A Quick Study (or not)

Earlier this week, I was asked (and consequently, very honored, amused, and somewhat panicked) to write  an article answering a few questions on Character Development. (No, not the kind you hear about at Bible Seminars. The kind that tries to strangle you when you sit there trying to breathe life into a new fictional person and have no idea where to begin.)

I know a lot of people out there think that writers are just crazy people who talk to themselves, never leave their caves, and spend all day chewing twigs and scribbling sentences that may one day get made into a book (but probably won’t.) Let me fix this misconception for you. We do not chew twigs. I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but there it is. And, while scribbling, holing up and talking to ourselves may seem useless, it really isn’t, and we have reasons for being the way we are.

We’re constantly in the business of creating lives. I’m not saying we all have a God complex (I don’t) but I think it does give us an excellent glimpse into how much our Creator put into us.  Tolkien said, we have the right to create because we were created, and I couldn’t agree more.

But how do we deal with the fundamentals? We can’t simply walk up to a formless void and say “Hi, your name is John Smith. You now have personality. Go to.” We actually have to sit down and design the character, we have to breathe life into it, give it personality and quirks and flaws and make them someone our readers would want to read about. I’m writing this post to – hopefully – answer some of your questions and give you a push into the Wonderland of character creation.

How do you come up with character hobbies and gestures and do you have any references? Those are always especially hard for me. All my characters tend to do the cliché running-hand-through-hair thing and not much else.” and “How do we design quirks and personality traits for them?”

A very good question to start off with. I can’t tell you the amount of books I’ve read where the characters are flat, one-dimensional cookie-cutter people with no real life of their own. They have nothing original to say, nothing original to do, and they spend the majority of their time asking redundant questions and rubbing the back of their necks.

I feel very sorry for these characters, but there is nothing I can do for them. So – how to design a character with personality and dimensions? It’s easier than you’d think, and there are many ways to get inspired.

 Study the people around you. Family, friends, total strangers, even yourself. What are the odd quirks you see? Does your brother whistle when he’s nervous or caught in the act? Is that stranger constantly running her finger up and down her arm? Does your best friend have a necklace they never take off? And what about you – does the face in the mirror scrunch up in a specific way when answering a question? Do you make clicking noises with your tongue, do you drum your fingers on any available surface, do you sing to yourself without meaning to?

I’ll tell you the truth – I’ve never had to study another person in order to give my character a quirk. I think they must gather in my subconscience, but I’ve never had trouble thinking them up. (Plots, on the other hand… heh heh…) Study other people if you have to, or simply sit and write down a list of quirks and traits to hand to each character as they’re born. Maybe they’ll throw it back at you and demand a new one, or maybe they’ll latch onto it for dear life. You’ll just have to wait and see.

Here’s a tip, though – make sure the quirk fits the character. My character Alec cracks annoying jokes and my character Sienna is constantly swatting him (they’re siblings, it’s okay) telling him to stop it. I cannot see Sienna cracking annoying jokes with her younger brother swatting her and telling her to cut it out. It simply wouldn’t work. So make sure your quirk works with your character’s personality.

“How do we give characters motivation ?”

This is pretty simple, and yet it can also be pretty complicated. For instance, you have a hero who’s after the bad guy. But why is he after him? What did the BG ever to do him? What would make him want to chase him all over Kingdom come in order to rid the world of his menace? Was it a fight over a girl, or did the BG kill someone important to the hero?

In my tale The Shadows Fall, the elf Eristor is prince of a kingdom called Tirran. He is a displaced prince, however – his stepfather Caranthir abdicated his throne in favor of serving the dark prince Oscariath. But since Caranthir is still alive, Eristor cannot legally take over the throne, and so it is sitting in the care of his steward. Caranthir also tortured Eristor and murdered Eristor’s birth-mother (Caranthir’s own wife) and is the reason for another family problem (sorry, sweetie. Spoilers) that devastated Eristor. Therefore, Eristor, who has been embittered with vengeance, has every logical and legal reason to hunt down his stepfather and kill him (though I won’t tell you what happens in the end).

