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Author Topic: It's all about character
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Where do you come up with those great characters? That may not be the question most asked of successful writers but, in my mind, it should be. In most cases, it's the character that drives the story, not the idea. There may be exceptions, but not many.

Most of us have seen many methods to help generate story ideas, but how much have we seen about how to generate characters? Perhaps this is a relic from my role playing days, but it occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to come up with a method for producing the people that populate my prose.

What follows, then, is a kind of character profile that includes some of the things that you'll want to make sure you know about your characters. I've also included a few questions to help hint at the possibilities. In a few cases I give brief examples. If you can think of something critical that I've left out, please let me know.

As an exercise, you might try completing such a character profile on some of your favorite fictional characters. Try filling out one for friends and coworkers (Be careful with that. If they happen to see it, they may be offended.) Try filling out one on yourself. Most important of all, try filling one out on the main characters in that story your writing. You may be surprised at how much you don't know about your protagonist, antagonist, or main supporting cast members.

Don't get discouraged if this seems difficult at first. Practice will make it easier. After you've built up a file of a few score, pick a couple at random and see what happens when you put them on stage together. That's when things really start to sizzle. Now try putting them in different types of environments and see how they react. Play the mad scientist and experiment with these folks. It's fun.

Eventually, you'll find that it doesn't take that long to create a character. You can create them during those short little snatches of time that you have, or as a refreshing break from your other writing. While you're in the shower, or driving to the grocery store, you may think of something that you want to add to a particular character. Having a profile on the character will give you a place to capture such ideas.

Some of your creations will resonate more deeply than others. Some will seem flat and useless. Keep them all.

Now go to your file of story ideas. (You DO have a file of story ideas don't you?) As you read through them, which of your characters comes to mind? If none do, use the random approach again. Pick a couple of story ideas at random, and then pick a few characters at random. How could all of these ideas and people be brought together in a way that makes sense? Once you've answered that, your well on your way to creating a story.

Creating a meaningful name, one that "feels" right, can be difficult. Some things that might help are, using the telephone directory, using alternate spellings of common names, and using alternate spellings of common words. Using foreign names can be risky unless you're familiar with that language. Studying word origins and the meanings of names can also be helpful. Sometimes I use descriptive placeholder names so that I don't get bogged down with this. My file includes such comic-book-sounding names as, The Giggler, Practical Man, and Horseface.

Do you find it difficult to write from the viewpoint of the opposite sex? How do you insure that it's authentic? How is this character perceived by the opposite sex? How do the gender roles of this character's contemporaries influence his behavior?

First impression:
Everyone makes a first impression. What kind of first impression does this character make? What kind of first impressions do your other characters make on this one? What kind of first impression do you want this character to make on the reader?

How will the other characteristics change with this person's age?

Black? White? Hispanic? Human? Wookie? How will this affect the attitudes and behavior of this character? How will it change the way others behave toward her?

Social background:
Rich? Poor? Slave? Slave owner? Pet? How does this character relate to those with a different social background?

Your character's religion will impact his actions and his thinking in subtle ways as well as drastic. How can you reflect this without preaching a sermon?

How does the fact that this character is the only daughter in a house of eight sons change her perspective? How would it be different if she were an only child, or had sisters instead of brothers? What's her attitude toward her parents? How is this reflected in her attitude toward other figures of authority?

What experiences in this character's childhood shape them later in life? What experiences later in life shape the way they view their childhood?

If your story where made into a movie, which actor or actress would you most like to cast in this role?

What about this character's face is unique? What's the most outstanding feature?

Eyes are very expressive. Do they give a clue to the character's most prevalent mood?

Not just color and length, but style also. How does the character's choice of hairstyle reflect their personality?

Stocky? Chunky? Slim? Lithesome? Athletic? In the office where I work, there's a fellow who's a body builder. His upper torso his bulging, but his legs are like toothpicks. Does he never work out his legs? If not, why? What does it say about his personality?

Start noticing how people walk. You'll find that everyone has a unique way walking. What does it say about their personality?

Links to personality and/or social status/wealth can be fairly obvious, but not always.

