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The Backward OX
09-01-2011, 03:28 PM
All people have literally thousands of characteristics. How do you decide which of these characteristics to use, when developing a character for a story before the actual story-writing begins?

seun
09-01-2011, 03:37 PM
Literally thousands? I don't think I'd go that far.

As for building a character, I start with the basics of some good bits and some bad, then let the character build themselves up through the story.

Captcha
09-01-2011, 03:45 PM
I'm not sure you and I are using the word 'characteristics' the same way, if you think people have literally thousands of them. But, okay, I can accept that people are complicated, for sure.

I think the first thing you may want to do is be less deliberate about the characterization you do. Maybe it's the characterization version of the outliners vs. pantsers debate, but I know that I don't deliberately sit down and write a list of the characteristics I plan to develop in my characters... I just start writing them.

But if you do want to go with a more list-based approach, I'd say you should look at your character's path through the story, and decide which characteristics are important based on that. Again, I'm having trouble thinking of thousands of characteristics, but... let's say that Luke Skywalker is impatient, brave, curious about his past, and insecure about his sexual prowess. The first three are included in the story because they're relevant to the story; the last one would be a bit of colour that you could include if it came up (no pun intended!), but it wouldn't be something you'd need in the story.

I think we should also remember that characteristics are blended together in an interconnected, symbiotic mass; Luke's impatience may be fed by his sense that he doesn't really belong with the people who raised him, and that leads to curiousity about his past, which is not satisfied, which feeds into his impatience... etc.

gothicangel
09-01-2011, 04:03 PM
All people have literally thousands of characteristics. How do you decide which of these characteristics to use, when building up a character for a story?

My characters tell me.

When I imagined Marcus I never realised how dangerous he could be. It wasn't until he revealed that he had been taught how to torture by the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, that I realised his true nature.

Soccer Mom
09-01-2011, 04:11 PM
I often base them on people I know.

megan_d
09-01-2011, 04:19 PM
I don't really "plan" my characters either. I figure out what their main motivation is and just start writing. I find I don't really get a good feel for who they until a third of the way in, but that's what editing is for right?

jaksen
09-01-2011, 04:32 PM
I don't build any of my characters. They walk on scene or present themselves fully-formed. I discover them the way they act and behave, interact with others, and the things they say and do.

Anything else would be too much work, and besides that's how I meet new people irl. They come into my life and there they are.

The Backward OX
09-01-2011, 04:53 PM
OP edited.

Jamesaritchie
09-01-2011, 06:00 PM
All people have literally thousands of characteristics. How do you decide which of these characteristics to use, when developing a character for a story before the actual story-writing begins?

I doubt many people have thousands of characteristics, but it doesn't matter. They usually have only a tiny few that really matter, or that are needed for the story.

But I use real people as models, and they react to the situation as real people, not as characteristics that I pick and choose from.

scarletpeaches
09-01-2011, 06:04 PM
I don't do anything like that before I start writing the book. Even when I outline, it's very loosely and I discover my characters as I write the book.

The outline tells me what happens. The characters tell me why it happens.

GFanthome
09-01-2011, 06:27 PM
As for building a character, I start with the basics of some good bits and some bad, then let the character build themselves up through the story.

I have to agree. And occasionally you find that some mundane characteristic, such as the character's favorite colour, actually comes in handy to know for a certain scene. Write it all down so you know exactly who these people are.

cwfgal
09-01-2011, 08:29 PM
What is the story? What is the plot? What are the character's goals in the story? And what characteristics are key to fitting in with those items? Those are the ones you need to focus on.

Beth

Perks
09-01-2011, 08:32 PM
Whatever their role in the story, what they say and what they do will steer you to think about what personal quirks will highlight or contrast the part they play.

KTC
09-01-2011, 08:34 PM
All people have literally thousands of characteristics. How do you decide which of these characteristics to use, when developing a character for a story before the actual story-writing begins?

No offense, but this has to be one of the strangest questions I've ever seen asked here???

I don't pick characteristics---they just happen. I start writing the story and the building blocks come out of that. I don't consider what my characters will act like or look like. I wouldn't know how to.