Sienna dislikes Eristor and is constantly arguing and disagreeing with him. She isn’t just doing this because she’s a brat (though she has her moments – a lot of them) but because the first time she met Eristor, she ran into him, he stepped right over her without helping, and proceeded to behave as if every problem in the world was her fault. Therefore, she has reasons for disliking him.

Your character must have motivation behind their actions, it’s absolutely necessary – even if they aren’t earth-shattering (like Eristor’s) and are more petty (like Sienna’s).

“How do we get into our character’s heads?”

This is probably the most important question I was asked. Getting into a character’s head can be easy or difficult, depending on how you do it. I know some authors who try to pound their ideas into their characters heads and as a result, the characters come out lifeless. (Example: Anne Rand).

One thing that really helps me get into my character’s head is questionnaires. Asking your character a bunch of questions about everything, from their favorite food to their secret fear, has been an enormous tool for me in discovering the heartbeat behind my characters. What they like and dislike, who they love and who they hate, what peeves they have and what they would die for. I highly suggest this exercise – think up as many questions as you like or use something like Beautiful People (which I love).

Another thing is, spend time thinking about your characters. Dream up situations – how would they face them? What would they say, what would they do? One thing I do now and then is wake up in the morning and try to put myself in that character’s mindset. Dress like them, use phrases they would use – you’ll find yourself gaining a whole new view of them when you learn to see the world through their eyes.

“How do we make our characters relatable so that the reader connects with them?” and “How do we give our characters realistic flaws?”

This one, for me, comes pretty naturally. (Maybe it’s because I’m such a messed-up person. ^.^) I think it stems from always having hated those perfect characters, like Elsie Dinsmore (who I could not STAND when I was younger. I still really can’t stand her. She irritates me). Because everyone, in reality, is so deeply flawed that ‘perfect’ characters don’t resonate with us. We can’t relate to them, therefore they fail to influence us.

It’s very easy to give your characters flaws, in other words. (Unfortunately, all I have to do is look in the mirror 😛 )

In order for a character to be relatable, they have to be human. (Even if they’re elves or dwarves or other various races.) So, in order to create an imperfect but connectable character, you have to make them real. Look around you – it isn’t very hard to find flaws in yourself and other people. For instance, my character Sienna is very sarcastic and has a biting tongue – faults taken from myself. Eristor tends to hole emotions up inside himself and not talk about them, a flaw also taken from me.

“How do we avoid the cliché and create characters that are new and unique?”

The answer to this question is different for everyone. For me, characters tend to come out unique – just like no child born is the same as the last. A mother doesn’t expect to have two identical children – even if they are Siamese twins they will be a least slightly different. If you truly let the characters awaken and introduce themselves to you, rather than trying to dig them up like an archaeologist, you’ll find they have their own color.

If you have a great idea for a character but they’re still a bit one-dimensional, then you can look forward to having a blast making them more colorful. Do they dye their hair in rainbow colors? Are they mute? Are they ambidextrous? Where are they from? (This influences them greatly – if they’re Cockney, they’ll talk that way. If they’re southern, they’ll say ‘y’all.’ If they’re Australian – they won’t walk around calling everyone ‘mate.’ Sorry, but it’s true).

Also, try to avoid major clichés. Here are a couple well-known ones that, if you must have them, try to make them original. Try to ‘own’ the cliché, and make it proud to be called a cliché.

 – The feisty princess who rides stallions because no horse can resist her, hates tea time and would rather sword fight and wrestle than embroider cushions. Ahem. 

 – The boy/girl who is really a prince/princess/someone important but has been hidden from their true destiny since birth

– Insta-love. TRY TO AVOID INSTA-LOVE AT ALL COSTS!!!! Please, please, please onmykneesbeggingyou, please don’t add Insta-Love to your mix.

– Love triangles. Er… tread lightly. Sometimes, love triangles are done well (Red Riding Hood, Boys Over Flowers) but the ratio of well-done love triangles to cookie-cutter love triangles is about 1 to 6 billion. Think it over carefully, and make sure your characters can hold up the love triangle well.