A facial tick? A nervous way of bouncing the knees when seated? Fingernail biting? Twirling hair in a finger? In college I had a professor who constantly looked at me over the rims of his glasses, even when he wasn't wearing his glasses.

Does she like her job? Is it fulfilling? Is she there by choice or is she stuck in something she hates? Is she good at it?

What is this person really good at? Is it an acquired skill, or something they come by naturally?

Biggest Fear:
What is this person most afraid of? Exposure? Loss of social standing? Loss of a loved one? Dogs? Green ties?

Greatest unmet desire:
What, in the mind of the character, is the one thing that would make their life complete? What's the one thing they've always wanted, but never gotten? What would be the consequences if they got it?

Made angry by:
What really ticks this character off? As the writer, you get to push their buttons and yank their chains. What are they? As readers we like to observe it from the safety of our easy chair.

Made sad by:
What breaks this character's heart? Why?

Even the antagonist has virtues... usually. What are they? How did he come by them?

Even the protagonist has flaws... usually. What keeps them from being unforgivable? Once you've found your protagonists biggest flaw, hit it hard. Go for the jugular.

[This message has been edited by Perry (edited November 08, 2000).]

[This message has been edited by Perry (edited November 08, 2000).]

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There are some great ideas in here. I actually find it hard to characterize in order, usually I figure out one thing about a character, and then the others follow. Names might come first, or last. But that's just me.

There are a couple of great places to find names for characters, there's http://babyzone.com/babynames/nameinventor.asp

This site will sort through random names and give you some..really interesting results. There's some good ones though, if you keep reloading the page Some other name generators are:
http://spitfire.ausys.se/johan/names/default.htm http://gamma.nic.fi/~jmp/namegen.php3 http://rinkworks.come/namegen/ http://www.sylvantech.com/~talin/names.shtml http://www.ourhaven.come/fewb-dev/ http://www.geocities.com/TimesSquare/Ring/4333/Random_Namese.html

Another good way to build characters--or at least to flesh them out more, is to take online personality tests, pretending to be your character. Look at the results. Are they what you initially percieved the character to be? My favorite one of these tests is 'Kingdomality' easily found in yahoo under the search 'personality tests.'

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Hey, thanks for the tips!

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That's an interesting way of creating a character. Running through the questions, I picked up on a blind spot that could kill me later on. I did a little role-playing myself, nothing major, but I sorta recognise the system. One thing I didn't get was the 'meaningful names' bit. How can you have a meaningful name without getting into the realms of 'Skywalker' as a name?
I've seen that name generator, Nevala, it's pretty good. Unfortunately it was useless for me at the present, because I write alien sci-fi (which is kinda cool because I get to make the names up. Feron Harai wouldn't come out of any name generator).
The personality test is a good idea, I'll try that. Thanks to both of you.

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One of those generators keeps suggesting the name "Anus"
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Having trouble with character names?

Never fear! I present the greatest weapon in the writer's arsenal when it comes to names:


Ahem. Back on track -- I find character creation to be a far more organic process than one would imagine from the 'character profile' technique. My characters tend to reveal more of themselves with the course of the story, and I like that natural flow of events and revelations -- it keeps me more in tune with the reader. Obviously I'm always a few steps ahead, but not too many!

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JP Carney
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Slowly, so slowly getting back into the swing of things...

Reading through this, particularly the list in the first post (thanks, Perry), I started fleshing out a little girl, the main character, in a plot idea I have (not yet a story). It's helped me to pin down some of the elements of the plot that have been bugging me. I had an idea that could go in several different directions with several different feels to the resulting story, but just wasn't sure which direction was the right one. After fleshing out my little protagonist, I think two of the directions have floated to the top. Interesting...


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I’ve recently discovered that, for me, the most important aspect of a character is understanding what the character is trying to accomplish in the story. In other words, what are his goals.

There is the character’s main goal, which (if she is the main character) drives the story. Scarlett O’Hara seeking happiness. Paul Atreides seeking to avenge his father’s murder and regain his title. These are the goals that define the character's action and the story, because every step of the story either brings the character closer to his goal or farther away from it.

