boards are either the greatest resource or the greatest crutch. writing and discovering alone is a surprisingly frightening undertaking; the thought of putting in a bunch of work to produce dissatisfying drivel is a lot easier to swallow if you can put some onus the peanut gallery to avoid feeling like a hack. BUT, then you haven't learned anything. tricky tricky. i wonder how many hapless self-published kindle e-books have fallen in to that trap...
     
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  18. LostThePlot

    LostThePlot Naysmith Contributor

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    The beauty of writing character focused stuff is that you can make even very small things really significant. You don't have to keep driving up the stakes or setting up some even more ludicrous barrier for them to get past; if you do it right then even tiny things will get a huge reaction from the reader. That means you can stay small, stay real, stay relatable and sympathetic and still get the awesome gut punch reaction.
     
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  19. NoGoodNobu

    NoGoodNobu Contributor Contributor

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    I'm intrigued by authors who interview their characters and their characters reveal themselves openly and honestly.

    It might just be the sorts of characters I tend to write, but if I (or anyone) were to ask them questions to reveal their innermost character & core principles, they either would lie, conceal/redirect, be partially accurate, or just not possess the self awareness to know themselves.

    Usually I use confrontations between my characters: I find in a fit of passsion or the heat of a disagreement, people often unintentionally reveal things about themselves or else the other person spits unattractive truths that otherwise go unsaid. If you get someone riled, really get under their skin, filters tend to burn away and all the issues buried for the sake of civility or maintaining social order rise suddenly to the surface. (Sometimes these confrontations end up in the story, sometimes it's just a nifty tool for me)

    That being said, these revelations should still be taken with a grain of salt: accusations by the other party may be all true, or they may be partially true, or they may be a certain truth twisted out of shape by the venom of the attack. The perceived does not equate with the real. But the same goes for how the character perceives themselves. It's a balance between the outward perceptions of actions, words, and attitudes and the inward perception of self (feelings, motives, intentions).

    Just for example: my friend of 11 years Davi lists his gifts & best attributes as being incredibly empathetic and hyper aware & considerate of other people's feelings and needs.

    Everyone who has known him for 6 months can tell you he is the densest person to walk this earth, to the point that even when we spell everything out in explicit terms, he just doesn't pick up or comprehend anything. Also, while he is a sensitive guy, he has so much emotional turmoil & baggage himself, he gets so wrapped up in it and so becomes blind to the feelings & pain of others or else actively disregards them because his pain is more valid than theirs.

    He as a person is somewhere beyond what we can see or hear: more & other than just his words & actions. And he as a person is beyond just his personal identity & limit of self awareness: more & other than his intentions, beliefs, and feelings.

    To perhaps a less extreme degree, the same balance exists between how characters are seen & how characters see themselves. And unfortunately it often doesn't just fall somewhere neatly in the middle.

    The nice bit with fights though is you get to see the two perceptions actively butting heads.

     
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  20. LostThePlot

    LostThePlot Naysmith Contributor

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    I agree that conflict is the key thing. Character reveals itself through reaction.

    The majority of characters (and people generally) just going about their daily lives would be characterised in the same kind of ways. It's only when we rub up against things that we don't like that we start to become more obviously different to any random person in the street. On the inside we're all different, sure, but we just watching people walk down the streeet we don't pick up on the details that make a compelling character. So smash them into things they don't like. Make them show us what effects them and why. Make them stand up for themselves, or run from the conflict. Or just break down and cry because today has just been too fucking hard. These tell us so much more than just seeing someone being otherwise happy with thier lot.

    That's where the spark comes from; from making them spark against things. And you really don't even need to know how the character will react. Just write that and see what fits for them. You don't even need to keep it in the book, honestly. You can just write it, see who someone is and then use that to fuel the character in the actual work.
     
  21. Rosie L. Parker

    Rosie L. Parker New Member

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    That's kind of what I do. When I'm trying to figure out who my character is, I always start with the backstory. I'll sit down and have them introduce themselves, and then tell me their backstory. Like they're talking to me. I pretend that they're sitting right in front of me. It helps me figure out how they talk, and how they think. It helps me see what kind of person they are, how they might have changed throughout their lives, and how they might react to things.

    Before I can do any of that though, I need to have an idea of what they look like physically. For me that's a thing. Without an idea of what they look like I just can't imagine them as real people. A lot of the time I draw inspiration from photography I find on the internet. Or sometimes I'll draw inspiration from strangers I see around me. Like the people standing in front of me in line at a supermarket, or a person at another table in a restaurant.
     
  22. Thomas Babel

    Thomas Babel Member

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    I say do whatever YOU need to do to feel confident. For myself, I enjoy figuring out the characters as I go while having an idea of what role they're going to play. In my view, this is the most natural way to produce character arc and maintain a solid story. Writing diaries and such seems to me like method acting. I'm sure it has helped many! But there's merit too in flying by the seat of your pants. Unpredictability is something a lot of people love in a story. What better way?
     
  23. Thomas Babel

    Thomas Babel Member

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    Or maybe what I'm saying is: don't feel confident! That's okay too! Work out the rest while you're editing.

    Because, honestly, what's the job of someone who suspends disbelief? To come up with something that isn't real, but presents just enough mimicry to allow the audience to use it as a stage for the next level of your art to become the focus. And let's be honest: human reality is chaotic.

    In our lives, planning notoriously ends in chaos. So, what's the point? In the interest of suspended disbelief, embrace some level of chaos.
     
    Last edited: Feb 20, 2017
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  24. Seraph751

    Seraph751 If I fell down the rabbit hole... Contributor

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    I like to do the reality to fantasy thing. Ex: Toffee cakelets. In my blog, I turned them into gold-dusted toffee cakelets. A rather elegant snack for a Dragon writer if I do say so myself lol!
     
  25. Miscellaneous Worker

    Miscellaneous Worker Member

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    Where there is work...
    Every story and character is based on something from our lives. For one of the main characters I created, I based him on a friend I had who left for the military.

    One thing that was interesting from that was that as I wrote the character into the story, I wasn't thinking of him as my old friend anymore, but entirely as that character only. It's cool how your mind shapes your creativity.
     
    Megs33 and jannert like this.

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