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Build a better character

Chris Podhola

One of the most common questions I get asked after reviewing a manuscript for a consult is:

"Did you see any places where any of my characters spoke out of character."

To which, I usually sigh.

My frustration doesn't come because I think that is a bad question. Normally, the authors I consult with are in early stages of development. It is a good question and it is something every author should be concerned with. My frustration comes in the fact that throughout the pages of the manuscript, I virtually always provide tips along the way to help said author build stronger characters. By asking me that question after, I am left with the impression that they either didn't read those tips, or didn't understand them even though I try to avoid making the tips overly complicated.

What I see most often in underdeveloped characters is dialog that is very generic in nature. It is the type of dialog that could be spoken by anyone at any time. If you have a character that speaks in very generic terms, with no specific dialog, key phrases, or style, then how can you determine that a character would or wouldn't say any one specific thing. There is nothing wrong with having a 'well rounded' character I suppose, but if all of your characters fit this description, then all of your dialog will be 'well rounded.'

Here is one example I ran across recently. In the story in question, the author wrote a young homeless girl character. In the beginning of the story the girl stares into a diner wishing she could eat inside. She is shooed away and ends up in an alley where she is stabbed only to be saved by a nearby vampire who was out hunting for the evening. In the beginning of the story, she paints the character, making her out to be pathetic and weak in order to try and pull at her reader's heart strings. All of her characters dialog was generic, there were awkward scenes infused into some of her chapters because she understood that she needed drama, but the drama didn't occur naturally. The author inevitably asked me that question.

What these authors are looking for is the 'Han Solo' effect, I think. If you're not familiar with the 'I know' story, here it is paraphrased.

During the filming of The Empire Strikes Back, just before Han is lowered into the chamber where he's encased in Carbonyte, Leia hollers out, "I love you."

They filmed his reply in many different takes. Originally he was supposed to reply, "I love you too," but it just didn't fit. It didn't feel right. After a time, Harrison Ford eventually said, "I know." It was a Bingo moment and they used it.

Not to say that Han Solo was the greatest character ever written, but he was a very 'trait specific' character. He's been described as a 'rogue space cowboy, a ladies man, a bad-boy along with other things. He was arrogant and self centered, but likable, witty and determined and by the end of the movie, he develops a bigger heart. Everybody knew when they heard him say, "I love you too," that it just didn't fit his style. "I know," did.

So how do you develop a character like that? Here is what I told the author in regard to her homeless character:

"Change your character's personality traits right from the beginning of the story. Instead of making her a 'pathetic' homeless person, make her a survivor. Make her the type of girl who is determined to make it through every day and is willing to do what it takes. She is the type of girl willing to sleep on a rat infested mattress, wait behind dumpsters for restaurants to throw away leftovers. She has learned the skill of pick-pocketing, has developed connections with fences and disguises herself as a boy so that she doesn't come off as weak. That way, when your hero is stabbed, you don't have to go to such extremes trying to tug your readers heartstrings about the fact that her life is being cut short. That will happen naturally, because being a survivor is a likable character trait and later on, when she is under the care of her vampire savior, the fact that he views her as a 'stray' won't be so emotionally damming to her, and you won't risk your readers not liking him. That minor flaw in his character won't matter because your hero has a sense of self worth. On top of that, you also have something through which you can filter her dialog. She is a survivor and has a certain toughness to her after living in the streets for a year so successfully."

There were more things that had to do with other aspects, but that was the gist of the advice for her hero and her heroes personality.

One of the most common practices in writing a character is to use a character profile sheet. I have seen many of these and I do use character profiles in my own writing, but the one thing that I make sure to outline for myself are specific character traits. If you build a character profile or use a template lifted from the internet, make sure that character traits are a part of it. It isn't enough to list out place of birth, occupation, hobbies, marital status, college education and etc. You must have a very specific idea of personality specific traits. Without that, you can't really determine whether your character would or wouldn't say any one thing in particular.

Doing so can be a huge help in your dialog. When writing dialog, it is very important to always keep your character's motivations and slants in mind. If you find yourself writing dialog that looks similar from character to character to character, it is because you don't really know who your characters are. To fill the gap, you end up writing all of your dialog as if you were the person speaking and not your character. The words are yours and not theirs.

