Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Who Are These People?

I haven't written a short story in about two years, but when I was writing them, I usually only thought about one personality trait of my protagonists--whichever aspect of human behavior I wanted to explore--and more or less ignored everything about these characters. That worked well enough in short stories, where you're almost always seeing a single episode in someone's life, focusing in on a brief moment. It's odd but true that you can have memorable characters in short fiction that are not well-rounded.

This doesn't work in long-form fiction like a novel, which I discovered to my great alarm when I wrote my first novel, lo these many years ago. There was the One Thing I really knew about my protagonist, but that certainly wasn't enough characterization to make this guy interesting for 300 pages. Like a lot of novice novelists, I filled in the rest of his personality with myself. He was a skewed version of me, which also wasn't that interesting because despite my immense ego, I'm pretty dull when you get down to it.

Yesterday at work we had a staff meeting with about 45 people attending. At the beginning of the meeting we all played one of those "getting to know you" games as an ice-breaker of sorts. Each of us was given a list of 60 or so behaviors, and we were to pick five of them that applied to us. They were things like "likes thunderstorms" or "plays guitar" or "kisses on the first date" or "closes eyes when watching horror movies" and the like. The lists were then read aloud, and we all guessed whose lists were whose. Oh, the fun we had.

Where's all this leading? I am wondering today about how we find our characters, especially our main characters. It's widely held that first novelists especially have problems writing compelling three-dimensional characters, or groups of characters who are all unique, different from one another and not cardboard cutout "stock" characters.

Certainly every word we write comes from us, out of our heads, informed by our personal histories and reading histories, and every character we write exists first of all in our own heads. That's not to say that all of our characters are necessarily aspects of us, or veiled versions of us, or idealized versions of us (though too often they are in some people's writing); it means that our characters are our creations and will be limited to what our imaginations can hold.

I know that people sometimes use "character questionnaires" that have a long list of attributes (physical, mental, emotional, biographical, etc.) which, if filled in, will supposedly give you a complete picture of your characters. I don't use these and I find even the thought of them annoying somehow. When my coworkers and I were going through our "ice breaker" exercise yesterday, it became apparent that even with fifty or sixty choices and I don't know how many possible combinations of answers, after a while all the descriptions seemed the same.

Nowadays I'm trying to figure out my characters through the story itself. I tend to see all of the novel (characters, plot, theme, setting, mood) as a single interconnected machine, so my characters are created to make the plot believable and the themes active. I don't actually tend to sit down and spend a lot of time asking "who are these people" so much as I work out who they are by working out what the story is and what the story needs in the way of actors.

Now to you: Do you put a lot of yourself into your characters? Why or why not? Do you use fill-in lists to figure out who your people are going to be? Why or why not? How do you figure out who your characters are, and how do you tie that into figuring out what your story is?

P.S. Happy Bloomsday!


  1. Sometimes I put myself into a character; sometimes I don't. Though it's definitely easier to write about experiences if I've had them, you know?

    I considered creating long attribute lists for my characters but decided against it. I'll stick with the page-long profile I made for each important character until I see reason to do otherwise.

  2. I haven't figured out a process for characterization, other than to work it out as the story goes along. Maybe that's the problem. I find however, that my characters "become" whatever they are meant to be as the story progresses.

  3. With my first book, I initially started to put a lot of myself into the character, but then I pulled back. The result was this half-formed being that no one really cared much about. I came to the conclusion that I had to make a decision either make it all of me or far less of me so that the character would feel whole. I opted for less in that case. The funny thing is that I am putting a lot more of myself into my current character--the cannibal. I'm sort of getting a kick from readers saying how creepy his habits are when they are all of my weird habits. I don't make lists or anything ahead of time for the same reasons I don't outline. Nothing wrong with it, it's just not my style.

    Scott, I had a comment about what (I think) you were describing with your phrase "interconnected machine." Sometimes, a character makes sense for the story. This is a dumb example, but it could enrich a story of a man's house burning down if the man is a firefighter. In that case, the occupation could be provided for you. I sort of like the idea of this, but at the same time I don't. I wonder if it makes the story feel too restricted when every part of the story makes sense given the other parts. I'm on the fence, though. Sometimes that sort of fitting together seems exquisite. I'm glad we're allowed to write more than one book, so that we can try out different approaches.

  4. I'm probably one of the novices, I just think of one attribute and then work out more of the personality from there.

    My first novel had main characters that all seemed like they represented a part of my own personality; I don't think I've done anything like that lately.

  5. Although I'm not currently into writing fiction, I like this post. Even in non-fiction, true stories one often has to "create" characters to avoid telling too much about the real characters. (Heaven forbid we embarrass someone by actually describing them!) I like your thoughts on this.