PorterStarrByrd
09-01-2011, 08:48 PM
I think what you are hearing, very consistantly, is that the only characteristics you need to consider are those that make him or her useful in your book

Each will manifest itself when and where needed. You may never know any more abour your characters before you write them than your reader does before reading them

Any information that is not germain to your story is part of that dreaded information dump. To get a full description before the story is, generally, a waste of your time and, perhaps, even an avoidance strategy to put off the writing.

Each person probably does have those thousands of points you mention, but to list the ones that you need would probably result in a dozen or so, usually less in less important characters.

amyashley
09-01-2011, 08:54 PM
I let them build through the story too.

I usually have a vague idea at the outset: this person will be shallow, this one will be funny, that one brave. Very loose things. I edit/revise a few times, and as I do so the characters emerge even more. MOst of the really deep characterization comes out on my final pass when I can truly see the story as a whole and understand how my players tie into the theme and what qualities I want to showcase in each scene.

I think that advice can work well even if you only do one edit. It should be the last thing you look at after you've arranged all the pacing and taped up your plot holes. It's easier to see at that point who needs more work, and you can weave it into dialogue and action too.

quicklime
09-01-2011, 09:14 PM
All people have literally thousands of characteristics. How do you decide which of these characteristics to use, when developing a character for a story before the actual story-writing begins?


can't say for you, because to some extent it depends if you plot or wing it, but I start with some odea what happens (maybe 10% of a plot) so the next thing to do is ask why the people do what they do:

Why does the protag decide to kill everyone else, and himself? He feels life in prison will not be adequate punishment for killing his wife, and he has no personal desire to live without her; he'd have probably killed himself anyway if he lost her, but the "bad guys" are unfinished business first.

Why did they kill her? The lead has some serious women issues. worse, he's a bigot. worst of all, he's a vain prick, and she had the balls to reject him. He's had a mixed lust-on and hate-on for her for some time. Now they are all drunk and he was gonna just beat up her husband...until she slapped him. Then, shit happened.

Why didn't they confess/go to the police? Lead MC has no intention of it, fuck her--she got what she deserved. His friend #1 rationalizes it was a serious mistake, but what is done is done; them all going to prison ain't gonna bring her back. Friend #2 actually not so sure, considering atonement through confession.


etc. etc......

I don't "assign" traits so much as look at what they did, and why I think they did it. The traits come from what they do. at the same time, things they do also spring from the traits, both sides grow along the way, but that's my starting point.

jdm
09-01-2011, 09:17 PM
Here is a thought to play around with. Create a past for your character (childhood, adolescence, young adulthood) with all the trappings that go with it. Try to figure out what characteristics might come from that past (don't overlook the influence of genetics) and how the character's past may have shaped his/her views. Then plug the character into your novel and see how he/she reacts to the situations he/she is put in.

defyalllogic
09-01-2011, 10:20 PM
I don't do anything like that before I start writing the book. Even when I outline, it's very loosely and I discover my characters as I write the book.

The outline tells me what happens. The characters tell me why it happens.

Yeah. They need to go from A to B but the way they do it just they way they'd do it. just like i'd do it my way and you, yours. there will be certain things they worry about like getting dirty or getting lost or getting found or falling down and dying slowly. There will be some skill they have and some they don't... they're imaginary people who don't exist without you, but they're still just people doing stuff.

every once in a while you'll think, "why would you do that?" then you have to explain why they'd do that.

bearilou
09-02-2011, 02:27 AM
This is why I don't like those character building 'tools' that have you fill out all the mundane characteristics of a character like their favorite color or flavor of ice cream before they might be relevant in the book. It's overwhelming.

My 'list' of characteristics comes as they move through the scene.

Example. One of my characters loves Johnny Cash. I didn't pick this out and write it as part of any list. This was something that came up as he was breaking into a business to steal research information. It just...came out as I was writing that he was humming Ring of Fire under his breath as he concentrated.

It was not anything I planned ahead of time. I made a note and if it comes in handy later, all for the better. If not, just a bit of character flavor for him and I move on. However, as my writer mind actually singled out that song and I liked the idea he was a Johnny Cash fan, I intend to try to use it later.

scarletpeaches
09-02-2011, 02:44 AM
I've never found any character's favourite colour to be of any importance.

