My Writers Circle

Writing => All the Write Questions => Topic started by: Markopolo on October 27, 2016, 05:02:12 AM

Title: Believable Characters
Post by: Markopolo on October 27, 2016, 05:02:12 AM
Hi, Guy’s.

I need some advice on creating believable characters in my writing. I hear loads that my characters are wooden or that they don’t lead themselves in the story.

I want to fix this and was wondering if anyone has a template or set of questions they use to flesh out their characters. There must be a way!!!!!

It’s just not working for me.

Please help.

MP
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: hillwalker3000 on October 27, 2016, 08:25:18 AM
Do YOU believe your characters are real people who exist outside the story you are writing about? Do you trust them enough to find their own way through the plot - doing what they want (whether it comes naturally or not) rather than doing what YOU tell them to do?

The answer to both questions should be 'Yes'. The author's job is simply to take notes.

H3K
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Markopolo on October 27, 2016, 09:26:35 AM
Nope. I am still the puppet master so to speak.

I think what you have said is great, BUT how do I get to that point?

Are there certain things you get to know about your characters that make you think, Right this guy is ready to go tell a story?

I have seen things online where people go through 100 questions to get to know their character. Is that normal? Should I be doing that too?

MP
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: hillwalker3000 on October 27, 2016, 09:35:49 AM
There are gimmicky ways to do this - make a list of attributes such as their favourite colour, the name of the school they attended, the first pet they ever owned, etc. But that's hardly going to get you under their skin, is it?

The easiest way is to picture them in your mind as someone you already know vaguely. Walk around with them for a couple of days. Discover how they interact with the world and with other people. Watch how they fit in - or how they don't. Listen to the way they speak. The type of clothes they wear. What makes them uncomfortable. What makes them tick.

It's a bit like Role Play. You have an imaginary friend - but they're in charge of the relationship not you.

Have fun.

H3K
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Markopolo on October 27, 2016, 09:42:14 AM
I like it.

I will give it a try.

Thanks   

MP
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: lamont cranston on October 27, 2016, 05:01:56 PM

Start writing about things that are personal to you, that you feel passionately about, in other words, what you need to write about.  You will start to feel that your characters are people you know very well, like family members.

Nope. I am still the puppet master so to speak.

I think what you have said is great, BUT how do I get to that point?

Are there certain things you get to know about your characters that make you think, Right this guy is ready to go tell a story?

I have seen things online where people go through 100 questions to get to know their character. Is that normal? Should I be doing that too?

MP
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: heidi52 on October 28, 2016, 08:10:22 AM
I don't think there is a shortcut for this. I think you need to spend time thinking about your characters until they become real to you. Only then you can write a real character.

Too often I think we have an idea of a story or a plot and we people it with "stock" characters so we can get on with telling the story. And the characters come off as two dimensional and not real, because they aren't.

You'll know you are on the right track when one (or more) of your characters starts talking back to you. Keep writing, keep thinking of the characters and it will happen. Very exciting (at least it was for me) when that happens.
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Markopolo on October 28, 2016, 08:21:23 AM
Thanks guys.

I will try my best.

MP
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: ed on October 29, 2016, 09:14:54 PM
Hi, Guy’s.

I need some advice on creating believable characters in my writing. I hear loads that my characters are wooden or that they don’t lead themselves in the story.

I want to fix this and was wondering if anyone has a template or set of questions they use to flesh out their characters. There must be a way!!!!!

It’s just not working for me.

Please help.

MP


Best book and only book i read on characters was Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. (Enders Game author)

It really is insightful. To sum it up in a soundbite.

Characters are their reputation, what they do, and their quirks.
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Markopolo on October 30, 2016, 01:56:54 AM
Thanks Ed.

Just ordered this. The reviews on amazon look great. I think I need to have a fundamental understanding of what a character is before doing anything else. I really want to write well and throwing out rubbish time after time is frustrating.

Once I've read this I'll take the other advice on board. I've Been  watching the mother in law closely the last few days H3K. She has so many emotions flying around it's blown my mind lol. I think I'll start with someone less complicated.
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Jo Bannister on October 30, 2016, 04:57:57 AM
For what it's worth, I find it best not to obsess about this when I'm writing.  I learn about the characters by writing their story: when the story's told and it's time to start editing, I can change anything that now seems out of character, and flesh out what started as matchstick men with what I've learned about them in the previous six months.
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Gyppo on October 30, 2016, 05:05:27 AM
Two more thoughts for you, Marco.

1)  Don't be afraid to people-watch yourself as well.  We are all far more multi-faceted than we realise.  When you find yourself doing/thinking something which seems out of character explore that possibility for a while.

