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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Characters: the grass roots

Where does a character begin? Sometimes they arrive in a nearly complete package (more on that later) but usually I build mine slowly. Major characters are closely tied to the plot of the story, so when I have an idea for a plot my first question is:

What kind of person does that?
It could be in connection to the plot: what kind of person breaks into prison to rescue their cousin? Sometimes I see that vital choice or change the character must make: why is it so hard for him to let her go? Or it could refer to the character's line of work: what kind of person makes a good prince?

I talk about listening to your gut a lot; this is one of those places where I'm going to tell you to listen to your gut and work with whatever it gives you. Maybe it's something that seems dull or trite, on the surface -- ask your gut what's really going on underneath that dull, trite surface. Maybe you get a dark and scary answer that doesn't seem like it would fit your story. Or does it...?

Then comes my favorite part of the "Who does this kind of thing?" question: research. I love psychology, sociology, neurophysiology, all the sciences of who we are and why we do things. If your character's dealing with something you've never experienced -- such as child abuse, I hope -- then do your homework. Don't rely on what you've seen in movies, on TV, or in fiction.

What happens next, once you have a handful of ideas about a character, depends on what's important to you. Some people want to establish their characters' appearance first. Some people want backstory. Personally, I want to know how and why they act.

Action is character
Think of this as a variation on the "show, don't tell" advice we've all heard. I picked it up from the screenwriting world, where they don't have introspection and narrative to tell the audience about their characters.

Personality and action are closely linked: some people are careful planners, some charge in where angels fear to tread. Underneath this are questions like why does he do that, is this going to be a problem, and how is this useful in doing what needs to be done. All of which tie back into the story's plot.

Answering these will also tell you something about your character's backstory. He's self-destructive because of his miserable childhood. She's naturally shy, and it's been holding her back. World-building will come into play: he's self-destructive but as a knight that comes across as ballsy and admirable. People take advantage of her shyness because she's just a peasant girl.

Myers-Briggs personality types
I've mentioned them before, over at my blog. Myers-Briggs personality types and the sorting quizzes can be helpful in understanding your characters. The descriptions tend to be vague, but they provide realistic clusters of traits that can be a starting point for a character.

I mention them now because they can be a useful short cut -- but I'm also going to caution against using short cuts, especially on main characters. MB types can be quite useful in fine-tuning character behavior farther down the line, especially if your characters are very different from you. It's my opinion, though, that your gut knows what people are like (based on a lifetime of careful observation) and your gut's opinions should take priority over a generic psychological write-up.

One more note: MB quizzes also an interesting test of how well developed your character is. Can you take the sorting quiz for them, answering as they would answer? Do they come up as a different type from you?


mshatch said...

I have this awesome questionnaire I use that has really helped me create deep, complex characters. Sometimes I don't know all the answers at first but it doesn't take long before I do plus the questions often help me with the scenes I'll be writing later. it's time consuming but very much worth it in the end.

DEZMOND said...

I think I've heard of Myers Briggs before... but I don't know where exactly