To be fair. This happens to me all the time during my rough drafts. Usually, I am half way through a manuscript by the time the traits I outline in my profiles really start to sink in. I don't sweat it. That's what editing is for. For the most part, I spend quite a bit of time and effort fleshing out my characters during the editing process and I do this by focusing in on those personality specific traits that I assign to my characters, often adding backstory in my head during the edit, so that as I'm rewriting the dialog, I can understand why my character behaves and/or says what he/she does.

So, whether you do it during the edit or the rough draft, make sure you have personality traits assigned to your character. It should take you a long way to improving your characters.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Chris Podhola

One of the most common practices in writing a character is to use a character profile sheet. I have seen many of these and I do use character profiles in my own writing, but the one thing that I make sure to outline for myself are specific character traits. If you build a character profile or use a template lifted from the internet, make sure that character traits are a part of it. It isn't enough to list out place of birth, occupation, hobbies, marital status, college education and etc. You must have a very specific idea of personality specific traits. Without that, you can't really determine whether your character would or wouldn't say any one thing in particular.

I'll admit, I'm guilty of this (having all my characters speak the same. I'll have certain characters speak with a particular accent, or in a certain way, but the majority of them tend to speak like I do.

However, rather than 'character sheets', i tend to use a 'motivation chart', where I list each character's motivations. Rather than defining the character (which can easily get out of hand), you list their primary motivation, which makes it easy to handle their responses to any situation. I find it's more of a pacing tool. Whenever I have a slow section, say after an action scene, where everyone discusses what happened and what it means, I use the motivations to reveal the existing conflicts between the characters, which enlivens the discussion and provides plenty of conflict to make even short info dumps intriguing.

To be fair. This happens to me all the time during my rough drafts. Usually, I am half way through a manuscript by the time the traits I outline in my profiles really start to sink in. I don't sweat it. That's what editing is for.

That's why I undertake the revision of a story as a separate process. Many of the authors here talk about reworking a single chapter until it's 'perfect', but if you don't yet understand the character, or where they'll end up, you polishing an unfinished bowl. I prefer waiting until i know each character completely, both how they start and how the end, and then revising how they interact, so their personalities and their developments flow smoothly throughout the story, rather than remaining flat in the beginning and growing deeper as the story progresses.

By the way, Chris, it would help if you uploaded a sample of your character sheets. That way, each writer can get a feel for how they're used, rather than trying to guess what you mean.

Replies:   Chris Podhola
Chris Podhola
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer


However, rather than 'character sheets', i tend to use a 'motivation chart', where I list each character's motivations.


I definitely agree that motivations should play a major role in every scene. I also agree that character definitions can get out of hand, but I do think you are missing an opportunity by not assigning at least a few personality traits to your major character, and or minor eccentric characters. By doing this, you enable yourself the ability to filter their dialog through a specific personality. For example:

Fancy Sparrow: I developed a character by this name quite some time ago. Here are a few of her personality traits along with features of her appearance that signify some of her characteristics.

Wears colorful bits and pieces of clothing that she collects herself, sewing them together (much like the way birds collect odds and ends to build a nest), herself to form geometric patterns, adding accessories like scarves, jewelry and shiny trinkets. Wears her hair long on one side of her head, but shaves the other, dying parts of her hair pink and purple in alternating streaks.

Personality traits: gregarious, loquacious, animated, likes to show off, uninhibited and spontaneous.

Through this foundational identity, I have a starting point through which I can develop her speech. Such as:

"Come now, Zephyr. We shouldn't leave ourselves alone in this," Sparrow said. She raised her eyebrows at him as she stepped slowly forward, soaking in the surprised look he gave her. He's such a fussbucket. So square that charcoal grey is the only color he likes.

Zephyr took a step back from her, but she wasn't having it. She gripped the front of his sport jacket, flipped her hair to the side and held him in place.

"Now looky here, captain," she said, batting her eyes. "I've never been turned down by a man, even if I was only asking him for a party. I do want a party and if you give it to me, I promise to give it back to you; a party you'll never forget."