2)  Do your thinking on the page.  With pen in hand or fingers on the keys.  If you do it all just in your head you'll find most of it slips away afterwards, no matter how fascinating it may seem at the time.

Gyppo

Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Markopolo on October 30, 2016, 05:11:21 AM
Thanks Jo. My characters are definetly matchstick men lol.

Thanks Gypo. I'll give it a try.
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Markopolo on November 01, 2016, 05:43:53 AM
This book is interesting Ed.

I am certain it's going to help. Thanks for pointing it out.

MP
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Markopolo on November 08, 2016, 05:57:30 AM
Hi, Guys.

I have been doing a lot of thinking and reading on this character situation. The book by Orson Scott Card has really helped Ed. Thank you for pointing me in that direction.

I also get why some people say look at how people in your life act, speak and interact as they can be modelled on.

I just wanted to see if I am on the right tracks here. There is too much info to go into from Scott’s book especially with character development. However, the first chapter (what is a character?) He focuses on a few points. The first three to him are the most important.
•   A character is what he does (How they act and interact in situations)
•   Motive (Why they act the way they do)
•   Past (Knowing their past means we understand the character better)
•   Reputation (What others think of the character)
•   Stereotypes
•   Network (How the character acts around different groups/people)
•   Habits and patterns (Cracking knuckles – twitch when nervous – biting fingernails.)
•   Talents and abilities. (Do they play piano, football, present to a group well...)
•   Tastes and preference (If they like poetry, Woody Allen movies, dislike religion.)
•   Body – This was listed last on purpose. (He says its best to show they person rather than describe them. Tom got on his tiptoes, then grabbed the beans from the top shelf. He fingered his glasses back onto his nose and flicked his greasy hair back out of his eyes.) 

I haven’t read any of his books, so I bought Enders game just to see how he puts it into practice. This is what I have taken from it. Can anyone let me know if I am on the right track?

Chapter one starts with Ender having a monitor taken out of his neck. The lady taking it out points out that he must be sick of having it stuck there for so long. (Past)

Ender then furthers that point by letting us know how strange it will be without it. In the shower, pressing against his neck when lying in bed and so on. (Past)

He brings his brother Peter into the story. Talks about how Peter will accept him now that he hasn’t made the grade either. Shows how they interacted and how Peter seems to be the boss of the pair.  (Past)

He introduces briefly someone who taught him arithmetic when he was three. (Past)

He is in a scene with kids in his school trying to beat him up – (Network and reputation)

He shows that he is clever as he was the person who figured out how to send three dimension messages. (Talents and abilities.)

I felt like I knew Ender at the end of that chapter, so it worked on me. Am I on the right track do you think?

MP
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: hillwalker3000 on November 08, 2016, 08:45:46 AM
Yes as long as you don't obsess about the issue. In a nutshell we, your readers, get to know your character by how they behave, how they interact with other characters and respond to situations, not by what information you feed us in order to create a clearer portrait. I'd be wary of inserting too many clues about their past or their physical attributes. Stuff like that should blend seamlessly into the narrative. If we can see you're dropping in information then you've not been subtle enough.

Having said that, many readers aren't as critical as your fellow-writers on here so you can probably get away with murder (the same way Orson Scott Card does.  ;)

H3K
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Markopolo on November 08, 2016, 08:55:37 AM
Lol thanks H3K.  You are so cheeky.

I'm currently reading Enders Game. Not read much Sci Fi but I like this. Have you read this one before?
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: hillwalker3000 on November 08, 2016, 09:00:25 AM
I only browsed the opening to the first in the series on Kindle Look Inside. Most of that was a self-indulgent Preface. But there's about four pages of story and I feel if he'd posted these on our Review My Work thread he'd probably have been surprised at our feedback.

H3K
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Markopolo on November 08, 2016, 09:22:15 AM
LOL. Yeah there was a whole Introduction that last ages. I skipped it after reading the first page.
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: TheOtherAdrian on November 08, 2016, 10:14:09 AM
I know nothing about Ender's Game, but in my opinion, characters can't be boiled down to a checklist - no matter how long. A character goes far beyond what ends up on the page, and in fact beyond what I think is possible to write down in finite time. That may sound counterintuitive, but the thing is that what we read on the page - a character's backstory, dialogue, reactions, etc. - is ideally a reflection of the more complete character existing in that fictional universe you're constructing. However much you write, it can never be any better than looking at your fictional world through a keyhole.