– 1-800-dial-a-Guard/Extra/Random Person. If you have a scene where something happens in the middle of a street? There will be people around. (Granted, in today’s society the majority of them will probably be taking videos with their cells to post on Twitter, but there will be PEOPLE there. Don’t forget this. Don’t have random deserted streets). And also, guards – at castles, houses, any place that would have soldiers or guards about – remember them! They have lives too, even if we don’t delve into them. And they’re not all 100% idiots. And they probably have some semblance of training. (A good example of the Useless Guard is BBC Robin Hood. As much as I adore the show, I have to agree with Allan a’Dale when he tells Guy “I’m not being funny, but your guards. Pffft! Useless!”)

– Let me explain – no, there is too much. Let me sum up –

Characters are unique individuals. They have their own lives, their own preferences, their own hairstyles and favorite animals and songs. They argue differently, smile differently, drink their tea differently, and are allergic to different things. They are your literary children – treat them as such. Take an interest in them, and they will do things you never even dreamed.

 

Credendo Vides,

Mirriam

 

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34 thoughts on “A Quick Study (or not)

  1. .Great advice! I absolutely second “spend time thinking about your characters.” Sometimes I feel guilty for doing more thinking than writing, but ultimately, it’s very worth it.

    “A good example of the Useless Guard is BBC Robin Hood.”

    So true! 😀

    – Marian

  2. Very good advice-some of which I’ve already applied to some of my own characters. Character creation, world-building, and particularly interesting scenes together likely make up my favorite part of writing.

  3. I love this! I was just about to go back to reading TSF when I saw that you had posted, so of course, I had to read it. And I totally agree about insta-love. You don’t just see someone and suddenly become all starry-eyed. You have to get to know them and find their faults and their weaknesses, and their little quirks, before you can get to know them and like them. And love triangles often make me want to pull my hair out or scream or something.

    And as for cliches, I’m partial to them depending on what the story is, mostly because my friend and I are writing a book, and we’re sticking as many cliches in there as we can. If you write them well, or just make a joke out of it (like we’re attempting to do. I’m hoping it’s working. xD) they work. We actually have a ton of fun writing our cliches into our book. In fact, in our “prologue” which is really more of a “before you read this book you might want to figure out just how strange we are” we say: “3. We know about all the cliches. We love all the cliches. I cannot figure out how to properly type cliche on my computer.”
    /Random Ramblings

    Also, doing questionnaires with characters are really fun. xD Also, I keep meaning to do Beautiful People again, and I keep forgetting. *sigh* I really need to get on that.

    • I’m really glad you enjoyed it, Sofia!! *grin* Cliches CAN be fun – if you’re writing a making-fun-of, cliched story you ought to try “A Wizard, a Witch, and Three Girls From Jersey” and “Heir Apparent,” both of which are hilarious books making fun of fantasy cliches. I hear “Dealing with Dragons” by Patricia Wrede does the same thing =D

      • AHHH! I love Dealing With Dragons! It is one of my all-time favorite books, and I’ve read it probably seven times. I very nearly bought “A Wizard, a Witch, and Three Girls from Jersey” at a library book sale, but I decided I didn’t want it quite enough to buy it. I’m picky about what I read. 😛 I haven’t heard of “Heir Apparent” though. I’ll look it up! And making-fun-of, cliched stories are both fun to read and write. 😀

        I have just about 100 pages left of TSF, and it’s absolutely wonderful. I’ll probably finish it tonight or tomorrow, and then I’ll send you the rest of my thoughts, written in the same way I did before, probably. 😉

        • I don’t remember negative content in the Jersey book; it was downright hilarious, that I DO remember. XD I’m so glad you’re enjoying TSF!!! I can’t wait to hear your final thoughts!!!!!

  4. Wow. Thank you. I’m very glad I asked you for help. This has given me lots to think about . . . I hope it shall help. 😀

    *bookmarks*

    THANKYOU!!!