He held his lips firmly at first, her kiss as foreign to his nature as knitting, but she didn't mind. Cracking a nut for the treat inside is much more rewarding when the nut is stubborn. When his lips finally began to soften, she knew she had him. After that, he would do anything she wanted.

By the way, Chris, it would help if you uploaded a sample of your character sheets. That way, each writer can get a feel for how they're used, rather than trying to guess what you mean.


When I first started doing character profiles, I began by using sheets that I found on the internet, but after a while, I found I was only using parts of the sheets. Mainly, it was the character's personality traits that I was focusing on along with things that I thought were important to that character's personality. Manners of dress were a big one. Most of us do tend to give bits and pieces of our personality away with the things we wear. Farmers tend to wear baseball caps with their favorite tractor manufacturer on them. Macho sports fans where their favorite jerseys when they aren't dressed for work. Cowboys wear boots and jeans and they often have dust around the bottom of their pant leg.

I still keep occupations and hobbies, marital status and things like that in mind, but I no longer use actual character sheets. I sit down with a blank sheet of paper in hand and I write down the things that I feel are important to that character, starting with personality traits and working my way out from there. For me, I have found that using a template is too limiting and I feel like I build better characters by doing it freehand. I did start out using sheets, but my characters were all turning out 'inside of the box' and I like characters that have long since fallen from that box.

The one tool that I do use is a personality trait list that I got from a book called "Building Believable Characters" by Marc McCutcheon. I can't provide a link to that list, because I have it in hard-copy, but looking through this list when I am building a character helps me find traits that I like for each character I build.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer
Updated:

@Chris Podhola

For example:

Fancy Sparrow: I developed a character by this name quite some time ago. Here are a few of her personality traits along with features of her appearance that signify some of her characteristics.

Wears colorful bits and pieces of clothing that she collects herself, sewing them together (much like the way birds collect odds and ends to build a nest), herself to form geometric patterns, adding accessories like scarves, jewelry and shiny trinkets. Wears her hair long on one side of her head, but shaves the other, dying parts of her hair pink and purple in alternating streaks.

Personality traits: gregarious, loquacious, animated, likes to show off, uninhibited and spontaneous.

I see how you do it, but most of that information I keep in my head, rather than writing it down. As far as reflecting the personality, I keep a photo library. As I come up with characters, I'll choose the best fitting photo, and use that to remind me of the character's personality and add specific details (bushy eyebrows, long ears they pull at, frowns from worrying so much).

The motivations I mark because it affects their every response. Overtime an issue comes up, each character has a different take on it, based on what motivates them. The personalities I can keep track of on my own, while the photos help remind me if it's been a while since they appeared.

That's not to say you don't have an excellent idea, I just think we're both using the same technique, but going about it in different directions. Instead of listing the personality, I try to 'see' what the character would look like if they had all of these attributes, and then base my character building on that.

Still, it's always intriguing which tools different authors use when writing, as it tells a lot about how they think, create and operate, as well as offering ideas of your own.

By the way, I'd add a list of idiosyncrasies (?), such as "chews his lip", "keeps checking their reflections", "keeps checking out the other women surrounding them", "pulls his ear", etc. Once you get into the story, you'll burn these traits into your memory, but starting out, you generally want to remind yourself of these nervous tricks characters keep doing, which help reinforce just who the character is.

Replies:   Chris Podhola
Chris Podhola

@Crumbly Writer

By the way, I'd add a list of idiosyncrasies (?), such as "chews his lip", "keeps checking their reflections", "keeps checking out the other women surrounding them", "pulls his ear", etc.


When it comes to idiosyncrasies, I find that in my characters, those tend to happen on their own. They usually don't happen in the beginning of stories, but by the end, I'll usually have a few of my characters say or do something and I'll realize ... yep. That's something he/she'd do or say on a regular basis. For example, I just finished a story where the main character (a young woman) would compare herself to a famous person based on her mood and instead of saying, "I'm feeling spunky," she'd say, "I am having a Lindsey Lohan moment." In the same story one of the male character would commonly say, "and that's a fact." In each of these cases, I didn't come up with the idea on my own, while writing the profile sheets which I do before I start writing. Both of these ideas happened while writing the rough draft and I then had to thread these things back into the rest of the story during the edit.

