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Dipping Into the Character Well

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Dipping Into the Character Well

Postby SethMullins » Thu Nov 03, 2005 11:07 am

I believe that the best fiction is character-driven. Plotlines are of secondary importance, because if we don't care about the characters then the drama that unfolds around them fails to stir our interest. This division is really an artificial one, though, because within a good story the plot is an outgrowth of a writer's understanding of his or her protagonists' true natures. The adventure that beckons them is one that they need, or deserve, so the two are intertwined.

How do we hope to arrive at an understanding of our characters and their destiny whilst faced with the first blank page of a (hopeful) novel or story? The prospect is less daunting if we realize that we don't NEED to thoroughly know our heroes and villains at the onset. We need only a starting point and a glimpse from afar; or a first date, if you will. The rough draft is our "getting acquainted" period. We aren't married to our characters until the second draft, and even then we have recourse to literary divorce.

Allow me to describe two wellsprings where I'm wont to go to fill my buckets with character inspiration.

1. Alter-egos

I'm writing this on halloween, a night when children and adults have license to dress up and assume adopted personas. Many are quite zealous about living out their alternate identities, which oftentimes contrast sharply with their everyday lives. Much of the fun of halloween is derived from the freedom we have to let our alter-egos express themselves for a night.

I am typically a quietly disciplined (albeit ambitious) writer and a doting father. But there's an inner showman in me who aches to be up onstage crooning and gyrating like Jim Morrison. My exhibitionist self loves heavy-metal, grunge, punk and psychadelic rock. He insisted that I make music a core element of my first novel, and even that I include song lyrics. In an opposite corner of my psyche there exists a geek who could easily spend days at the library or on the computer surfing the web. He made some unexpected and fortuitous contributions to my book including such characters as a chemistry hobbyist turned City Father and a diplomat and interpreter living within a tribal culture. Another character, a young woman with a passion for history and literature who also plays Pan-pipes, was the result of "collaboration" between these two secret selves of mine.

If you mine your psyche for alter-egos, you're likely to find that they have surprising stories to tell. Clues to their existence can be gleaned by examining your hobbies, your taste in casual reading and even your daydreams. Isolate these figures and give them a chance to speak their minds. Your pen hand may have trouble keeping up with them before long.

2. Dreams

When we dream we travel through the landscape of our own rich inner world. Our deepest beliefs and feelings are personified and given voices. During the day our inner monologue operates constantly, and our thoughts sway us this way and that. We make myriad large and small decisions, and our motivations can be as varied as our choices themselves. Within our dreams, the collision of our thoughts and belief systems is enacted as an otherworldly drama. This inner play is intended to reflect our spiritual condition. Archetypal psychology has evolved the system of gestalt, wherein patients engage in active dialogue with figures from their dreams.

Writing can be a form of gestalt, with the poem, short-story or novel serving the same function as a dream. So the figures we encounter when we sleep can provide another rich source of inspiration for characters. Dream entities are akin to our literary creations; both represent parts of ourselves, and yet at the same time they are more or other than what we are. They receive the germ of their identity from us, but then they take off and evolve in unexpected direction - just as children will diverge from their parents' footsteps.

For this reason I believe that spontaneity is of utmost importance in any form of creative writing. I begin my novels or stories with only the barest sketches of my characters; and then I give them space to come into their own. You may find that your own characters will inevitably do this too, and your painstakingly-drafted outline becomes redundant by the third chapter of your book. So dip into your inner well for your initial impressions of who will be the main movers in your story. Then let them find their feet as you write.

I'll conclude the parenting analogy with this observation: we want what's best for our characters, but we can't plan their lives.

Seth Mullins is the author of "Song of an Untamed Land", a novel of speculative fantasy in lawless frontier territory. To browse sample chapters, short fiction and related writings, visit Seth at http://authorsden.com/sethtmullins
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Postby Caltana » Thu Nov 03, 2005 11:33 am

Characters are indeed the most important aspect of the novel, to me as well considering my own work and I am somewhat obsessed by my own characters, some I know extremely well and can see as clearly in my own mind as I could see a person standing next to me. I give mine full blown histories and as these develop I find myself beginning to understand not only just their role within the story, but how and why they've come to be the person they are at that particular time, the events, people and thoughts and feelings they've had that shaped their existence. When you know these things, writing for them becomes easy because you know how they think and thusly how to mold them and as such change them. In a sense, you can't make a character become something better or worst than they were if you don't know precisely what the 'were' is.