There can also be secondary goals, which can also drive sub-plots. Scarlett’s attraction to both Ashley and Rhett. Paul’s desire to avoid the future galactic jihad that he foresees. Sometimes these secondary goals seem more important than the primary goal. And sometimes they can become the primary goal.

Even better are when the secondary goals are in direct conflict with the primary goals. If Scarlett ever got Ashley, she would never be happy. If Paul regains his title, he dooms the universe to a galactic jihad. How characters balance incompatible goals drives many interesting conflicts.

There are also immediate goals, that drive the particular scenes. Scarlett needing to borrow money from Rhett when he is in the Union prison. Paul having to fight to the death for leadership of the Fremen.

How a character goes about achieving his goals is where character really reveals itself. Because for every goal, there are thousands of ways of attempting to achieve it. Scarlett faces her challenges head-on, trying to take control of every situation. Paul seeks the creative path that balances all the forces in contention. So, when Scarlett needs to borrow the money, she dresses like a classic Southern belle to manipulate Rhett into believing she is still well-off (even if she has to make the dress from curtains). Paul defeats the Fremen leader, but spares his life in an attempt to steer the Fremen away from their jihad. One can only imagine what “Gone with the Wind” would have been like with Paul Atreides as Scarlett, or what “Dune” would be like with Scarlett O’Hara as Paul (as frightening as that thought is ).

Figuring out how a character goes about achieving her goals, and how other characters relate to her (the Fremen’s reaction to Paul would have been radically different had he been a she) is where character charts like Perry’s become extremely useful. But for me, I need to know the character’s goals before I can properly plot or worry about the other characteristics of my characters.

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Ted Galacci
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Me, I think I like to explore my characters as I write. I don't think making a laundry list of attributes helps. First, because it makes the charcter seem like something created for a role playing game and second because it puts the character in a straight jacket.

People are not consistent. I know I'm not. We all have good days and bad days. We have tendencies but no firm rules. That would make us predictable. If readers know what a character is going to do next, half the fun is gone.

Creating a laundry list of attributes also puts you under preasure to shoehorn them all into the story. Bad things start to happen like expository dialogue tags:

"I think not," the expert swordswoman said.

Just my two cents.

[This message has been edited by Ted Galacci (edited March 05, 2006).]

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Great Topic.
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Interestring information...I like writing the characters as they come, kind of like a unknown neighbor - I build their persona's as I go. Although, I have to admit I flip back through my stories to make sure I am staying true to their characteristcs
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I need a good user name
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I don't know if this helps, but this is how I deal with this situation:

I ALWAYS come up with the character first before I do anything else - idea, story, whatever. In fact, I NEVER do anything without coming up with a central character first. So I work on a character, and let that character become the basis for the story and universe around that character - I suppose it's like driving a car more efficient to your own personal needs (you being the analogy to the character) rather than having to drive less because your current car sucks down too much gas.

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i believe this is a fantastic template for creating characters.
the props to dungeons and dragons is appreciated as well
anyway, this character template should not come first, the creation of the character should.
meaning, you shouldn't sit with this template in front of you and try to "fill in the blanks", rather you should apply it to characters you've already envisioned. I think you'll find many of the "blanks" fill in quite quickly seemingly on their own.
You can try to make characters "factory" style, just pounding them out template after template.
male? female? spin the wheel!
It seems to me you run the risk of diluting the quality of your characters this way though.
Character creation should be an evolution, not a paint-by-number, but you can capture the entire essence of your character with this template....and even save it to look at it later!

[This message has been edited by markburnash (edited September 18, 2006).]

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Thanks Perry, for posting this. It looks like a good template to keep characters on track. I will give this a shot.


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I'm not exactly a fan of such spreadsheets, at least when it comes to creating characters. Forming a character by filling such a spreadsheet feels like putting together a robot and no one wants their characters to be robots (unless they do). But lately I've been thinking of trying to use such spreadsheets for the sake of keeping order in my stories. So not creating a character this way but keeping notes on an already formed character.

[This message has been edited by MartinV (edited July 25, 2011).]

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