Perv Otaku

I don't go out of my way to make "trait" characters or to make sure that characters speak in some distinct manner. That probably especially marks me as an amateur writer, but whatever.

Sometimes there is a "trait" built in to the character for plot reasons, for instance I'm currently writing something where one of the protagonists is a high school cheerleader. I have no fucking idea what a high school cheerleader sounds like, so I pretty much am just writing her as a normal person. The other protagonist is a geek, which I do know quite a bit about, so mostly the cheerleader has contrast to him by not being a geek.

Note that the more primary characters you have, the more important it is for them to have clearly distinct and readily identifiable personalities. I think I'll always stick to stories with one, two, or at most three protagonists because of this.
See http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CastCalculus for examples.

Also, because I dwell mostly in science fiction/fantasy stories, I deal a lot less with the slice of life side of things. I.e. on Star Trek you only rarely get a taste of the characters in their off time, what they are like in their personal lives. As opposed to a romantic comedy, where the personal lives of the characters are generally the entire thing.

Ernest Bywater

@Perv Otaku

That probably especially marks me as an amateur writer, but whatever.


I'd say the opposite. not every character has to have some odd quirk. In fact, whenever I've found a story with several characters with odd quirks I've been left with the impression they spent too much time on coming up with quirks and putting them in the story, time that would have been better spent on working on the characters as a whole or the plot. I sometimes have a character with an oddity, but not often because that's been my experience in real life - few people have major quirks or oddities.

Switch Blayde

@Ernest Bywater


I'd say the opposite. not every character has to have some odd quirk.


I think what's more important is how each character responds to a situation. That's what defines them.

Ernest Bywater

@Switch Blayde

I think what's more important is how each character responds to a situation. That's what defines them.


Agreed, and it's also why I often use the character's responses to some situations to show how they're developing.

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

I think what's more important is how each character responds to a situation. That's what defines them.

That's why I prefer making a list of character's contrasting motivations, rather than character traits. Each character will react differently to whatever happens, but traits often describe little about he character, other than the obvious.

Replies:   Chris Podhola
Chris Podhola

@Perv Otaku

I don't go out of my way to make "trait" characters or to make sure that characters speak in some distinct manner.


Based on this and the next few responses, I'm wondering if the point isn't being missed here.

The question is how do you know how a character will respond to any given situation if you don't understand who your character is and how do you understand who that character is if you don't have something to narrow their definition?

Let's use your high school cheerleader as an example. You say you don't know what a high school cheerleader sound like. I think what you mean is that it's been a long time since you were in high school and you recognize that times have changed. The current slangs are probably different now than what they were when you went to high school. That's a reasonable assumption, but you don't necessarily have to know that in order to add some believability and realism to her as a character.

The point of this post is to say that we can add definition to our characters by keying in on a few specific character traits. It's not necessarily about oddities. It's more about personality than strangeness. Is your cheerleader bubbly (cliche), or monotone (polar opposite of the norm for a cheerleader). Does she like opera or rap? Is she feminine, or tomboyish? Does she wear pink nail polish or blue? Does she wear skimpy clothing outside of school or does she dress and behave conservatively. Does she speak in complete sentences or take shortcuts? You can add as many or as few things to a character's definition as you like. The more time you spend and effort you put into each character you build, the more realistic they become. No matter how you go about this, is fine. I write them down, but it seems like CW simply visualizes. Either way works as long as you find some way to do this for yourself.

Replies:   sejintenej  Perv Otaku
Chris Podhola

@Ernest Bywater

I sometimes have a character with an oddity, but not often because that's been my experience in real life - few people have major quirks or oddities.


I definitely agree with this. When it comes to idiosyncrasies, I tend not to put them in intentionally because when I've tried this, the oddity feels misplaced. The only time I throw in something like this with a character is when the character starts to take on a life of their own and an idiosyncrasy develops naturally.

Chris Podhola
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer


traits often describe little about he character, other than the obvious.