I to am wont to dig into my own alter egos to create characters, or more specifically, have my characters do things that I would never do, not really in terms of interests, but in terms of actions and dialogue. So some things I would never do or say I have my character's doing. A sort of place to vent my own inhibitions as it were and explore them through somebody else.

I love to write character's inner most thoughts, but I don't mean specifically rambling ones on everything and nothing, I like to try and imagine how someone who thinks in a certain way could change due to events and circumstances into someone else, to in essence try and unlock how it is we all change our opinions and ideas as we inevitably do as we get older and chart the how and why for my particular characters. Its fascinating stuff character building, and thinking about my particular character's sometimes keeps me awake at night, pondering what they might do or have already done and from what they do I can learn things about myself to and vice versa.
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Postby Neurolanis » Thu Nov 03, 2005 3:45 pm

SethMullins:

I believe that the best fiction is character-driven. Plotlines are of secondary importance...


I think the good writers get this, the others don't. Agreed.
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Postby Magus » Thu Nov 03, 2005 6:31 pm

Why is one of your personalities a woman?

:rofl:

And my dreams are anything but interesting... let alone coherent.

:wink:
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Postby Manji » Fri Nov 04, 2005 8:35 am

Neurolanis wrote:
SethMullins:

I believe that the best fiction is character-driven. Plotlines are of secondary importance...


I think the good writers get this, the others don't. Agreed.


I wouldn't say that. There are good plot driven novels and writer's who are capable of only writing plot driven novels. To say that the good writer's write character-driven stories and everything else is not "Good", it's just silly.
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Postby aldan » Sat Nov 05, 2005 1:51 am

I find that true to an extent, Manji. I find that I don't tend to get as "into" a story if the parts and pieces of the story's plot, aka the characters, don't grab me and encourage me to follow them. I think that most of the people who can do what you're suggesting should get involved with writing history books, because with history, you're telling a 'story' of the world and you're simply using the previously created characters that are in history (ones that god/their parents created) to tell their own stories. Part of the problem with when writers are weak with their characterizations is that we as humans are very humano-centric or personality-centric and so we tend to be drawn towards stories that have characters in them that do things that we would want to be able to say that we would/could do. If not, then while it might make an interesting read, quite often we won't finish it to find that out...
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Postby Manji » Sat Nov 05, 2005 2:50 am

I think you may be confusing 'we' with 'I'.
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Postby aldan » Sat Nov 05, 2005 4:35 pm

I was making a generalization. It's like a lieutenantization but much higher up the chain of command. Just because you don't agree doesn't make my point any less valid, Manji. That, I hope, is something that you will learn to pay attention to in time.

Not all of us are the same. We are not Orwellian or Wellsian creatures. However, that doesn't mean that making statements about what I see as a majority of people who do what I do (read) having certain tendencies in what they enjoy and how and why they enjoy it.
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Postby Neurolanis » Sat Nov 05, 2005 7:23 pm

I was generalizing also. There are of course exceptions to every rule. I just feel that the majorty of well-written fiction today is character-driven.
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Postby Manji » Sun Nov 06, 2005 2:48 am

aldan wrote:I was making a generalization. It's like a lieutenantization but much higher up the chain of command. Just because you don't agree doesn't make my point any less valid, Manji. That, I hope, is something that you will learn to pay attention to in time.

Not all of us are the same. We are not Orwellian or Wellsian creatures. However, that doesn't mean that making statements about what I see as a majority of people who do what I do (read) having certain tendencies in what they enjoy and how and why they enjoy it.