That means there are two conceivable ways to make a character work:

First, you can work out all your descriptions and make sure they all fit together and form a coherent picture of the character. Hint: This is virtually impossible. There's far too much to consider, and you'll never make it all fit.

Or you can do it the other way around: Know your character beforehand, and simply write down only stuff that is consistent with that character. That won't always work, as details about your character's personality are prone to corrections over the course of writing. But then you can simply go back, see what doesn't fit, and replace that with the version that rings true.


About the only thing that checklists can do is serve you as a way of tricking yourself: Working on the checklist inevitably forces you to think about your character, to get inside their head. In the end, the checklist itself is irrelevant and you should refrain from enslaving yourself to it. The character in your head should evolve above and beyond what you initially defined.

I spend a lot of time thinking about why characters react to situations a certain way. Sometimes you just know exactly what a character's gonna do, but you can't put your finger on the reason for their behavior. Figuring out what their motive might be (for doing things that seem out of character at first) takes you a big step toward additional depth.

Dunno if that helps.
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: hillwalker3000 on November 08, 2016, 10:27:02 AM
I spend a lot of time thinking about why characters react to situations a certain way. Sometimes you just know exactly what a character's gonna do, but you can't put your finger on the reason for their behavior. Figuring out what their motive might be (for doing things that seem out of character at first) takes you a big step toward additional depth.

Part of the fun when your character has become 'real' is that you don't know how they're going to respond to a given situation. My characters often do the opposite to what I'd prefer them to do - quite in keeping with their humanity - which means they surprise me and so in turn surprise the reader.

H3K
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: ed on November 08, 2016, 10:31:08 AM
Yeah mark you are on the right track.

I used to give a lot of thought to characters.

Now I generally just focus on making sure the main character or several characters have (reputation, something unique about them and a goal )

Make it something memorable.

Watch movies where they are dealing with more than one character and you will notice that each character is given something that makes them memorable. Usually it's something we see or hear.

- scar
- patch
- accent
- religion
- attitude
- weird clothing
- unique power
etc.


That's what makes them stand out or at least makes them memorable

-reputation
-history
-motivation
-goal

Are what drives their actions for good or for bad.

Every character has a physical and emotional ARC ( what they want + what they really want )

Luke sky walker for instance.

- He wants to rescue the princess and destroy the death star (physical goal or outward goal)
- He wants to become a Jedi and use the force (emotional or internal goal)

Female character from Silence of the lambs

- She wants to catch Buffalo bill ( external goal )
- She wants to silence the lambs from her past ( internal goal )

The physical goal means a lot to many people beyond the main character ( i.e if they don't destroy the death start tons of people will die )
The emotional goal means more to him (if he doesn't learn the force he won't become a jedi )

You will know how they are going to respond because you know the ARC before you write.

I want him to go from WEAK to STRONG

Well his actions will have to reflect that as the story proceeds.

Just as the STAKES raise as the story goes from ACT1 to ACT3, so does your characters response to what is happening.

Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Markopolo on November 08, 2016, 10:34:55 AM
 ???  :o ??? :o

I don't really see those points as a checklist. I know what you are saying with a checklist though. I have seen loads and wouldn't want to use them. I quite like what Orsen Scott has said. I need a starting point. It will give me a foundation to build my characters on. Then hopefully they become less one dimensional. I will keep working on it. I will get there in the end.

Thanks for your input.

MP
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: ed on November 08, 2016, 10:39:01 AM
???  :o ??? :o

I don't really see those points as a checklist. I know what you are saying with a checklist though. I have seen loads and wouldn't want to use them. I quite like what Orsen Scott has said. I need a starting point. It will give me a foundation to build my characters on. Then hopefully they become less one dimensional. I will keep working on it. I will get there in the end.

Thanks for your input.

MP

Just bear in mind, don't spend too much time on it.

Not all readers are smart enough to see what you have done with a character.

You will always get that one who says the characters were shallow and one dimensional.... and the one smart one who notices what you have done.

Just get the story clear in your mind, write it and move on to the next.
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Markopolo on November 08, 2016, 10:40:09 AM
Thanks everyone.
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: G. London on November 08, 2016, 09:12:28 PM
You've got to do the hard work of character creation and it is work.  The character bible or card which is a detailed run out of everything about that character, and I mean everything.  If you do this it will help you.  There are many craft books on this. Or Google character bible.
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Jo Bannister on November 09, 2016, 09:41:48 AM
I so disagree.  I can't think of a better way of turning any character into a cardboard cut-out.
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Gyppo on November 09, 2016, 09:52:14 AM
I so disagree.  I can't think of a better way of turning any character into a cardboard cut-out.