Huh? Anybody can have motivations about any specific thing. Love for example. Everybody feels this desire to find a significant other and develop attachments to someone. Keeping this potential motivation in mind during a scene says absolutely nothing about them as a person and adds zero definition to them as a person. It can narrow that character's behaviors and reactions, but adds no sense of definition to them as a person because we all want to be loved and to love. The same can be said for most character motivations. Leaving out personality traits subtracts the potential shading and definition for a character. It limits your characters from every achieving a third dimension and binds them to two dimensional development.

Character traits on the other hand, do separate one character from another. A brazen character will handle their motivations completely different from someone who is shy and reserved. A timid, but determined character will find a side route to a solution, not coming at it from head on, but manipulating the scene from the sidelines, trying to avoid the spotlight. Someone who is bubbly will speak one way, and a goth girl who shades their eyes in black, paints their fingernails in dark colors and wears ripped clothing may still want to find love, but she will seek in from someone who can see her for who she is inside as opposed to how she looks.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
sejintenej
Updated:

@Chris Podhola


Let's use your high school cheerleader as an example. You say you don't know what a high school cheerleader sound like. I think what you mean is that it's been a long time since you were in high school and you recognize that times have changed. The current slangs are probably different now than what they were when you went to high school. That's a reasonable assumption, but you don't necessarily have to know that in order to add some believability and realism to her as a character.


Whilst this thread is becoming a masterclass in storywriting surely what you say about current slang also applies almost town by town to attitudes, to dress, to conceptions of right and wrong, to religious attitudes and everything else in life.

As a challenge, who recognises the following common slang, all of which come from a particular area: crug, kiff, spadge, OB, trades, girdle, bands?

I couldn't put those in a story because they simply wouldn't be recognised. OTOH there are enough American readers to allow things like "buffalo wings"

Replies:   Chris Podhola
Chris Podhola

@sejintenej

surely what you say about current slang also applies almost town by town to attitudes, to dress, to conceptions of right and wrong, to religious attitudes and everything else in life.


I don't disagree with this statement, however, I do feel like these particular issues have as much to do with worldbuilding as they do with character development. Slang and matter of dress can and are about characters for sure, but the focus of the original post is more about personalities which is key to developing rich and believable characters. While using proper slang is more about making your world believable as much as it is about making your characters believable. It is important to get that right as well and if you aren't familiar with how to express slang properly and to make sure it is right, it should be researched.

I would also say that there are ways to introduce whatever slang you would like into a story, regardless of what region it is from, but in order to do it, you need to find a way to explain the slang that doesn't come off as corny or condescending.

Crumbly Writer

@Chris Podhola

Huh? Anybody can have motivations about any specific thing. Love for example. Everybody feels this desire to find a significant other and develop attachments to someone. Keeping this potential motivation in mind during a scene says absolutely nothing about them as a person and adds zero definition to them as a person. It can narrow that character's behaviors and reactions, but adds no sense of definition to them as a person because we all want to be loved and to love. The same can be said for most character motivations. Leaving out personality traits subtracts the potential shading and definition for a character. It limits your characters from every achieving a third dimension and binds them to two dimensional development.

Listing "Wants to be loved" doesn't define either a character trait or a motivation. Specifying "Loves Johnny" does--especially if he doesn't realize it. In that case, she'll make all her decisions based on that unrequited love, while none of his will reflect this (since he doesn't know it). A character looking for love (in general) won't respond to a particular person if the two of them don't naturally click.

Replies:   Chris Podhola
Chris Podhola

@Crumbly Writer

Listing "Wants to be loved" doesn't define either a character trait or a motivation.


Listing 'Wants to be loved' does define a character motivation. A person does not necessarily have to specify a target to feel a motivation, especially if they are single. Just because a person doesn't have a significant other doesn't mean they can't be motivated to find someone to give them love.

But that's beside the point.

It is a good idea to always keep your character's motivations in mind, but doing so narrow's 'what' their response would be to stimulus, but does not narrow 'how' they go about it. How a person reacts is filtered through their personality traits and if you don't bear both motivation and character traits in mind when you write a scene, you end up with a two dimensional response.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Chris Podhola

It is a good idea to always keep your character's motivations in mind, but doing so narrow's 'what' their response would be to stimulus, but does not narrow 'how' they go about it. How a person reacts is filtered through their personality traits and if you don't bear both motivation and character traits in mind when you write a scene, you end up with a two dimensional response.