How they react when they're hurt? Oh yes. Whether or not they swear when they're angry? That too.

But favourite songs and what colour shirt they wear? No.

amyashley
09-02-2011, 03:57 AM
Here is a thought to play around with. Create a past for your character (childhood, adolescence, young adulthood) with all the trappings that go with it. Try to figure out what characteristics might come from that past (don't overlook the influence of genetics) and how the character's past may have shaped his/her views. Then plug the character into your novel and see how he/she reacts to the situations he/she is put in.

OMG. I would feel so smothered. Outlines alone make me feel like I'm being asked to do homework all over again.
How limiting.
Maybe for some.


I've never found any character's favourite colour to be of any importance.

How they react when they're hurt? Oh yes. Whether or not they swear when they're angry? That too.

But favourite songs and what colour shirt they wear? No.

QFT.

Although I do occasionally mention clothing in my books. Not color, no, but I had a mom in my last book and I must have mentioned a half-dozen times that she was wearing jeans and tee-shirts, or talked about the feel of cotton on some part of her skin. Textural stuff. Details that played into her life.

Color? No.

I sure couldn't tell you her favorite song either. But I really would NOT argue with a character who's favorite artist was Johnny Cash.

'Cause, you know, who would?

Linda Adams
09-02-2011, 04:21 AM
OMG. I would feel so smothered. Outlines alone make me feel like I'm being asked to do homework all over again.
How limiting.
Maybe for some.

Seconding this. I just toss characters into the story and they happen.

The Backward OX
09-02-2011, 06:59 AM
Pardon me if I have this wrong but it seems that all you good people are saying a character should be a slave to the plot and not exist as an individual away from the plot. I just wonder if this is a good thing.

(They might all climb off the page one night when you’re asleep and come after you for ignoring them. :mob)

JSDR
09-02-2011, 07:16 AM
Pardon me if I have this wrong but it seems that all you good people are saying a character should be a slave to the plot and not exist as an individual away from the plot. I just wonder if this is a good thing.

(They might all climb off the page one night when you’re asleep and come after you for ignoring them. :mob)

I'm seriously freaking out about how philosophical this is... :e2hammer: Does my MC exist because I think he exists? Or would he exist without me? Does the story make him exist? argh!!!
All right. I'll admit it. I think of my MC as a friend. I don't need to know everything about him. I only need to know (and write about) the relevant stuff about what we're doing together. There. I think it would be a very tiring thing indeed to constantly have to run through a friend's list of qualities every time I have him over for a pipe beer snack.

I think it depends on your writing style. One writer might build a world and story around a character they've already developed. Another might have a story they want to tell, and the character gets formed to fit the purpose of the story.

Captcha
09-02-2011, 07:21 AM
Pardon me if I have this wrong but it seems that all you good people are saying a character should be a slave to the plot and not exist as an individual away from the plot. I just wonder if this is a good thing.

(They might all climb off the page one night when you’re asleep and come after you for ignoring them. :mob)

I'm not sure when you started joking...

But, yeah, your character shouldn't 'exist as an individual away from the plot' because your character isn't a real person. S/he is an imaginary construct, used in a work of fiction.

A skillfully drawn character may seem real, in the same way that a skillfully painted portrait may look like a real person. But the portrait doesn't exist outside of the painting, and the character doesn't exist outside of the book.

In painting, the artist chooses the aspects of the model that will convey the desired effect. In order to ensure that the portrait looks realistic, the artist needs to understand, for example, how the subject's arm is arranged under the folds of her robe; but the artist doesn't need to know whether the subject has a freckle on her robe-concealed elbow, and the artist certainly doesn't paint by sketching the skeleton, and then overlaying the musculature, then adding the skin, and then covering it all up by painting the robe. In order to paint well, the artist needs to have a rough idea of all that, but there's no need to get into the details.

Same goes for writing. You need to know the aspects of your character that contribute to the story you're telling, but the rest of it is unnecessary.

The Backward OX
09-02-2011, 07:42 AM
I think it depends on your writing style. One writer might build a world and story around a character they've already developed. Another might have a story they want to tell, and the character gets formed to fit the purpose of the story.
QFE

gothicangel
09-02-2011, 11:24 AM
Pardon me if I have this wrong but it seems that all you good people are saying a character should be a slave to the plot and not exist as an individual away from the plot. I just wonder if this is a good thing.