  6. I've made attribute lists. I think it is helpful for finding the little ticks and things that make each character unique.

  7. Hmm...creating three-dimensional characters is hard. I'd say that my protagonist is like me in some ways, but in many ways, she has the courage to say and do things I would never do. Another thing I've noticed in my "cast" of characters, though, is that almost all of them seem to have a counterpart--another character who is very similar, but also very different. Honestly, I don't know why I did this or how it came about, it just happened. But then, of course, there are characters who are original and there isn't another character like them at all. I've tried to defy creating the cardboard cutout characters, but that's very difficult to do as well. Almost every character I've read, I can think of another one written by a different author who is similar, at least to some extent.

    If anything, I'd say my protagonist is a version of people we know very well in society, or at least those we read about. But every day, I try to think of more and more ways to make her different than the stereotypical version of herself and at the same time, mold her motivations to fit her character.

    Let me tell you, it's hard work.

  8. Justus: You can't only write about experiences you've had, can you? Was it you who sent me the story about waking up and having Raisin Bran?

    Eric: Yeah, my characters sort of become who they are meant to be, too. I don't separate my characters from my story; it's all one.

    Davin: Cannibal scientist! I'm not any character in my lost book, though I might be close to the protagonist of the one I'm writing now, even though he's a chemist. But not a cannibal chemist.

    Sometimes I worry that my stories are all sort of closed systems, but I think I hint at things beyond the story and leave open-ended ideas here and there. Sometimes I give my characters occupations that strike me as interesting at the time but don't necessarily have anything to do with the story itself. Unless I'm lying about that, and I probably am. But I do go a lot on "what feels right" and I do have a love for symbolism at every level of the story. So, honestly, I don't know. Sometimes my stories feel sort of cramped or crowded to me.

    Charlene: As long as you don't stick with just the one attribute!

    Shorty: Some of my non-fiction writing friends tell me that they routinely combine several real people into fictional archetypes to give readers a sense of the type of person they're talking about without mentioning any real names.

    Lois: Yeah, I know that works for a lot of people. I just can't do it. I have tried, but I never end up using the lists, and for some reason I find that making lists of character attributes depresses me. Which is odd, because I am a great maker of lists otherwise. Possibly it's because I don't see characters as separate from the rest of the story.

    One idea that came to me a few minutes ago is that I think I write stories the way I wrote chamber music back when I had pretensions of being a classical composer. A string quartet is not the story of the first violin; all of it, the melodies, harmonies, rhythms, counterpoint et cetera all are equally important and all are dependent upon one another. My characters grow at the same rate as my plot, theme and other story elements. Which, I know, makes me weird.

  9. Yeah, I've tried the sheets too. That just doesn't work for me. What works? Writing. Then when I find something that "fits" my character, I add it to my notes. Then I layer it in on the second draft. That way, I don't have to know everything before starting.

  10. I do a LOT of character work. Generally, I go into a book knowing the ins and outs of my characters and only a vague plan for where the story will go. I have a beginning. I have an ending. And I have a whole heckload of character stuff.

    I hesitate to admit it, but I actually make up my characters the same way I would for a roleplaying game. I give them statistics. I give them skills. I give them basic personality traits. And then I develop their histories and play 20 Questions with them.

    Of course, I tend to have one MC and only a couple of major supporting characters, so I can get away with this. If I was ever to do an ensemble piece, I think this approach would have to go right out the window.

  11. I don't put myself into a character on purpose, but I'm sure I'm in most of them in some way.

    I created character charts a couple of times before starting a project, but changed them as I went along if what I thought I knew about a character didn't turn out to be true. I found it more helpful to create a chart AFTER I finished the first draft to make sure I kept my facts straight as I started the rewrite process.

  12. This is all very fascinating. Does anyone have a list/chart they care to share and comment upon?

  13. I use a combination of the character questionnaires supplied by the Gotham Writers' Workshop.


  14. I try not to put myself into my characters for fear they'd all come out the same. Before I start my novels, I make myself sit down and figure out who the characters are. That way, if anything happens, I can figure out how the character I already know about would do.

  15. I think I make my main characters distinct, it's actually my supporting characters I worry sometimes will come out looking all the same, because I craft them more hurriedly. I think odd quirks are useful for helping secondary characters stand out from one another.

    I don't use lists as such, but I have been known to give my characters psych tests, such as Meyers-Briggs. It helps remind me to make them different from me.

    I'm working for the first time on a story set in contemporary times, and I'm excited to be able to give my characters fasvorite tv shows rather than favorite medieval combat weapons.


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