mrwizard70

How to come up with characters?

5 posts in this topic

I’m absolutely stonewalled by this and it’s really making me mad.

 

Every single podcast they bring up characters and character conflicts, how they drive the story, and how you have to focus on them. Yet somehow I cannot seem to find anything on how to actually make characters. The best I’ve found so far is Robin Hobb talking about how her characters will just show up in her head. 

 

How the heck do you actually design characters? I keep trying to write characters and realizing they’re exact archetypes with one boring twist. No matter how detailed I make them, they’re still boring archetypes. 

 

For those of you who read my submission, no matter how hard I constrain the backstory of my main character, (parents must be alive and unimportant, knowledge must come from mundane schooling, etc etc) he always turns out to be the farm boy who goes on a adventure because he hates his current life and wants to see the continent, or wants revenge, or wants to know what happened to his parents, or a million other things. My officer is always the mentor and the duchess is always the love interest/token female power character. 

 

Obviously, these are archetypes and roles I want them to fill; but how do you get your characters to not *just* fill the archetype. I give them quirks and flaws and play with the silly slider thing but at the end of the day they always feel like their just fulfilling a silly role because I need the plot to move forward. They never talk to me, never distinguish themselves, never have any personality besides stuff I’m just tacking on. 

 

/endrant. 

Help?

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Hey Wiz! First of all, breathe deeply... :D, imagine your happy place... :), close your eyes and count to twenty... :mellow: ...and we're calm again.

All I can do is chuck a bunch of stuff out there and see if anything sticks. This is not even necessarily what I do, but a combination of stuff that I've managed to retain from 12.25 seasons of Writing Excuses and Brandon's lectures on You Tube, but here goes.

Basics - There are certain fundamentals that, while they can be changed, are likely to be central in defining your character. Male/female/other; young/old; profession; location; family situation. From what you say, this part actually is problematic, because you are falling into a rut here and ending up with the same characters, so, change something. Change one of those principal facets that you listed out. Make the character female; allow him to love his life, but be dragged away from it by some external force, or internal need that is greater, a duty perhaps.

The sliders are tricky. If you make your character incompetent you're going to struggle to get them to affect the world. Too competent and they could be boring. Sympathy; well, you need some, and I forget they other slider (oops).

You talk about falling into pre-defined roles. Don't fit your characters into roles. If the drop in there naturally then change them. Make the torturing female the mentor; make the officer the antagonist. Change something that is 'standard'. If it doesn't work, maybe that's because you want to write a story with 'standard' roles. It doesn't need to be bad, it can be done well, and could still be really good practice.

One Process - Mine. By way of example. I write character sketches. So, for example Q and M. I wrote a couple of pages on each. They did kind of pop up out of my head, but the process started in answering the Writing Prompt from Season 10, Episode 4 of WE, which asked that you audition five characters for the main role in the story ideas generated by the previous prompts in Season 10. So, I wrote five different characters. There were Q; M; Professor Robot (which became Eighty); Fatal Fem (unused); and Boy Wonder (unused).

Low Hanging Fruit - Spend time on your characters before you start writing story. Write a sketch. Read it, change it. It's boring? Change something. Eg: I'm sitting in a coffee shop having breakfast and writing (OMG, I'm a stereotype!!! :o ). So, the barista is a young man; fairly short; trying to grow a beard; speaks quite quickly; he is competent at his job. First assumption: he hates the job and harbours dreams of breaking away and travelling in search of adventure, finding love, becoming a famous musician. Boring stereotype. So, he loves his job, but still wants to follow his dream, and so must chose between the two. Or, he falls for someone on the internet and risk all in going to Latvia to meet here, taking his guitar, of course. No, his bass, because he's an awesome bassist (bassist need love too, I'm advised). He gets to Latvia and it turns out the girl he's never met lives in a slum, but she's been taken by people traffickers to Paris. He goes to Paris, armed with nothing more than his acoustic bass and a bad screen capture of the girl. He's mixing in bad circles, living in slums, turns to crime and ends up in the French Foreign Legion.

Summary: change things. Start somewhere, but don't stay there. Change something, then something else, and push to the end of the line. Save. Start again. If you write a handful of characters in this way, I would expect you will find one that will draw you in and excite you enough to make them the star of your story. Okay, the above in contemporary, but you names could of course be changed. And this does not need to be in the story. Taking the example of your present character (a name would help the reader to identify with them, I think), the above template could all be backstory, not actually appearing in the book, but informing his choices, his state of mind, his mood and reactions to events and people in the story.

I'm not saying do this for all the main characters in your story, but you easily could write an paragraph for each one, mixing up gender, sexuality, profession (skill set), etc.

Your Story - Don't get downhearted because of the reactions you got last week. I think the reaction was pretty good, and there is a good base to work from there, but it never happens first time. I'm presuming that is all you have at the moment, or not much more than that first chapter? I think that's a great point at which to try an exercise like this, look at changing up the characters, auditioning those roles to a range of different characters or character types, which you sketch out portraits of. You will chuck some or most, but it will stretch that characterisation muscle if nothing else. 

I think you have an idea with potential, a character with a decent voice and a potentially interesting setting. I think you most likely will work better if you put in some work developing them, but only because I am 50/50 outliner/discovery, and like to have something to write from/towards.

I would urge you to keep going with this, but put time into the characters and setting before getting too much further into it. I bet you will find that such an approach will generate more ideas for the story unfolding and lead you into developing the plot, or points along that way, that will make the story stronger, and certainly the characters.