(They might all climb off the page one night when you’re asleep and come after you for ignoring them. :mob)

I think everyone is saying quite the opposite, actually.

I know I am any way. I know the plot acts as a catalyst to my MC in the beginning, but after that he drives the plot. The antagonist works against him, driving the plot.

Far from it, he lets me know the way things are going to be. ;)

As for climbing off the page at night and coming after me, Marcus does, and frequently. Usually armed with his Gladius and Pilium.

Linda Adams
09-02-2011, 02:48 PM
Pardon me if I have this wrong but it seems that all you good people are saying a character should be a slave to the plot and not exist as an individual away from the plot. I just wonder if this is a good thing.

I don't agree with the "slave" word choice here, but it depends on what kind of story and what kind of writer you are. It's not necessarily a bad thing. I'm plot driven, and a characteristic of a plot driven story is that story's events drive the character's actions. In those stories, the character often doesn't have much of a personal life or it doesn't even exist at all. In some cases, trying to can actually ruin the suspense of the story or make the character appear incompetent.

But as a plot-driven writer, I sometimes feel like an alien with two heads when I read craft books or discussions on characterization. The books treat characterization as if everyone was doing it for the same kind of book, and there's no advice for a plot-driven author to deal with problems. An example is when I asked for help with subplots, I got lots of advice to add a romance. What am I'm going to do with a romance? I have a nearly all male cast with a tight story timeline (I ended up removing any subplot attempts and adding two plot threads and additional plot). So the characters have to function differently for the kinds of story I'm writing.

scarletpeaches
09-02-2011, 02:57 PM
To clarify my switching from "OMG HATE OUTLINES!" to using them a lot these days -- outlines enable me to write out of sequence.

I've never tried not outlining, but writing out of order.

My next challenge, maybe?

bearilou
09-02-2011, 03:50 PM
Pardon me if I have this wrong but it seems that all you good people are saying a character should be a slave to the plot and not exist as an individual away from the plot. I just wonder if this is a good thing.

(They might all climb off the page one night when you’re asleep and come after you for ignoring them. :mob)

I don't see where anyone has said they are a slave to the plot. Nor are they saying that the character might not exist outside the plot if they were real. In fact, many times throughout this board, writers have commented (lamented?) that their characters 'ran away with their plot'. Of course we all know that isn't literal. But it is suggesting that the characters were, indeed, not a slave to the plot.

There comes a time when writing is less about pouring your soul out on the page and bleeding the words and more about craft. When you know how much to write and how much is unnecessary. About where to put information, in what order and that sometimes, yeah, one of your minor characters gets fired because their presence doesn't serve the plot, and another gets to do double duty.

It's about the story, in the end. Characters, plots, description, dialogue, etc, all work in concert for the story. That's the craft.

Having three dimensional characters that appear to come alive off the page, that the reader wishes were real, is part of that craft.

quicklime
09-02-2011, 03:57 PM
Pardon me if I have this wrong but it seems that all you good people are saying a character should be a slave to the plot and not exist as an individual away from the plot. I just wonder if this is a good thing.

(They might all climb off the page one night when you’re asleep and come after you for ignoring them. :mob)


Ox,

at least for me, you have it wrong. characters should NOT be slaves to plot, which is why they need their own motivations, instead of "but, well, shit, I mean, I NEED this lady to hook up with the axe-murderer even though he seems a bit creepy, or where the fuck do my next 300 pages of cat-and-mouse come from?"

Maybe that girl is a naive coed with daddy issues and a few shots of tequila in her. Maybe she's broke down on the side of the road, and desperate to get home in time for her son's birthday. Whatever. but we've all seen movies where you lean back in disbelief and go "really? why the FUCK would you do that?" Characters need motivations to move the plot forward in a convincing manner, which is almost the opposite of what you're suggesting. A lady who just goes because you have an axe-murderer-traps-woman-in-old-creepy-house book, and it requires a stalkeree, is the slave to plot.