*beep*, Aldan, you got problems with someone talking back to you, don't you?
[Edit: Magus. Flaming and Flame Baiting. If you wish to continue this further please do so by PM and not through the forum.]
Now, back on topic. If you have the best, most human, realized, well rounded characters in the last century but your plot is insanely boring or hard to grasp, then no one will care.
If you have a strong plot and one dimensional characters, people will care.
Tolkien. His characters were either good or evil. One extreme or the other. They were not human. They were not great characters. The good guy was good and the evil guy was evil.
People seem to confuse "human" characters with one-dimensional characters that represent something. Temptation (Frodo) Brotherhood (Sam) Duty (Aragorn).
Their relationships, the way they unfolded, were real. However, without the character's relationships they would have been one dimensional.
The plot was good. You were hooked.
Now, there is a difference between character and relationship. If you're writing a "human" character then you should ask yourself, "If this guy was stuck on an island all by himself with just him and his thoughts and just telling his backstory, would the story be any good?"
In conclusion: It's not your characters, how flawed and well rounded and altogether human they are. It's how they react with one another within the plot that makes a good story/book/novel/trilogy.
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Postby Forever Zero » Mon Nov 07, 2005 7:10 pm

I guess people just aren't allowed to disagree these days, or something. Seem that way to me...

In any case, I have to agree with Manji. What makes a character a good character isn't how close you can attribute the character to someone in our world, its how you look at them in their world. What makes them interesting is how they react to events in their story, and their world, which eventually goes back to the subject of Plot. Plot is more important both for the characters' sake and the story's.
So it shall be written, and so it shall be done.
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Postby aldan » Tue Nov 08, 2005 2:33 am

Please note: the following are my opinions. I don't say they're gospel, and they shouldn't be taken as such...

I think we're looking at character as two different things here. Those, like me, who believe that characters are what make the novel, well, I at least see characters as making the novel go, making it move, doing the things that cause the plot that is being worshiped to move. It is their personalities, their backgrounds, their strengths and weaknesses that move the story along usually. If the character is engaging, then even if the plot's one that you've seemingly read several times before, you will still want to read it because the character that the good writer has created is one that you want to succeed, and you want to see it happen. It's when the characters are cookie-cuttered that a reader will start to roll their eyes, because they almost always WILL have seen the basic story told many many times before, and if the reader doesn't really connect in any way with the characters (it's this way for me, at least), then that book likely won't get much wear and tear.

Now, am I saying that plot's unimportant? Nope. Not at all. What I'm saying is that for me, if the characters are weak, I won't care much about the plot. When I say "weak", though, I don't necessarily mean single-faceted, like the ones in the LotR were. Instead I mean "weak" as in they are ones that are hard to like or connect with, due to their being not human enough to connect with, if they're supposed to be human, or then if they are too human when they're supposed to be aliens or different species. For all that many of the characters in the Tolkien novels were fairly one-dimensional (which I think was done for a purpose by Professor Tolkien), they were still very much "human" while still having their own racial distinctions that kept them fairly interesting for the reader to keep following in the novels.

In any case, the professor's strengths laid in his ability to describe his world as well as the strong and deep background that he gave to that world. The story, or plot, if you will, was not groundbreaking. It was the world he created and the races and creatures he created that made it stand out for readers, since there'd been no such things as "dwarves" or "orcs" in novels before then (they'd been "dwarfs"), and "elves" were much different from what had been shown before the novels (when they were called "elfs") by other myths or authors.

In any case, for every writer there is a different thing that he/she will concentrate on, usually, because each of us has his/her own strengths and weaknesses and will tend to write in a way that will take advantage of the strengths in our writing styles.

As for the other stuff, well, if you don't want to read my response as I've reasoned it out.... I really don't see that I am so much a person that refuses to be contradicted. Instead, I am like you. If someone disagrees with me, I will defend my side of things. Isn't that what you do??

"It's not your characters, how flawed and well rounded and altogether human they are. It's how they react with one another..." That part of your sentence there tells me that we're on different feet in regards to how we view characters. To me, a character isn't "Joe Mama is a seventeen year old high school student that has English, Football, Spanish, Trigonometry, Art and US History in school and has a sixteen year old girlfriend named Trisha that hasn't gone all the way with him." Instead, a character takes that info and explores "why". Why is he taking Art? How about Spanish? Is he a good football player? Has he lettered in it? Is he playing because he enjoys it or is it something that his father pressured him into doing? Is he dating Trish as a holdover girlfriend until he can build up the courage to ask Jenn out? You can go on from there. Basically, that stuff is character stuff and really rounds him out. Some of the things, like Art or Spanish or even the Football, could possibly be used in the storyline to make things happen (plot), but they are tied also with his character.

"There is no black or white, there are only shades of gray."
"It is better to keep your mouth shut and to appear stupid than
to open it and remove all doubt."
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