Good luck!

<R>

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Posted (edited)

29 minutes ago, Robinski said:

...and I forget they other slider (oops).

It's the Protag(verb) slider, how proactive the character is.

A piece of advice from the podcast that stuck with me is to audition the character for a certain purpose. If you start from the plot, you have something the characters need to achieve. So take that goal and think of the absolute worst person you could possibly task with achieving it. An example of this would be Rincewind from the Discworld series (who's also an example of a character with a competence slider at 0, by the way).

Edited by Eagle of the Forest Path
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6 hours ago, Robinski said:

Hey Wiz! First of all, breathe deeply... :D, imagine your happy place... :), close your eyes and count to twenty... :mellow: ...and we're calm again.

All I can do is chuck a bunch of stuff out there and see if anything sticks. This is not even necessarily what I do, but a combination of stuff that I've managed to retain from 12.25 seasons of Writing Excuses and Brandon's lectures on You Tube, but here goes.

Basics - There are certain fundamentals that, while they can be changed, are likely to be central in defining your character. Male/female/other; young/old; profession; location; family situation. From what you say, this part actually is problematic, because you are falling into a rut here and ending up with the same characters, so, change something. Change one of those principal facets that you listed out. Make the character female; allow him to love his life, but be dragged away from it by some external force, or internal need that is greater, a duty perhaps.

The sliders are tricky. If you make your character incompetent you're going to struggle to get them to affect the world. Too competent and they could be boring. Sympathy; well, you need some, and I forget they other slider (oops).

You talk about falling into pre-defined roles. Don't fit your characters into roles. If the drop in there naturally then change them. Make the torturing female the mentor; make the officer the antagonist. Change something that is 'standard'. If it doesn't work, maybe that's because you want to write a story with 'standard' roles. It doesn't need to be bad, it can be done well, and could still be really good practice.

One Process - Mine. By way of example. I write character sketches. So, for example Q and M. I wrote a couple of pages on each. They did kind of pop up out of my head, but the process started in answering the Writing Prompt from Season 10, Episode 4 of WE, which asked that you audition five characters for the main role in the story ideas generated by the previous prompts in Season 10. So, I wrote five different characters. There were Q; M; Professor Robot (which became Eighty); Fatal Fem (unused); and Boy Wonder (unused).

Low Hanging Fruit - Spend time on your characters before you start writing story. Write a sketch. Read it, change it. It's boring? Change something. Eg: I'm sitting in a coffee shop having breakfast and writing (OMG, I'm a stereotype!!! :o ). So, the barista is a young man; fairly short; trying to grow a beard; speaks quite quickly; he is competent at his job. First assumption: he hates the job and harbours dreams of breaking away and travelling in search of adventure, finding love, becoming a famous musician. Boring stereotype. So, he loves his job, but still wants to follow his dream, and so must chose between the two. Or, he falls for someone on the internet and risk all in going to Latvia to meet here, taking his guitar, of course. No, his bass, because he's an awesome bassist (bassist need love too, I'm advised). He gets to Latvia and it turns out the girl he's never met lives in a slum, but she's been taken by people traffickers to Paris. He goes to Paris, armed with nothing more than his acoustic bass and a bad screen capture of the girl. He's mixing in bad circles, living in slums, turns to crime and ends up in the French Foreign Legion.

Summary: change things. Start somewhere, but don't stay there. Change something, then something else, and push to the end of the line. Save. Start again. If you write a handful of characters in this way, I would expect you will find one that will draw you in and excite you enough to make them the star of your story. Okay, the above in contemporary, but you names could of course be changed. And this does not need to be in the story. Taking the example of your present character (a name would help the reader to identify with them, I think), the above template could all be backstory, not actually appearing in the book, but informing his choices, his state of mind, his mood and reactions to events and people in the story.

I'm not saying do this for all the main characters in your story, but you easily could write an paragraph for each one, mixing up gender, sexuality, profession (skill set), etc.

Your Story - Don't get downhearted because of the reactions you got last week. I think the reaction was pretty good, and there is a good base to work from there, but it never happens first time. I'm presuming that is all you have at the moment, or not much more than that first chapter? I think that's a great point at which to try an exercise like this, look at changing up the characters, auditioning those roles to a range of different characters or character types, which you sketch out portraits of. You will chuck some or most, but it will stretch that characterisation muscle if nothing else. 

I think you have an idea with potential, a character with a decent voice and a potentially interesting setting. I think you most likely will work better if you put in some work developing them, but only because I am 50/50 outliner/discovery, and like to have something to write from/towards.

I would urge you to keep going with this, but put time into the characters and setting before getting too much further into it. I bet you will find that such an approach will generate more ideas for the story unfolding and lead you into developing the plot, or points along that way, that will make the story stronger, and certainly the characters.

Good luck!

<R>

This has not that much to do with the feedback, but thank you for your kind words. I used to do fanfiction, I can handle criticism.

I’ll try it. 

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And hey, if it comes to it, you can always use a random generator to give you seed ideas. There're about a million of them out on the Web, and I go through fads with one or the other. Right now, this one is my favorite. It's D&D-themed, ridiculous, and very, very profane, but the more you look at its prompts the better they seem. Otherwise, this one (also D&D) seems decent enough. The things the generators come up with aren't really finished novel or story characters on their own, but generators can give you a bit of a boost if you're drawing a complete blank. :)  

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