DancingMaenid
09-03-2011, 12:06 AM
Pardon me if I have this wrong but it seems that all you good people are saying a character should be a slave to the plot and not exist as an individual away from the plot. I just wonder if this is a good thing.

(They might all climb off the page one night when you’re asleep and come after you for ignoring them. :mob)

That's not what I get from most of the replies here. The way I understand it, people are more saying that character development isn't something they force so much as something that evolves over time and as necessary.

To me, the idea of taking a basic form of a character and thinking, "Okay, I'm going to make this character a Japanese-American atheist who loves the color green" inhibits the character's individuality a lot more than developing their character over the course of the story's plot does.

I'm a very character-driven writer. I almost inevitably come up with characters before anything else, and characters come a lot more naturally to me than plot. I am the sort of person who will know my characters' favorite types of music and their favorite colors. But it's not because I sit down with a character profile and make a purposeful decision that Kazimir, for example, likes yellow. No, I think I figured that because when I picture him, I picture him in yellow a lot. It came about naturally, not as a result of a conscious decision I made.

I don't usually try to force characteristics on my characters. I come up with stuff when I just imagine them, and I come up with a lot of details while I'm actually writing the story. If the character doesn't feel like a good fit for the story, I'll put them aside until I can come up with a better story for them.

These Mean Streets
09-03-2011, 12:33 AM
I have a special "Characteristics Dartboard" I use, along with three special tungsten-tipped darts.

Works every time.

gothicangel
09-03-2011, 01:22 AM
I don't usually try to force characteristics on my characters. I come up with stuff when I just imagine them, and I come up with a lot of details while I'm actually writing the story. If the character doesn't feel like a good fit for the story, I'll put them aside until I can come up with a better story for them.

This reminds me of when I finished the first draft of my WIP. Cassius [my MC's son] didn't have much of a function in the story other than following my MC like a hunting hound.

Something was wrong, and I couldn't work it out.

Then I was discussing the Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth with my sister. And she made a comment like 'it's really clever the way Follet showed the character of Richard starting as a boy, then changing into a man, knight and eventually the Lord of Shiring. Then it clicked, maturation. Cassius needed to move from being a child into a man and soldier. My MC can not succeed in his man-hunt without Cassius' maturation.

Libbie
09-03-2011, 01:37 AM
Whichever characteristics most support the theme of the story I want to tell. Plus a few opposing characteristics just for depth.

jaksen
09-03-2011, 04:42 PM
Dear BO (The Backwards OX) ...

Think less; write more.

Susan Littlefield
09-04-2011, 12:35 AM
Dear BO (The Backwards OX) ...

Think less; write more.

I agree. Backward Ox, I think you are over thinking this whole characteristics thing. How many real people do you know who have literally thousands of characteristics? Probably zero.

There are some things that are basic to all people. From there, your characters present themselves to you, just like real people do.

Yes, think less and write more. :)

As for me, I just write and let them show me who they are.

The Backward OX
09-04-2011, 01:04 AM
How many real people do you know who have literally thousands of characteristics? Probably zero.

Let me re-phrase this. There are thousands of characteristics shared amongst people. For example, one person might be a tall fair-skinned happy type, another a short olive-complexioned grumpy type, and so on.

Susan Littlefield
09-04-2011, 01:18 AM
Let me re-phrase this. There are thousands of characteristics shared amongst people. For example, one person might be a tall fair-skinned happy type, another a short olive-complexioned grumpy type, and so on.

Yep, definitely over-thinking it. :)

scarletpeaches
09-04-2011, 01:19 AM
I really, really don't give a damn what my characters look like.

What matters is what they do.

AceTachyon
09-04-2011, 01:28 AM
Echoing Susan and jaksen: Think less. Write more.

bearilou
09-04-2011, 01:29 AM
Funny thing, as I'm writing today.

Other than my main characters, I've described every character I've introduced with some characteristic that makes them stand out. They are not a laundry list of characteristics. Clarissa has shapely calves because that's what the MC noticed. Rex had perfectly straight white teeth due to his life as a model, because that's what the MC noticed. Stephen has dark hair with gray at the temples because that's what the MC noticed.

And yet...of the two MCs themselves, only one has had any defining characteristic described for him. He has dusky red fur.

