Minutes from December 3, 2018 Meeting: Character Building

This week’s meeting focused on character building.

character building

We covered a lot of ground, so settle in.

First off, let me refer you to this helpful post on creating a well-rounded character. We went over those five points and discussed how they can help address some common snags a writer may hit when crafting a character, including something called “the superhero problem” in which a character is too powerful to identify with, too invulnerable to allow the plot any sense of urgency, or too prominent in the plot to allow room to explore how other characters matter and are affected by the character’s actions. This is an easy problem to pinpoint in superhero stories but also helpful to bear in mind for a character in any story, powered or not.

One idea that frequently comes up in character discussions is personality types (the Myers-Briggs scale, the four humors, star signs, etc.). There was some debate among the group as to whether categorizing characters can help create more realistic characters or restrict a character’s growth, but groups in popular culture have been categorized in just such a way—four-character groups like the Ninja Turtles, for example, dividing the personality types between them so as to ensure that a wide variety of young viewers will have someone to identify with. And there are lots of examples in popular culture of communities dividing themselves by some defining trait or other in a way that’s unique to their story—think Hogwarts houses, or factions in the Divergent series. Even if you aren’t a fan of that sort of categorization, interrogating how and why a character gets slotted into one category or another (or why you believe they’ve been assigned the wrong one) can be a fun way to learn how to pick apart a character’s traits, determine their values, and predict their actions.

One of our writers raised the issue of writing characters with a lot of personality—the volatile or unpredictable kind—and how such characters can derail a carefully outlined novel or help jumpstart a flagging plotline. Both can be exhilarating, but how do you get back control? Does something in your plot need to change to suit your character, or vice versa? Another writer is struggling with a volatile character who’s a lot of fun to write but whose arc seems to consist of a series of reactions, and when there’s nothing for the character to react to, the plot simply stalls out. In both cases we discussed how to soften these characters—show them in their comfort zone, give them a chance to interact with a character who doesn’t rile them up, and see what comes naturally to them in a state of quiet. If they’re a blank slate in those moments, they may not have been given enough layers.

One writer is struggling to give some side characters dimensions beyond fulfilling their role in the plot, while another is struggling to maintain focus on one project at a time. In both of these cases we talked about the importance of letting a narrative wander. Give your characters a scene where they’re not participating in the quest or the mystery or the sinister scheme and just let them be people. We don’t always focus solely on our primary goals—we sleep in, goof off, take detours, procrastinate, make mistakes, have second thoughts—and our characters shouldn’t either if they’re more than just the role they play. Let them interact with a character who isn’t important to the story, or with a character the story wouldn’t normally bring them into contact with. Let them do something the plot doesn’t demand of them. Let them have a little fun. Think about who they are when they’re not serving some plot or arc.

Change perspective when a narrative seems to be flagging. Some of us are doing a lot of behind-the-scenes writing to get in the heads of characters outside the spotlight, to get a better sense of their motivations and give them a little more life on the page. Sometimes these scenes stay in the outline and simply inform the narrative; sometimes they make it into the finished product and give the reader some insight or flavor the main narrative lacks; and sometimes they can show a writer things about their world they hadn’t explored before and completely change the scope of the piece. So if you catch yourself floundering or losing interest in a story you aren’t ready to abandon, consider other points of view. They don’t have to take over the narrative, but they may help illuminate a plot hole or an opportunity you hadn’t considered before.

We discussed a lot of tips for keeping your characters layered and unique. Developing a character’s interests and passions will lead you to their strengths (thank you, Writing Excuses). Their strengths in other contexts may become weaknesses. And in between fear and desire, weakness and strength, are a whole host of less prominent traits that nonetheless are essential to a well-rounded character. They’ll determine a character’s actions from one scene to the next, or their dynamic with another character. Remember last week’s culture discussion? Your characters may come from different backgrounds and have different values or traditions that inform their attitudes or conflict with their personality—or someone else’s. Body language and other quirks can be helpful in scene setting and might even affect your story. Does one character’s quirk interfere with or suit the plot, or disrupt or complement another character’s habits? And the folks over at Writing Excuses remind us that the simplest solution is sometimes best: you can always just remove a character who is too similar to another, or combine two (or more) if a scene or plot feels cluttered.

Pay special attention to how your characters speak. Do they all sound like you? Is their speech too polished? Do they all have the same speech patterns, vocabulary, favorite words? A story isn’t life, and maybe, depending on the effect you’re going for, you don’t want your characters to all stumble over their words or use a lot of verbal filler or start talking before they know what they’re going to say, but listening to how real people speak can still inspire your dialogue. Maybe one person uses shorter, clipped sentences, or doesn’t speak unless absolutely necessary. Maybe one can’t stop talking—are they rude, do they get overexcited, are they a designated storyteller, do they just know more than the other speakers? Maybe one speaks plainly and another uses a lot of metaphor, or is very bombastic, or talks circles around a topic. Maybe one cracks jokes nonstop and another is reserved or soft-spoken. Maybe another has a darker sense of humor than the rest, or just really loves puns. In addition to informing your characters’ personalities and making your dialogue more lively and varied, all of these differences are going to have some interplay and will almost certainly impact character dynamics in one way or another.

Now for some homework.

Take a character you’ve created: a protagonist, a side character you’re trying to develop, or just a character you enjoy writing. Once you’ve chosen a character, take inventory on what you know about them. This can be a paragraph, a list, a spreadsheet, whatever works for you. What is your character like? What traits/quirks/defining characteristics can you identify that are important to your narrative, and what makes them more than just a role in a story? If you like to base your characters on a set of personality types, do you already have one chosen for them? You can use the five points in the link above and the notes in this post to come up with interview questions for your character if you’re not sure where to start.

When we meet next week (Friday, December 14 at 4pm in the PHCC library) we’ll compare notes. It’s likely that someone else’s character has answered a question you haven’t thought to ask yours yet, and vice versa, and hopefully everyone will come away with ideas for how to enrich their character.

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