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Thread: Topic Tuesday #8: Creating Characters—The people who inhabit a story's world

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    MacAllister's Official Minion & Greeter AW Moderator Ari Meermans's Avatar
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    Topic Tuesday #8: Creating Characters—The people who inhabit a story's world

    “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.” ― Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon


    There are novels we read long into the night and often return to reread over the years—and the reason is the people who inhabit that story’s world. We remember them and they and their stories are the ones we recommend when someone asks.

    Tell us about your favorites:

    Who inhabits the world(s) of your favorite stories?

    What makes them compelling and engaging?

    How did the author(s) make the people of their story world so vivid, so authentic that you can never forget them?

    Or,

    Tell us who your WIP is about and how you're making them unforgettable.
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  2. #2
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    It's so hard to pick a favourite character. One novel that comes to mind, though, is Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance. It's been several years since I've read it, but I've read it at least twice. The characters are very compelling. Probably because a lot of tragedy strikes them, and yet they keep going and going. They're also just so human. The two main characters have desires to move from the untouchable caste to a higher calling. From what I remember the younger character, Om, is a jokester. I think I may need to re read the whole book again. Although, then I'd have to be prepared to cry.

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    To Kill a Mockingbird works so fantastically well purely because of the compelling characters. None of them are "created" in the sense of set-up description. They all live through what they do. I find the Hemingway quote to be priceless as writerly advice. Put away your "character-development" worksheets, and write a story. Have people do stuff, and the character of those people will develop and engage the reader.

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    MacAllister's Official Minion & Greeter AW Moderator Ari Meermans's Avatar
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    To Kill a Mockingbird was actually one of two books I was thinking of when I wrote the opening post. I knew those people. I was growing up with those kids and their interactions with each other and with the adults were so true to life. I was Scout Finch (the instigator) when my parents let down their guard and I wasn't hemmed-in by convention . . . and I always found myself in a bind because of it. I worried that the "waffle" marks from kneeling on the edge of the floor furnace grate as punishment would never go away. It was easy to forget that was a novel and not a true story because the people and the times were authentic to my own experiences and surroundings.

    I'm a flat-out pantser and the way I "build" stories is by someone (figuratively) grabbing a cup of coffee, pulling up a chair, and saying, "Let me tell you my story." In short, the stories begin with the character. Still, I think I can understand why another author might need to build character sheets or write bios. It might be necessary in order to prevent the MC's taking an action that isn't in character as they were drawn, but is required for the advancement of the plot. In such a case, it would be necessary (I think) to go back and provide the rationale for the action taken. Now, this is just me mulling over the idea; those who do use some form of character study in their planning stages would definitely have much better insight into the process.
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    Stand in the Place Where You Live KTC's Avatar
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    Zachary Martin Glass. Zooey from JD Salinger's Franny & Zooey. Salinger managed to make him so vivid and real and alive in such a short amount of time. It's a short book and Zooey is in it for such a short amount of time. But the minutiae with which Salinger paints him leaves a lasting impression of a fully realized being. I get breathless thinking about that character. The banter, the bathroom scene, the philosophizing. It really does epitomize the less is more theory. Zooey is my favourite fictional character. Salinger's dialogue manages to make Zooey witty, sarcastic, caring and authentic...all at once. Minutiae. Perfectly drawn with quick brushstrokes. You don't even realize it until it's over. Then you're hit with the profundity of it.
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    The one, or perhaps two, characters I remember most vividly come from Howl's Moving Castle: Sophie, the MC, and Howl, the wizard. At its core, it's a "girl meets boy" story in a fantasy setting. But, to me, not a typical set up. Both characters were flawed, and human.

    On the other hand, my own characters are falling rather flat. They're not people. And I know the problem. Something to work on.
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    practical experience, FTW MaeZe's Avatar
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    For something more recent, the main characters in both Code Name Verity and The Girl on the Train are incredibly memorable for vastly different reasons.

    I don't think I could give as decent a description of why the characters in Code Name Verity are still with me as one finds in this Salon book review (warning, spoiler hints in the full article, though not outright spoilers):
    Given the bleakness of this scenario (Wein doesn’t even allow us to see Queenie as a hero; she’s reviled by the other prisoners for talking), I wasn’t sure I could bear to go on. Morven Christie’s performance as Queenie made the developing story of Maddie and Queenie’s friendship at once more engaging and more unbearable. Could I stand to see this smashing girl meet her fate? Yet how could I abandon her? On balance, however, Christie makes leaving [the book] unthinkable.