They are coming alive off the page, I believe, because of their dialogue and what they are doing in the story. Not their physical description.

The Backward OX
09-04-2011, 01:40 AM
Yep, definitely over-thinking it. :)


I really, really don't give a damn what my characters look like.

What matters is what they do.


Echoing Susan and jaksen: Think less. Write more.


Funny thing, as I'm writing today.

Other than my main characters, I've described every character I've introduced with some characteristic that makes them stand out. They are not a laundry list of characteristics. Clarissa has shapely calves because that's what the MC noticed. Rex had perfectly straight white teeth due to his life as a model, because that's what the MC noticed. Stephen has dark hair with gray at the temples because that's what the MC noticed.

And yet...of the two MCs themselves, only one has had any defining characteristic described for him. He has dusky red fur.

They are coming alive off the page, I believe, because of their dialogue and what they are doing in the story. Not their physical description.
Okay, how about this? Let's assume the story requires a character to look over a moderately high wall. If it had been established earlier in the story that this character is a dwarf, readers will throw the book across the room in disgust.

scarletpeaches
09-04-2011, 01:41 AM
Unless you have him stand on something.

Captcha
09-04-2011, 01:59 AM
Nobody's saying your characters shouldn't be developed, or that you shouldn't keep track of who they are and what they're like. We're just saying that these things will likely come to you, naturally and easily, if you let them.

If you think about your best friend, you don't see a list of characteristics, you see your friend as a whole. You don't think "Chris is 6 feet tall and weighs approximately 180 lbs. He was born on a sunny July day in 1976, and his parents named him after his wealthy-great uncle... etc." You just think... Chris.

If you were going to write about your friend doing something, you could highlight certain characteristics as they become relevant. Until they're relevant, you probably don't even think about them, and you may not know them. What do your best friend's eyebrows look like? Does he have a scar on the sole of his foot? What's his first memory? Who was his first love, and who was his second? Does he like bacon? (trick question - everyone likes bacon). Would he rather fight a crocodile or a lion? You don't need to know all this in order to know your friend, and know how he would likely react in a given situation.

TL;DR version: Think less; write more.

bearilou
09-04-2011, 02:39 AM
Okay, how about this? Let's assume the story requires a character to look over a moderately high wall. If it had been established earlier in the story that this character is a dwarf, readers will throw the book across the room in disgust.

That's why you keep track of those things as they come up. If you have established the character is a person of shorter height earlier in the story, something that may or may not have come about organically as you write, then you make note of it if you are going to have him trying to look over a wall higher than he can see.

And like SP said, give him something to stand on to do it.

Something tells me you are focusing on something that can easily be fixed most of the time, or what you are hung up on is not what we are addressing because we don't understand what it is that you're hung up on.

Going with the last several comments you've gotten. I think at this point you are overthinking and not writing over a fear that really isn't a concern at this stage.

These Mean Streets
09-04-2011, 02:44 AM
Okay, how about this? Let's assume the story requires a character to look over a moderately high wall. If it had been established earlier in the story that this character is a dwarf, readers will throw the book across the room in disgust.Um, it's called writing. You either figure a way for the character to do that or change it. Unless you're writing in stone with a chisel, you can change anything (and have to) to fix it and make it work. (And even if you're writing in stone, create an outline/storyline first, so you won't run into a (seemingly insurmountable, for you) dead-end.)

From your threads and questions, it seems like your time would be better spent reading some good how-to books or taking some courses.

Also, I don't know who told you this, but writing isn't an automatic entitlement. Just because someone wants to write doesn't mean they can or should. Same as anything else in this world. Some things are just beyond some people.

Susan Littlefield
09-04-2011, 03:00 AM
Okay, how about this? Let's assume the story requires a character to look over a moderately high wall. If it had been established earlier in the story that this character is a dwarf, readers will throw the book across the room in disgust.

Well, it's your job to be consistent and keep the details straight.

Unless it's important to your story that the character is a dwarf, or even a other-worldly being, the reader will surmise that he (or she) is just a human being working their way trough "a situation."

Otherwise, size, looks, etc. don't have anything to do with anything at all, except to minimally describe to show a character to the reader because they somehow stand out.