I have to agree with Jo.  If you know everything about your characters they can't surprise you.  If they can't surprise you they won't surprise your readers.

If your 'character bible' is too complete then you may as well be assembling an Airfix kit or completing a paint by numbers picture.

I've recently read enough low-priced kindle books to realise that in some cases the authors are working from a series of 'cheat cards, either real or mental, where the characters have no room for growth.
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Markopolo on November 09, 2016, 10:33:01 AM
Hey Jo & Gyppo. Do you both disagree with my post and what I have taken from the Orsen Scott book. Is that what you are disagreeing with?
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Gyppo on November 09, 2016, 11:01:14 AM
Marko.  I'm just about to go put, but I'll try and answer you later this evening.

Gyppo
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Markopolo on November 09, 2016, 11:11:48 AM
No Worries Gyppo.

Thanks
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: TheOtherAdrian on November 09, 2016, 12:34:32 PM
I think what they are disagreeing with is the advice concerning a 'character bible', because that's terrible. The thing is, you can collect as many tips as you like, the fact remains that a character is something you cannot pin down with numbers or charts or lists. As soon as you do that, you kill your character and replace them with a bland collection of attributes.
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Markopolo on November 09, 2016, 03:24:10 PM
Thank you. I suppose it's trying to strike a balance. Giving your character enough substance but not overdoing so they aren't too predictable.
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: hillwalker3000 on November 09, 2016, 05:26:54 PM
You've got to do the hard work of character creation and it is work.  The character bible or card which is a detailed run out of everything about that character, and I mean everything.  If you do this it will help you.  There are many craft books on this. Or Google character bible.

Heaven help us if raw creativity comes down to this character-by-numbers nonsense.

H3K
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: G. London on November 09, 2016, 09:16:25 PM
Human beings are extremely complex and extremely different than one another.  I can name two dozen writers that have sold into the multi-millions that employ some form of this method of differentiating their characters.  How can one possibly create unforgettable unique characters that jump off the page and millions fall in love with, if you as the author don't intimately know who they are to begin with. "Cardboard"? It's the opposite of cardboard.  It's Dan Brown, Stieg Larrson, and JK Rowling. 

If I ever let my own creations surprise me then I'm in the wrong business. It's my business to surprise my audience with depth subtly, nuance and multi dimension of character.  That can't happen unless I know them inside and out.

Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Jo Bannister on November 10, 2016, 02:56:46 AM
It's not knowing them that is interesting.  It's getting to know them.

Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: hillwalker3000 on November 10, 2016, 05:55:42 AM
Quoting Dan Brown ::) as an example of an established writer who makes his characters leap to life off the page is not helping sell the idea to me.
If your characters don't surprise you then you're taking too much control. Mine constantly surprise me - even frustrate me - the same way real people do.

H3K
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: lamont cranston on November 10, 2016, 06:46:50 AM
Creating a sort of character 'spreadsheet' does seem excessively contrived and lifeless to me.  Is there any chance that it could be a tool to lead a person to developing a more realistic, lifelike characters eventually? 

In asking this, I'm not considering people who deliberately stick to it as a formulaic way to avoid deeper or more natural/intuitive knowledge of their characters.
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Markopolo on November 10, 2016, 07:03:42 AM
I think that's the way I will be approaching it Lamont. It's been extremely interesting to see what everyone thinks. I don't believe having every single part of their life and make up written down is the right way to go. However, I do think having enough information to build on and still let them breathe so to speak is how I will proceed. It will be trial and error as I see it anyway. Another nice learning curve.  ;D
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Simple Things on November 10, 2016, 07:45:24 AM
A lot of interesting ideas and styles mentioned here. I used to develop them right off the cuff; perhaps I still do at times for shorter stories. But for longer versions I believe my characters would benefit having an outline of their characteristics, maybe even a drawn sketch(something to nudge me when my scene's direction pauses in indecision, where I can perhaps look at a particular character, smirk and think, 'yeah, that bastard would go for it' and then write on).

I don't believe it needs to be in great detail, where every line in their face is drawn in permanent marker, because I believe a character should always have the flexibility for edits - like any story - a writer needs to prepare for that.

I guess an answer to your question would be to have your story support your characters, and they support others. How they react, not only to situations, but also the reaction from others, which helps develop and deepen their characteristics, helping the reader to 'know' them more. It's not always about how 'you the writer portrays them' but how the reader does too.

Pay attention to what readers have noticed about your characters. Learn, correct, apply. Don't let 'your beliefs' interfere with theirs.