    Then, halfway through, “Code Name: Verity” switches to Maddie’s version of the story, and Christie hands the mic over to Lucy Gaskell. Maddie is that rare creature in the 1930s and ’40s, a female pilot, and while not allowed to participate in combat missions, she did, through a breach of protocol, fly the plane that dropped Queenie into France. Queenie thinks Maddie died in a subsequent crash, but that turns out to be a lie — and far from the only deception practiced in “Code Name: Verity.” Much of Queenie’s narrative is not what it seems.
    You get to know both of these women so clearly in this book, I can't say enough good things about it.


    For The Girl on the Train, it's easier to describe. The character is that loser everyone knows, alcoholic, unattractive, jealous, pitiful, and yet something about her draws your empathy and you don't hate her. The book plays with the character as an unreliable witness along with her complex personality. The fact the author made me interested in and like a horrible character left the character still with me months later.

    In looking for reviews on The Girl on the Train, I found an article saying the movie characters are not the same as in the book. Read the book first! Don't let the movie spoil it for you.
    Last edited by MaeZe; 02-01-2017 at 08:13 AM.

  8. #8
    All about that action, boss. ElaineA's Avatar
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    I've read too many books to pin down one memorable character. Stephen King's stick for me, as so John Irving's. Garp and Homer. So does Anna Karenina.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ari Meermans View Post
    I'm a flat-out pantser and the way I "build" stories is by someone (figuratively) grabbing a cup of coffee, pulling up a chair, and saying, "Let me tell you my story." In short, the stories begin with the character.
    My building "process" is similar, sans coffee. I put process in quotes because it's nothing determined. With one major exception, I have always and forever, since the first story I remember writing, begun with a person. Not a character; they're never that at first. They're just a person, standing there in my consciousness. I tend to ask them something like "What are you about?"

    That said, as I've grown as a writer, I've realized I have had to do more to make them a "character." Writing a 2500-word short story about a "person" is relatively easy. Writing a novel about a "person" is nearly impossible, or so it is for me. The "person" must become a character, with all the motivations and stakes, backstory (known or unknown) inhabiting their movement through the book. Nothing throws me out of a reading experience faster than a character who does something completely out-of-character, so I'm cognizant of that as I write. I have often found myself stopping in the writing to remind myself, this character's motivation is:_____. Or asking the character, WHY are you doing this? I do believe it's probably more efficient to have most of those questions answered before the writing starts, to have an arc in mind. Otherwise it's too easy to let the character take my hand and lead me down the garden path.

    I am not personally a fan of extensive worksheets, but I have learned to be aware of emotional and behavioral consistency, and the need to prepare the reader for any departure from them. I suspect Hemingway was an astute observer of human nature, and as such, didn't have to make character diagrams. Not every writer is gifted with that capacity.
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    New kid...seven years ago! DancingMaenid's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Snitchcat View Post
    The one, or perhaps two, characters I remember most vividly come from Howl's Moving Castle: Sophie, the MC, and Howl, the wizard. At its core, it's a "girl meets boy" story in a fantasy setting. But, to me, not a typical set up. Both characters were flawed, and human.
    Great example! Howl's Moving Castle is one of my favorite books, and the characters are a big part of that.

    For me, creating characters is the one way I'm very much a pantser. I just...think of characters, and they become full-fledged people in my mind over time. My characters are usually the only thing I feel confident about.

    The downside is that this approach can take time. It's really hard for me to write one-off short stories, for example, because it can be hard for me to care about writing characters that I've just made up to serve a short idea. I can come up with them, but don't always feel motivated to write them.
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  10. #10
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    The first character that comes to mind with this question is Sookie Stackhouse (created by Charlaine Harris.) I'm from the South and I instantly envisioned this girl and felt like she could have lived down the gravel road from me.

  11. #11
    Come on you stranger, you legend, Devil Ledbetter's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ari Meermans View Post
    I'm a flat-out pantser and the way I "build" stories is by someone (figuratively) grabbing a cup of coffee, pulling up a chair, and saying, "Let me tell you my story." In short, the stories begin with the character. Still, I think I can understand why another author might need to build character sheets or write bios. It might be necessary in order to prevent the MC's taking an action that isn't in character as they were drawn, but is required for the advancement of the plot. In such a case, it would be necessary (I think) to go back and provide the rationale for the action taken. Now, this is just me mulling over the idea; those who do use some form of character study in their planning stages would definitely have much better insight into the process.
    I'm a panster and I use a free-writing character interview process to find the story. Characterization flows out of that. It starts with simply asking a character "what happened?"

    Two nights ago I was stuck in my WIP because the POV character was unconscious and unaware of motivations of another character. I hauled up a secondary character who would have been privy to some details. In about 120 minutes he'd spilled 2,600 words of motivations, dialogue, and action in the form of a deposition, all of it in his unique voice.

    I would never use a static interview questionnaire. I really like to burrow down into the characters' feelings about what's going on in the story. I find the best way to do that is to just ask them.

