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Author Topic: Depth of the characters
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Just finished OSC's Shadow of the Hegemon. And, as usual when finishing reading OSC's stories, turning slightly green with envy.

The question that is plaguing me for a couple of years now is this: how to make characters deep? How to transform your story from a plot driven into a more or less purely character driven story?

I tried doing this in a very rationalistic way by making a list of every human characteristic I can think of and stopped in the middle because I realized you cannot build a character from blocks like a building. The Characters (as in people) I can create but how to make their properties firm? How to describe their character (as in a personality) with only their own words to other Characters?

Again, wanting an easy answer when there isn't one. And I already know I will probably be disappointed by the responses you people will make because they will offer me no easy way of doing this. But I want people's opinion anyway.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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The good thing about books is that they are great for characterization. When you present your characters, you don't just have to rely on "only their own words to other Characters" but can get into their heads and share their hopes, fears, goals, frustrations, and their motivations with the reader.

An exercise: take a story that you feel has truly deep characters. Go through and underline everything that is only inside each character's head (use a different color for each character if the story has more than one point of view). Use a photocopy of the story if you don't want to write on the published version.

Then look at what the author did and think about how it made the characters deeper.

Of course, getting inside characters heads isn't the only way to make them deeper, but it's easier than trying to convey things in other ways. If you find that there wasn't a lot of inside-head stuff, go back through and underline things the characters did, because the actions of characters can also show the reader the depth of the character. That's a little harder to do, though, especially if you give the reader reason to believe the character is acting dishonestly -- such as having characters say one thing and then do another.

Anyway, I hope this helps.

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Consider what makes each person unique in the real world. I would suggest some of it is genetics, but the majority is life experiences - past, present, and future. Some of these we have control over, some we do not.

Apply this understanding to your fictional characters. You create their appearances and emotional cores - typically a stereotype. Now, make them living breathing creatures touched by everthing that has happened before them, happening to them now, and about to happen to them. Why are they a doctor, a scientist, or a spaceship captain? This is the first step in making them unique.

I haven't written out detailed family histories or character descriptions since I was in college. I think this can be valuable, but just as we are more than the sum of our parts, I feel characters within a story should be so as well.

Extrinsic has been discussing within some of his posts how the fictional environment and occurances therein affect the emotions and actions of its characters and vice-versa (this also affecting the reader at a deeper level). I have also been reading a compilation of essays by some sci-fi greats who are indicating very similar thoughts.

One such writer, James Patrick Kelly, suggests "becoming" each character and considering how you would behave in this or that situation. I take this approach. I know it sounds funny, but I read my stories out loud as I write them. I give each character a different voice and try to think differently for each as a character actor would.

You might consider participating in the Character Interview section of this forum to get you started.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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The Character Interview area is a way to "become" your characters.
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There are books that discuss this but give no real examples.

As I was saying in a topic I started here, it would be nice to get a few interested people together privately to go through the books' discussion, find examples, examine them, figure out how they work, write our own and have the group discuss how well we succeed. Wouldn't that be worth trying?

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The way I see it, there are three different things going on in your question, MartinV.

1. How do you create realistic characters?
2. How do you convey their depth onto the page?
3. How do you use/ allow their characteristics to drive the story?

All of these elements are related, and to a certain extent form a triangle. Each piece influences the other pieces, and the way I approach it, you can't just do one and then move on to the next. Each element is an integral part of the others.

1. Creating realistic characters requires work. You're right, just piecing together personality traits probably isn't going to give you a realistic person; rather, it's likely to give you someone that seems slapped together. Or like one of those annoying characters that seems quirky for no good reason.

Good characters are usually marked by a want of some kind. This is out side of, but related to, the ultimate drive of the story. Samwise Gamgee, for example, is content with life at the shire but would really like to see elves. Frodo loves Bag End, but feels discontent somehow, like he doesn't quite belong. He's been feeling this since before the story happens, and when we're introduced to him, we come to understand that this has been an underlying theme in his recent life. So I usually start with that. We all have holes in our lives. What are they? How might we attempt to fill them? An MC who wants love, for instance, might seek out intimacy inappropriately. Conversely, the MC might be really standoffish and require a potential mate to prove his or her love before getting involved. Or the MC might drown their sorrows in drugs or alcohol. Or the MC might be a thrill seeker, living for that adrenaline rush that they wish they could have with someone else. How the MC reacts to that hole is largely a product of what they are like and what has happened in their past.