"How" a character goes about fulfilling their motivations is typically called "plot". However, once you have a plot in mind, keeping each character's motives in mind gives you an idea how they'll react to any given situation (not every one, but you get a feel for how they'll respond). But more important than that, it helps with story pacing. Every story has slow segments. If you have a discussion following a fast-paced action scene, where the characters describe what happened, it often becomes hard to read. However, by knowing how the different characters see events differently, those 'boring' data dumps become a conflict of wills, where one character will suggest something, and the others will either support them or chip away at their ideas. It's a way to breath life into slower story segments.

It's not a perfect system, but it can enliven an otherwise staid chapter, and help define characters in a way a simple 'character description' can't.

Replies:   Chris Podhola
Chris Podhola
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer

Now I guess I don't know what you are trying to argue here. Semantics?

Look. You won't hear me arguing against keeping a character's motivations in mind, but maybe I wasn't specific enough when I gave the 'what' and 'how' disparities.

When you say:


by knowing how the different characters see events differently


You can only be talking about personality and past experience, which is different from motivation.

WHAT a character does:

One character walks into a room and announces his arrival.

He does this because his motivation is that he 'wants attention from everyone in the room'. That is his motivation for this particular scene.

HOW a character does it:

He walks into the room and announces his arrival by removing his hat, throwing it into the air, doing a spin and saying, "Let the party begin, folks." He catches his hat in his hand again, tosses it so that it flips twice and lands on his head. He does a little spin, grabs a girl and kisses her on the mouth before swaggering on to the next guest of the party.

How he goes about announcing his arrival is based on his personality traits. He is flamboyant and bubbly, animated and bold as well as spontaneous. He doesn't care that the woman has a husband. He finds her pretty so he kisses her.

As opposed to:

Henry walks into the room and nobody notices. They just keep on chatting among themselves as if he wasn't there. "Hey everydoby. I'm here," he says meekly, but it isn't enough to draw any attention from anyone. He walks to the middle of the room and starts to take off his clothes. He doesn't stop until the room goes silent.

"I said I'm here, dammit! Quit ignoring me!"

This character's motivation is the same as the first, but his approach is different. He wants people's attention, but he's not used to getting it. He never gets it because he's boring compared to the first character.

You are more than welcome to leave out personality traits if you wish, CW, but your stories will suffer if you do. They will always be less than they could be.

Crumbly Writer
Updated:

I wasn't talking about a character's motivation for walking into the room (or why a chicken crosses the street), instead I was talking about listing personality conflicts (i.e. when two different characters see the world from different perspectives). Such a dynamic is useful for maintaining a running tension between them, as they're each trying to achieve something different. Maybe one's trying to win the girl, while one's trying to get ahead by impressing her. Or maybe one wants to get rich, while the other wants to help people.

My characterization of it as "motivation" was a bad word choice. In my book, "Stranded", the lead character was interested in helping free the aliens. One character saw the government's actions as paralleling what they did to his people (native Americans), another was interested in becoming famous, while another saw the aliens as role models. Those different world views affected how they responded to events, and sustained a back-and-forth conflict between the characters about how to address issues. It's a different way of painting word pictures for each scene.

Replies:   Chris Podhola
Chris Podhola
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer

I would consider the things you list as motivations. Nothing wrong with your terminology there. If I have an issue with anything you're saying it's when you suggest that motivations are all you really need to worry about. The things you list work well for plot. Motivations lend to plot. Character traits lend to story. You need both. That's all I'm saying.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Ernest Bywater

Topic Title: Build a Better Character

I hear joining any military service organisation will help you build a better character, especially the US Marine Corps.

Replies:   sejintenej
sejintenej
Updated:

@Ernest Bywater


I hear joining any military service organisation will help you build a better character, especially the US Marine Corps.