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    Have pen, will travel Cindyt's Avatar
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    Alas Babylon by Pat Frank

    Not My Will by Francena Arnold, which I have read probably 20 times and it still makes me bawl my eyes out. BTW it was Mrs. Arnold's first novel.

    The Flowers in the Attic Series

    Centennial by John James Michener

    The North and South triology by John Jakes

    IT and The Stand by Stephen King.

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  13. #13
    Likes metaphors mixed, not stirred Chris P's Avatar
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    As soon as I try to think of any, my mind goes blank. Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut's Rabo Karabekian from Breakfast of Champions and (the vastly underrated) Bluebeard comes to mind. Of course Zorba from Kazantzakis' Zorba the Greek (although I connected more with the bookish "straight man" narrator), Pierre and Andrew from War and Peace, Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye (I loved him as a teenager, now I think he's a tedious whiner), Huckleberry Finn, and many others I'm sure I'm missing.

    Perhaps the most memorable characters are real people from their memoirs. I thought Tina Fey's Bossypants was one of the best memoirs I've ever read, Jack Grisham's (lead singer for hardcore punk band TSOL) American Demon was a gripping read, and I got addicted to Dave Eggers after reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (although I find his recent straight up fiction not nearly as engaging). Despite a lack of humility, Keith Richard's Life was a good fun read. The characters don't have to be larger than life, either. Confessions of a Turtle Wife by Anita Salzberg was hilarious and Many Rivers to Cross by M. R. Montgomery was great. Even when not written well, a good memoir is one where I feel like I know what I could expect if I met the person.

    I think the two paragraphs are connected: I like characters I can relate to, with just a bit of zing. As I aspire to write "mainstream contemporary" novels, I try to write Everyperson characters but more so. They need to be relatable but with still a little something about them that make them not just "every person." I need enough of Hemingway's caricature to make them real, then just enough fantasy to make them even more real.
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    practical experience, FTW Jade A's Avatar
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    I'm going to answer the first 3 questions in regards to the best series I've read recently: Earthside by Ana Mardoll. Cause it's in my head and I loved the characters.

    Who inhabits the world(s) of your favorite stories? What makes them compelling and engaging? How did the author(s) make the people of their story world so vivid, so authentic that you can never forget them?

    Her characters are amazing because they're really different from most. They're completely diverse: personalities, races, orientations, genders. They all feel real, like they could be me or my friends. Their relationships feel real, their attractions feel natural. Her stories are about survival and adapting to a body that betrays you. I could relate to this, in some ways, although less severely than the MCs experience. I'm not used to seeing characters dealing with issues that connect my own, especially not in the fantasy novels I love. That's what made them unforgettable to me.

    Tell us who your WIP is about and how you're making them unforgettable.

    I'm trying to base my own characters on the inspiration I've gained from Mardoll's books. I want to make characters that are diverse, three-dimensional, and human. I want characters who struggle with the often underrepresented issues that have surrounded myself and my loved ones. And do it all within exciting genres, like fantasy and horror. Basically, I'm trying to do something I'll probably fail at lol. But 'shoot for the moon; end up among stars', right?

  15. #15
    practical experience, FTW vicky271's Avatar
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    I'm assuming these are novels written by other authors? My favourite series to date is Harry Potter. Haven't found anything like it. At this time, it's a hidden society within ours. Witches and Wizards hide in plain sight. The world and deranged society is magical and awe-inspiring. There's so much detail and life. She writes with great knowledge. Rowling knows the world inside and out. This makes the world feel as 3D as the real one we live in.
    Last edited by vicky271; 04-28-2017 at 08:12 PM.
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    I'll throw one of my more obscure ones out there. This comes from the Stephen Hunter novel Dirty White Boys which I think may be getting done as a movie soon. Three convicts busts out of prison and a state trooper ends up with the task of hunting them down. The leader of their gang is Lamar who has some brains and some muscle along with Odell who is all muscle and no brains and hen there is Richard Peed who has lots of brains and no muscle. Now, Richard is not much at first. Although artistic and obviously smart, he's quite the coward. However, as the story progresses, he gets thrown into a lot of tight situations and by the end(spoiler alert), he's changed quite a bit. He re-enters prison but now gets respect from other inmates and actually knows how to accept it without coming off as his old self. He now says little and knows how to look at people so they'll respect him. His new bunk mate tries to be pals with him but the new Richard won't have any of that, ordering him around and showing clearly, that he is now a force to be reckoned with.

    Physically, I'm not sure Richard would be any more than he was before, but mentally, he's now not only smart, but he's also mentally tough. I really liked the change. It made me laugh but also exhilarated me. Character change is probably the story element that I appreciate the most. So this one was right up my alley.

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