I try different things out one by one, keeping the things that feel right, discarding the things that don't. I work by instinct here, and at the same time I start trying to predict what role this person will have in my story. How would he or she react to the inciting event that I've set up. What makes their personality particularly suited to the inciting event, what journey it might cause them to go on. Similarly, I might have to adjust the inciting event depending on the character. If the character is a pacifist he or she might need more of a push to get involved in a war than I originally planned. If the character has had their heart broken too many times they might need a little more to get them to open their hearts.

2. Okay, you could have the most unique, fascinating, realistic character ever, but who would know it if you can't show it on the page. This, I find, is one of the trickiest parts of writing. So much of this is style. I think you just have to progress sloly, and very consciously of who your character is. Characters are revealed in how they think and feel, what words they chose, and what they do. GRR Martin is amazing at characterizing. Every word, every phrase he choses, is steeped in the mythos of the character. He throws in italicized thoughts quite frequently, a technique which I'm not entirely fond of, but which works quite well. If you want a lesson in showing character, I think you should study his books. There's a certain rhythm to it. Action, internalization, italicized thought. Choose to put in histories at the right moment, think about what that character might be thinking right then, and then put it down.

There's a limit to this, though. DOn't go overboard and show off everything you know about the character. Don't stick in scenes just to show your character is one way or another way. The reader will sniff these out too, and your story will weaken for it.

3. All of this brings to how the character drives the story. Remember that everything your character does and says should arise from their unique blend of characteristics, histories, and desires.

When I write I almost play-act. I try to don on the person's skin. I open my ears and try to hear what they might say. I open my heart and try to feel what they might be feeling. When something happens in the story, I stop and think, What would I do? Then I think, Okay, so then Jon is like this. What would he do?

The reason I ask myself the question first is to check to make sure I'm not just reaching for the easy answer. Instead, try to reach for what's not obvious, what is unique to that character. Say a girl has spurned Jon and told him she never wants to see him again, and runs away. Does he stay or try to catch her? Maybe Jon's been hurt in the past, so he's tempted to take her at her words. He thinks, fine, if she doesn't need him, he doesn't need her. So he doesn't go after her. But he still loves her, he can't deny that, and maybe his ex-wife had driven her car into a tree after an argument. So he can't stand the thought of losing her, too. So what does he do? He follows her, but he doesn't let her know that. He just wants to make sure she makes it home safe, even if he's too proud and hurt to let her know that. Okay, not the most brilliantly unique option but I've already stepped beyond the two obvious answers.

So this is the balancing act. One, making a character who is well suited to the story, while crafting a story that's well suited to the character, but also throwing the character a surprise. They're here to learn; don't let them get too comfortable. They're reward you by throwing you their own curves, refusing to do something, for instance, or doing something else entirely (like Jon above--I had no idea he was going to do that until I starting thinking about his past. Then the answer was obvious to me.)

When writing you've got to convey the right details, the right memories, the right thoughts which both explain to the reader why the character is doing what he or she is doing, and also how the character is changing as a result of the story.

Okay, hope this helps.

Edited to add:
I forgot to address the inciting incident (I think I called it "event" up there). The inciting incident is the first, big event that throws the MC's world out of whack. A family member dies. The colony gets invaded. The MC falls in love. The MC robs the wrong bank at the wrong time and is caught. What have you. It is from this event that subsequent actions and reactions move the story forward. So, it's pretty critical that your know how your character is going to react to this, that that reaction feels authentic to the reader, and that that reaction suits your needs as a writer. Again, I find it to be a balancing act, pushing story and character along, and, in turn, being pushed back once in a while.

So, in a character driven novel, think about what your character would do. Then what he or she would do next. And then so on. If the character gets off track, either see what happens or throw something else in there.