I don't know about the US Marine Corps but when we had National Service the army taught thugs better ways of mugging people, how to organise a heist better, use weapons more effectively, even how to read the instructions how to ........... Thank goodness National Service has stopped or ISIS would be even more of a problem

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Chris Podhola

Nothing wrong with your terminology there. If I have an issue with anything you're saying it's when you suggest that motivations are all you really need to worry about. The things you list work well for plot. Motivations lend to plot. Character traits lend to story. You need both. That's all I'm saying.

That wasn't what I was trying to say (about motivation being the only factor in a story. What I'd said, earlier on, was that I kept the other information about a character's background in my head, or used aids (photos) to trigger my memory. However, by keeping lists on these character conflicts helps me figure out everyone's stance during discussions--which I use a lot in my stories.

Replies:   Chris Podhola
Crumbly Writer

@sejintenej

Thank goodness National Service has stopped or ISIS would be even more of a problem

Except, even now, many of ISIS's top personnel are people the U.S. specifically trained in anti-terrorism, so now they have our entire playbook and know how to counter it.

Just shows, military intelligence is an oxymoron.

Chris Podhola

@Crumbly Writer

Look. No offense, but now your backpedaling. Earlier you said:

traits often describe little about he character, other than the obvious.


Now you're saying:

kept the other information about a character's background in my head, or used aids (photos) to trigger my memory.


Which you did admittedly also say before, but you can't really have it both ways. Make up your mind. Either you believe that character traits are unimportant or you don't. You can't have it both ways. Make up your mind.

If you end up believing that traits aren't that important you do so to your story's detriment. Both Character traits and character motivations walk hand in hand. They compliment and assist each other. They build off of one another and work together to paint a clearer picture of who your characters are.

But now we are talking in circles and unless you have anything new to add to the discussion, I'm pretty much done. What I'm saying isn't that complicated and I haven't seen anyone flat out argue against it, except for the comments you maid dismissing character traits, which is just silly.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Chris Podhola

Which you did admittedly also say before, but you can't really have it both ways. Make up your mind. Either you believe that character traits are unimportant or you don't. You can't have it both ways. Make up your mind.

Character traits just aren't as important to me. Like you, if I include them, they develop naturally over the course of the story, rather than because of advance planning. However, the conflict list (motivations) does factor into my story planning and development.

Part of that is based on how readers respond to character descriptions. Most authors I know don't even include them, since most readers ignore them utterly, and create their own mental images of characters. If you want readers to remember what a character looks like, you need to follow the rule of 3 repetitions. You need to mention the personal physical details three separate times, ideally in three separate chapters, until you finally burn it into the reader's memory. Otherwise, there's little point in even mentioning it.

Traits are similar. Depending on how essential they are to the plot, most get glossed over. Ethnicity or accents are more obvious, and more likely to be remembered, but don't have the impact that how a character responds issue-by-issue does. Background material is important, but after it's stated once, it's often dropped (except where it affects the main character's motivations in the story).

However, as I said before, that's me. I'm just not married to prearranging character traits. I do it, but I don't focus on it. If it works for others, then go for it. Anything which makes your story stronger is worth the effort. But you're right, we're getting into tit-for-tat arguments over what was last said, rather than furthering the discussion. I suspect it's time to abandon the discussion.

Replies:   Chris Podhola
richardshagrin

Wouldn't characters have characteristics? Traitors have traits.

Sometimes I shop at Trader Joe's. I heard there is going to be a competitor named after Benedict Arnold, Traitor Ben's.

Replies:   Dominions Son
Chris Podhola

@Crumbly Writer

Say what you like. Traits are the only things that separate one character from another. I read stories from different amateur authors virtually every day. Most of their characters read precisely the same. You can't tell one from the other. If that's the type of character you like writing, have at it. Characters with different personality traits speak differently, act differently and approach solutions to their problems differently. If you don't put thought into these traits you cannot develop a 3 dimensional character. If doing so isn't important to you, stick with 2 dimensions. It is easier. I won't deny that.

Dominions Son

@richardshagrin

Sometimes I shop at Trader Joe's.


Someone should sue them for false advertising if they won't take barter as a form of payment.

Perv Otaku

@Chris Podhola

The question is how do you know how a character will respond to any given situation if you don't understand who your character is and how do you understand who that character is if you don't have something to narrow their definition?