I'm sure you'll find your way
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Gyppo on November 10, 2016, 07:57:48 AM
There is no single method which is going to suit every single writer.  Some will indeed need the 'paint by numbers' guidelines which they have laboriously created.  Others will wildly 'wing it', with a great deal of rewriting.  The man who churns out a novel a month for Kindle Direct  like a sausage machine has to have a strict formula in order to meet his deadlines.

Others will spend years writing a single story - sometimes because they fall in love with it and don't want to share it with the world.

Most writers will fall somewhere between the two, but usually with a bias one way or the other.

I like to feel my stories are character led, because I know, instinctively, that interesting characters - just like real life people - will have interesting stories.  This is why I get to know them as the story develops - thinking on the page.

But it takes a certain kind of person to just plunge in and see where it goes.  You have to be a bit of an adrenaline junkie rather than a precise and methodical accountant.  You have to accept that you will have a decent sized collection of false beginnings.  But they are all part of your personal learning curve.

There is another sort of person - inherently neither better or worse - who cannot even start writing unless they know where they're going to end.  These people want characters they can stage manage, micro-manage even, and simply cannot conceive working any other way.

Both methods can produce excellent work.  But if you want to be a happy little soul you need to know which you are.

Explore both, see which feels best for you.  But don't force yourself to walk a mile in an accountant's shoes if you are a natural barefooted scamperer  through life.  Alternatively if you need your three piece suit and your office to work then don't waste too long sitting on a beach with your laptop.

Also, keep in mind that no matter what you do some readers will love it and others will hate it.

Writer, know thyself.  Then work with that knowledge.  

Gyppo
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: Markopolo on November 11, 2016, 12:46:58 PM
Thanks Gyppo
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: lamont cranston on January 01, 2017, 09:41:05 AM
I think you need a deeper emotional involvement with your characters.  You need to talk to them, figuratively anyway.

My husband and I often play a game called "HE'D NEVER DO THAT!"

He quizzes me on various aspects of the person and what they would or wouldn't do.  And why.

I wind up feeling like I'm defending or explaining a dear friend.

And maybe you could write a simpler story that is more manageable and more about a simple common event in life, and more like something in real life.  Have you written short stories?  You might write a few.  I spent a lot of time writing about NON heroic characters doing things from every day life.  Simple, ordinary things.  Just one main character.

A little kid whose dog dies.  A teenager who is told she can't go on an overnight party with her friends.  A housewife who is spending her first night in a little apartment, without her kids, after getting divorced.

How about writing about something that happened to you in real life, and writing a real, non-fictionalized account of it?  Something that really moved you emotionally?  Buying your first car, or starting your first job.  The death of a grandparent.

Something you really feel about. 

To write emotional, living characters, I think it's really important for you to examine and think about, how you feel, what emotions you feel, how life has affected you.

One thing I do is borrow some of the character from real life.  Not all.  That doesn't work for me.  But there may be one aspect of a person I know from which the writing 'takes off'.

Nope. I am still the puppet master so to speak.

I think what you have said is great, BUT how do I get to that point?

Are there certain things you get to know about your characters that make you think, Right this guy is ready to go tell a story?

I have seen things online where people go through 100 questions to get to know their character. Is that normal? Should I be doing that too?

MP
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: lamont cranston on January 01, 2017, 09:48:11 AM
I do think things like this may help the beginning writer.

As I've often been told by people who 'intuitively' learned and practiced real art, 'there's a lot of sweat behind art'.

It's necessary to work to learn things, and there are tools that help a person.  Once the person is more practiced, he should not need the tools any more.

My understanding from reading a lot of author's bios and autobiographies, from listening to their interviews, and even, in a few cases, from talking directly to them, is that they did not 'spring from the head of Zeus, fully formed'.

I saw Borges many years ago.  I think he was a hell of a good writer.  He told us that he was an incredibly lousy writer when he started.  I do think people work to get to be good.  I don't think anyone knows how good anyone will ever be.  So I have no problem with using a 'gimmick' at first, when 'the art' is still a long way from being intuitive or 'natural'.


Heaven help us if raw creativity comes down to this character-by-numbers nonsense.

H3K
Title: Re: Believable Characters
Post by: lamont cranston on January 01, 2017, 09:50:21 AM
I like reading Dan Brown sometimes (because I like reading about horses), but his characters are 'easy'.  Very 'easy'.

Some people like that.  It's very common, I have found, in genre writing.

Quoting Dan Brown ::) as an example of an established writer who makes his characters leap to life off the page is not helping sell the idea to me.
If your characters don't surprise you then you're taking too much control. Mine constantly surprise me - even frustrate me - the same way real people do.

H3K