How do you guys make good/interesting characters?

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Caveat Lector
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Re: How do you guys make good/interesting characters?

#16 Post by Caveat Lector » Mon Apr 13, 2015 11:32 am

I have a lot of people tell me (and I read a lot of places that say this, too) to think of your characters as tools for your plot. To not get emotionally involved in them because the point of the story is to essentially torture them with conflict.

I hate this. I get that it works for some people--and you have to also realize that even though you might love a character, if they don't contribute to the story in any way, you can't keep them for decoration--but I think you should always see your characters as actually people and not just tools. When they are just tools, they become flat and boring and no matter how cool the plot is, if those characters fail to get me emotionally involved, they story just doesn't do anything for me.
I don't like this advice about seeing characters as tools, either. If you can't get emotionally invested in your own characters, then what's the point? Your point about how you should always see your characters as people is spot-on--trust your instincts. For me, I start out with a few very basic keypoints and then let the character tell me where to go next. I've surprised myself by discovering a lot about them through this method. However, there are also other times where this doesn't always work out quite as well as I want it to, so then I go back and add little things like hobbies and likes and dislikes, and see where it can go from there. Perhaps even show how they feel about politics?

Also, maybe it's just me, but from experience, the more I love a character, the more I torture them. It's just fun!
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Re: How do you guys make good/interesting characters?

#17 Post by doodlemancy » Mon Apr 13, 2015 1:24 pm

E-night wrote:
Juno wrote: I have a lot of people tell me (and I read a lot of places that say this, too) to think of your characters as tools for your plot. To not get emotionally involved in them because the point of the story is to essentially torture them with conflict.

I hate this. I get that it works for some people--and you have to also realize that even though you might love a character, if they don't contribute to the story in any way, you can't keep them for decoration--but I think you should always see your characters as actually people and not just tools. When they are just tools, they become flat and boring and no matter how cool the plot is, if those characters fail to get me emotionally involved, they story just doesn't do anything for me.

I like conflict to stem from the choices the characters make along the way, especially the MC. So I really need to know my characters in and out. Initially the story's conflict usually will be out of the character's control, but character development is all about making the characters make their own choices based on their personality, background, and goals.
Out of pure curiosity who say this?
Because I have only ever heard "think of the characters as real people" and not just plot tools. So I am interested in knowing if there is a whole school of writing teqnichues out there that I've just never heard about.
I've seen it before too, but I couldn't tell you where. Pretty sure "think of characters as TOOLS not PEOPLE" is some of that vague writing advice that some author, at some point, probably said, though it's been divorced from them since, and just gets passed around as some kind of writing proverb. Much like "NEVER USE THE WORD SAID!" and "write what you know," it's one of those things people pick up and just accept for some reason, even though it's not very good or useful advice.

I suppose I've read some fiction where the characters were less important as people and more important as tools but the only example I can think of off the top of my head is Nineteen Eighty Four. I guess if your main goal is to make a point, then yes, characters are tools to make the point, but that doesn't even mean you have to be less emotionally invested. It's really an author's discretion thing. In general, any advice that puts restrictions on what you're supposed to care about in your writing is probably bunk.

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Re: How do you guys make good/interesting characters?

#18 Post by RotGtIE » Mon Apr 13, 2015 2:17 pm

Coming up with questions about your characters and then answering those questions is an excellent way to develop them very quickly, as you've learned.

As an addendum, I would make two suggestions: one, make sure to focus your questions in a ways which are relevant to the character in question, and two, be prepared to give simple, mundane, entirely ordinary answers to questions even if it doesn't seem very interesting to do so.

Using the premise of your story as a premise for a hypothetical analog as an example, let's say I were to start trying to build a story around the premise of a world which is under assault by some kind of monster and a protagonist who takes up the profession dedicated to destroying these monsters. Just the premise alone prompts questions about the setting and this character. For the setting, questions like "just how much danger are these monsters to the world? Are they going to drive humanity to extinction? Are they a menace to individual towns but unlikely to wipe out all people? Or are they world-eaters, not only ready to devour all humans but also annihilate the entire planet and move on?" would occur to me immediately. For the protagonist, I would first wonder "what motivated them to take up such a dangerous path in life?" The previous question about the setting could open up likely answers to this one. For example, world-eating monsters would make the motivation abundantly clear: necessity. This opens up the possibility for the protagonist to be a reluctant hero, or even a completely unwilling one. If the monsters were not present a threat of extinction, this option for the character would probably not be available. In that case, you would really have to answer the question in a way which clarifies why the protagonist chose to be a warrior when other less dangerous options were on the table.