Also edited to add:
One thing I've found enormously helpful is writing out scenes from the character's life. I do a combo of first person, third person, even just dialogue. I think about the major events in the character's life: falling in love, defying a parent, choosing to do something they know is wrong, something they do that they're proud of, etc. This exercise forces me to think about things I might not have otherwise considered, and allows me to get a feel for how they react to things.

[This message has been edited by annepin (edited October 25, 2008).]

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Some of the most helpful advice on this I've ever gotten came from author Sherwood Smith. I realized I'd already been doing this, but it was very helpful to understand why it was working.

Sherwood Smith said:

If the character is always gloomy, always sarcastic, always with the wise-ass quip, or always nasty, even if he or she has all the motivation in the universe, that character is going to read one-dimensional because we all know we’re a bundle of (usually contradictory) emotional reactions. The hard-assed villain at a light or even tender moment, the hero being off-balance, the side-kick having the cool head, you get the idea, giving characters [emotional] range helps because:

2) The perception of lack of dimension (I think) comes through readers’ expectations being fulfilled. If the reader can guess ahead of time how a character will react, even if there is every logical reason for the character to do or say that thing, then there’s no growth or guesswork. When the character takes the reader by surprise, I think it ups the ante, the possible interest.

[This message has been edited by DebbieKW (edited October 26, 2008).]

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Robert Nowall
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Last time I tried an extensive biography of a character, I (1) fell in love with the character---which is pretty disgusting, and (2) never finished the novel the character was supposed to be in.

Next time, and thereafter, I just tried to visualize a biography, and when bits and pieces were appropriate for the story, I dropped them in.

Depth? Hard to create. I don't think you have to explain every facet of the characters to get it, or even think it's desirable. Sometimes their past life is irrelevant. You might do a story on some characters in a lifeboat---but if you, say, have them encounter some malevolant alien force that puts them in a greater life-and-death struggle than being in a lifeboat, you don't have to go into every detail of their lives before they got into that lifeboat---or even why they're in the lifeboat in the first place.

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Maybe my Characters are deep, I just can't see that because I'm the one who created them.
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OSC's devices for creating great characters are fairly straightforward.

First, he gives us a character we like or can sympathize with and he makes the character likeable/sympathetic right away.

Second, he uses deep penetration third person POV extensively, so that the reader is inside the thoughts and feelings of the character without actually stating the exact thoughts like you might state direct quotes. Check it out. Study the way he does it. He's a master at it.

Third, he puts this likeable/sympathetic character into a seemingly impossible situation, and since we like this character and since we're comfortable riding along inside this character's head, we're anxious enough to find out what happens to the character to keep reading through to the problem's solution.

Fourth, and most interestingly, OSC rarely gives much physical description of a character. He makes the character 'real' in other ways, and allows the reader to become imaginitively engaged in the story by filling in those details. And, by the way, this is one of the biggest mistakes I see in new writers--they don't give details (like eye color for example) at the beginning (which is OK), the reader engages his/her imagination and fills in the missing details, the reader then 'reveals' a detail later on (usually something unimportant) that is probably in conflict with the reader's imagined visualization, and the reader becomes lost in confusion or becomes disinterested.

So don't sweat the details. Only the physical details crucial to the story should be included. Let your reader fill the rest in. When you engage your reader's imagination, you engage their heart and soul, which further adds to the power of the character.

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I have to second KDW - motivation - and add - life experience/internal moral code. If you understand why the character is doing something and what his/her goals are, that motivation will drive everything else. Also, where that person is coming from is going to affect and/or twist the motivatation.

My favorite antagonists are the ones who do "bad" things or oppose the protagonist because they fundementally believe thier way is right.

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I'm sure I've recommended this here before, but I will again (and again). You should read Browne and King's "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers", check out the section about internal monologue and examples of how to express your character without it. I try to stick by their advice. They have great examples, rewriting a description of the same scene from different character POV's and it's very cool to see how different they can be just from some simple word choices.
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I won't find this book in my country. All I can do is try Amazon to buy it. Which is what maybe I will do.
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It would be well worth it, IMO. It's the book I've found the most useful to improve my writing.
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