  5. With the questionnaires, I have found it also helps to have the character answer the questions, in their own words. The way they choose to interpret the questions, the wording of their answers, the questions they have no idea how to answer (I usually put my own answer to those in parenthesis), all contribute to my understanding of the character.
    There are some characters (coughOrelicuscough) who refuse to give me an interview, but most of them go along with it well enough. 🙂

  6. I shall certainly keep these in mind for when I actually get around to writing a coheret, non-awful/abominable novel. Yep, the thing about inept guards is quite correct;I wouln’t want those or many other guards for my own since they truly are useless other than to be a fun exercise for the heroes, as the guards bumble about like idiots. 🙂 But poor Alan…I miss the poor fellow; let’s have a moment of silence for our deceased friend, shall we? :,(

      • You’re probably right about the spelling of Alan/Allan; I’m just being obstinate with the spelling. 😉
        I think I remember seeing it spelled “Alan a Dale” (or wasn’t night have been “a-Dale” or “a’Dale”…), but I might have forgotten, and the BBC RH series might be different than some of the books…

  7. You talk to yourself! Yay! I’m not the only one! 🙂

    I’m am so glad that you don’t think that Australians say “mate” all the time. I don’t think I’ve ever said it seriously.

    I love what you said about making characters! It’s all so, so true!

    • HOORAY for writers who talk to themselves =) I’m really glad you enjoyed the post – and you’re Australian!? COOL! FYI, I love Australian accents. ^.^

      • I always wondered why people think Australians have an accent–I never thought they did. Then I came back from holidays overseas, and realised, who’d have thought, Australians DO have an accent! It was kind of funny. I don’t have a strong accent or anything, though.

  8. Ohhh, I think you’ve scarred me! How can you hate Elsie!?!?! Okay, I admit it, she is rather on the perfect side, but I love her just the same ^.^

    Your advice on getting to know your characters is great, though! Unfortunately, if I tried to dress like my characters…. well, let’s just say dressing like a Pilgrim would look rather strange walking through Walmart! 😉

    By the way, I’m Emily(: Sorry for saving the introduction for last!

    • Oh dear, Emily, I’m sorry for scarring you. XD I’m glad you enjoyed my post – though yes, dressing like a Pilgrim probably WOULD look odd. Even in Wal-Mart. Though my friend Chris walked into Wal-Mart dressed like a.) a pirate and b.) a medieval prince, and nobody paid any attention. XD

  9. I’m glad I’m not the only one bothered by Elsie Dinsmore. Reading about her used to make me so mad, especially when Arthur put all those ink blots in her copybook and almost got her in trouble and she WOULDN’T SAY ANYTHING. I wanted to shake her.

    ANYWAY, cliches are fun to poke fun at – that’s probably why I love parodies so much. Your LotR pieces still make me and my sister crack up laughing 🙂

  10. *ahem* if a love-triangle done well means your heart was ripped out and stomped on a dozen times, then yes, Boys Over Flowers did it well… probably one of the best I’ve ever seen.

    But anyway, good advice – I think you just saved a poor Southern gentleman I was going to cut from one of my stories. He was the one random person on an otherwise empty street… and I couldn’t figure out why he showed up. But a completely empty street makes even less sense, so good point. 😀

    Anyway, this was just a totally fun post! 🙂
    Now I have to go see which of my characters I can dress like without being thought completely mental…

    • YOU HAVE SEEN BOF. OH YES. It stomped over my heart, made me eat it, and then made me GLAD it was tearing me into shreds!!! Definitely the best love triangle on the planet. Ah, I’m so glad I saved a poor Southern gentleman XD I’m also very glad you enjoyed my post – tell me which character you dressed like XD

  11. BOF in a nutshell… 🙂 Speaking of, if there are any other kdramas you would recommend, I would love to hear which ones. 😀

    haha, and I attempted to dress like the one modern girl character I have – easy right? Only she did not approve. My earrings weren’t big enough, my skirt wasn’t twirly enough, my shirt didn’t have enough ruffles… No wonder I’ve had a hard time “getting” her… she’s always just a teeny bit over the top. She did like my shoes, which had 3 1/4 inch heels – it was that 1/4 inch extra that made her happy I think. lol

    • Kdrams.
      IRIS! IRIS is the most AMAZING spy/thriller EVER (Plus it has Top from Big Bang and Lee Byung-Hun yeeeeessss) – but it has a lot of violence and some sexual stuff (nothing graphic, however. More like implied).
      My 19 is good, and it’s only a movie, too (and it has TOP *and* Seungri!) And then there’s 71: Into the Fire.
      Which is really good.
      And sad.
      And has Top in it.
      Ahem.
      And I hear City Hunter and Playful Kiss are really good, though I haven’t seen them yet =D =D =D

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