Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Sneaking up on Character

Once more into the breach.

I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog that I am not a natural character writer. I think I've gotten fairly good at character development, but it really is something I've had to work very hard at and will continue to work at because I know that it requires major processing for me, unlike say plot or world building. Which of course means that I spend considerable time thinking about the subject. This post is part of a discussion I've been having on another blog which I thought worth sharing here.

One of the funny things about my difficulties with characer is that I'm actually a people person and an extrovert. I enjoy and am energized by social situations. I tend to make friends easily and to be pretty good with empathy and with understanding how the people around me are going to react to my actions and words. So, it's not human results that I have trouble with in character building, it's human motivations. And that's where another of the funny things comes in. I didn't realize that I had a problem with motivations until I left acting for writing and ended up with a lot of first readers telling me that what I was writing wasn't how real people think.

I discovered that there all sorts of things that any number of people do or believe for reasons that I simply can't figure out by starting from my own base assumptions and understanding of how the world works, things that only make sense to me if I consciously create a thought experiment in which I alter the foundations of what I think of as personal logic. Instead of true sense-making I just try to figure out an internal emotional consistency for a character and then work backward to find a belief structure that would support their actions.

Whether I'm actually anywhere close to creating a good model for what's going on in real people's heads is on open question, but the method allows for fairly successful character modeling, and I'm now more likely to get complimented on character than roasted.

Any thoughts?


Jen (@ YWT) said...

By contrast, I'm quite an introvert, and many social situations drain me. I'm very good at them, it's just that I often find them exhausting and more like work than fun. Nonetheless, I seem to understand lots of people's motivations in an almost instinctive sort of way, and I'm a questioner by nature so I'm always gathering information about what other people believe and why they believe it.

Where I tend to get hung up with characters is my complete unwillingness to write a protagonist who thinks too differently from the way that I think, so a good deal of my main characters have that same kind of overlapping sense of identity as do, for example, John Irving's.

Now, things like world-building, I struggle enormously with that -- which was the primary thing that chased me off of writing SF&F even though I've loved reading the genre since I was wee. And I can do interesting plots (at least, now I can), but I've had to work very hard on consistency and cohesion.

Kelly McCullough said...

That is a very interesting contrast, Jen-seems weird to call you that instead of Indy;)

I'd love to make some grand sweeping statement on the subject but I know extroverts who are great character writers and introverts who could use some work. I'm pretty good on the very different protagonists thing, though that's not going to be obvious to people who've read WebMage but not the as yet unpublished Winter of Discontent or Numismancer.

Sean M. Murphy said...

I think, Kelly, that you've hit on a really key element of how to make characters more like real people: they m ake decisions based on their emotions or their desires, generally, and only secondarily based on logic--which is, even then, in most cases a logic structured to support their emotional reactions. Think of how important it is that politicians look good in front of the cameras; it doesn't trump having a really good message, but even a slightly imperfect message can tip the balance if the politician isn't physically attractive. Makes no sense on the governing end of things, but it is awell-known element of running a candidate. How we feel impacts how we think, and while I would love to say that we are fundamentally rational as human beings, I would be wrong--fundamentally, we are rationalizers.

Mari Adkins said...

not a natural character writer

I've been told that I'm basically the other way around - I write strong, 3-d characters. I like to think the people who've told me that are right. :P As far as world building goes, the world I write in is a place where I lived for four years and a place I still visit, as my in-laws live there; I keep an enormous photograph file (online and off) of the place. But of course I've fictionalized some of the bits and pieces. I wrote a tiny bit about this here:

Then again, I'm a writer whose stories are more character-driven than deep-plot-driven. I'll openly admit to anyone that plot is my weakest point. I'm still learning, but I think I'm getting there. ;-)

Kelly McCullough said...

Sean-I'm glad you found something useful in this post. It's very much about internal process and I can never be sure how much there is of use for others in those things.

Mari-I think I'm definitely in the minority on that one. I'd say most of the writers I know, both aspiring and professional, are character driven writers first, maybe 60%. Actually, that's worth surveying and a front page post, so I'll come back to it there. One of the reasons I like contemporary fantasy is being able to build a whole structure of secret history and hidden magic on top of the incredibly rich canvas that is the real contemporary world. The photo library sounds like a fabulous tool.

Mari Adkins said...

I'd say most of the writers I know, both aspiring and professional, are character driven writers first, maybe 60%.


being able to build a whole structure of secret history and hidden magic on top of the incredibly rich canvas that is the real contemporary world

What you're saying sounds fun. Me, I like giving the familiar awkward twists. ;-)

The photo library sounds like a fabulous tool

It helps - with the writing and the homesickness. :D My Flickr library is here: (I don't think a person has to have an account to view, but if anyone has a Yahoo account, he can use that to login instead of creating an account from scratch)