This is where suggestion two comes into play. It's very, very tempting at this point to say something like "well, the protagonist wants to fight against the monsters because they experienced the generic JRPG childhood trauma of having their hometown destroyed and their parents killed, thus fueling their desire for vengeance against the monsters," and that may seem like a really deep motivation, but on further analysis, it might not be the best choice for character development. You see, in this situation, just like with the character who is required to fight monsters to stave off human extinction, it doesn't really tell us anything about the character's personality, only the necessary courses of action the world imposes on them. A character who experiences childhood trauma is likely to be shaped strongly by it, making it less of a choice on their part to do whatever it is they do. If, on the other hand, you had a character who "always tried to make things fair for everybody" or "got into lots of fights with bullies" and "wants to drive out the mean, ugly monsters," then that tells us quite a bit more about their personality, even though it wasn't necessarily triggered by a deep or impactful event. In the case of a hero who is forced by circumstance or driven by childhood trauma, it doesn't really open up any more questions beyond that. But in the case of the character whose personality drives them to a course of action which others might not take, it opens up more questions and allows more opportunities for probing into the way their mind works. That is how you get your character development going. That is how you make your character an interesting person whose mentality is one which evokes curiosity and a desire to investigate in your audience.

Even the most mundane observations can lead to many questions. Let's just take something simple, like a character with white hair, and start asking questions about it. Why does she have white hair? Is white hair normal for people to have in this setting? If so, that's that, and there's nothing more to it. And that's perfectly fine. It tells us something about the setting, and it establishes that, at least as far as appearance goes, there's nothing particularly out of the ordinary about our white-haired character. Or is this not the case? Is she an albino? Does that have any implications in this setting? Are people in this setting superstitious and likely to take her hair color as an omen or a sign? Or can characters have white hair color without being albino in this setting due to other reasons, like magical aptitude in a fantasy setting? None of these answers, by the way, are necessarily more interesting or worthy than the simple mundane answer of "it's fairly normal in this world and there's nothing more to it than that." Don't be afraid to come back at targeted questions with simple or mundane answers, and don't be too eager to explain every character trait with a deep philosophical exposition. As The Incredibles reminds us, things that are Special and Super experience diminishing returns if they are too prevalent. Try to avoid the temptation to make everything dramatic or unique, because if everything is, then nothing will be. Taking that notion a step further, also remember that - and this is especially true of fantasy and sci-fi settings - just because something is fantastic compared to the setting of our reality doesn't mean it will be fantastic in the setting of your characters.

In short, target your questions, answer them in as much detail as necessary, be prepared to explore several branches of question-and-answer before choosing one, and lastly, never be too afraid of the ordinary to make use of it.

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Re: How do you guys make good/interesting characters?

#19 Post by LateWhiteRabbit » Tue Apr 14, 2015 10:08 am

doodlemancy wrote: Pretty sure "think of characters as TOOLS not PEOPLE" is some of that vague writing advice that some author, at some point, probably said, though it's been divorced from them since, and just gets passed around as some kind of writing proverb.
The point is that characters NEED to be 'tools' first, and 'people' second. There isn't anything saying you can't make them interesting and complete people, but first and foremost your characters need to be developed as tools to the story.

Tight and well-paced stories with good themes need every ingredient to be purposeful. The characters you create need to be in service to the story, and have a reason for being in the story. (A reason that isn't "because it's realistic", or "because I like them".)

Characters can be used to provide contrast with the MC, as a dark mirror of what they might become. Or to act as a Mentor, or to show someone failing to do what the MC must to show the stakes involved.

So remember, characters need to be TOOLS first, and then you can make them interesting people. Because the process doesn't work in reverse, and you'll just end up needing to kill your darlings to keep the story on track.

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