Sometimes people will ask the same thing about writing a character of the opposite gender, or a straight author writing a homosexual character. Certain folks go on about how you have to be in such-and-such a group in order to understand them properly, but in the end everybody is people. The differences are only important if you want them to be.

If you don't know what your character would do in a given situation, ask what YOU would do in that situation.

Crumbly Writer

@Perv Otaku

Certain folks go on about how you have to be in such-and-such a group in order to understand them properly, but in the end everybody is people. The differences are only important if you want them to be.

If you don't know what your character would do in a given situation, ask what YOU would do in that situation.

True, but research makes all the difference. I wrote a story (not yet posted) featuring a lesbian New York detective. Despite having spent a lot of time among the gay community in New York, I wasn't as familiar with lesbians (on a day-to-day basis), nor with cops (despite knowing a couple of them).

Sometimes, it takes more than asking 'how would I feel. In Chris's case, he's trying to learn how they speak, rather than guessing.

richardshagrin

@Perv Otaku

In Science Fiction some people are computers, robots, androids, aliens, and other assorted not people.

In fantasy, some people are elves, dwarves, hobbits, trolls, orcs, zombies, werewolves, various mythical beings like gods and demigods and their female equivalents.

If "everybody is people", why does my language sense tell me "people are everybody". Put another way, is "everybody" a singular noun or is it a plural noun like "people"? Is everybody happy? I guess it is singular. How singular!

Chris Podhola
Updated:

@Perv Otaku


If you don't know what your character would do in a given situation, ask what YOU would do in that situation.


Here again, I feel like the entire point of this entire thread was missed based on this comment. The whole point of this thread is to help authors get away from the limited purview of 'what I would do' in the situation. I say that because different people DO react to different situations differently. So, the attitude of what 'you' would do in a situation limits your writing to a narrower path. I would never rob a bank, for example. No matter how bad I felt like I needed the money, it's just not something I'd be brave, bold, or believe I could ever get away with so I wouldn't do it. What I might do, however, is write a character who would. The same can be said for any conceivable situation. I may want or need characters who do, say, think or believe things different from myself. The question is (and we go back to the beginning once again), how do you know how your characters will respond to a given situation?

The simplest answer to that is understanding their character traits, combining that with their motivations. As a human being you've seen and heard enough people in your life to make an intelligent guess, as long as you narrow your character definitions.

Replies:   Perv Otaku
Perv Otaku

@Chris Podhola

I wrote a story (not yet posted) featuring a lesbian New York detective. Despite having spent a lot of time among the gay community in New York, I wasn't as familiar with lesbians (on a day-to-day basis), nor with cops (despite knowing a couple of them).

Cops will spot the inaccuracies in a cop story where most others wouldn't. When writing about a group's general culture, you would definitely need to do research. When it's about the behavior of an individual, there is perhaps a little more leeway. The upbringing of your minority group character may not the typical of that group, or is is but they have personally rejected some elements of it. Stereotypes fit groups well, for given individuals they will always be hit and miss.

It depends on the type of story as well, I'm sure. When being pulled over by a cop for speeding, a white character, a black character living in the suburbs, and a black character living in the inner city might all behave differently. If a vampire bursts in through a window and attacks, they are likely to respond very similarly.

In Science Fiction some people are computers, robots, androids, aliens, and other assorted not people.

In fantasy, some people are elves, dwarves, hobbits, trolls, orcs, zombies, werewolves, various mythical beings like gods and demigods and their female equivalents.


In such stories, creatures like that are almost always treated analogously to different human cultures. Vulcans and robots might be more logical than others. Klingons emphasize being a warrior. Gods are very arrogant. Etc.

I would never rob a bank, for example. No matter how bad I felt like I needed the money, it's just not something I'd be brave, bold, or believe I could ever get away with so I wouldn't do it. What I might do, however, is write a character who would. The same can be said for any conceivable situation. I may want or need characters who do, say, think or believe things different from myself.


This is where imagination comes in. You don't need the money and even if you did you wouldn't rob a bank. Now throw that out and ask, if I were robbing a bank, how would I go about it?

Let's say I'm writing a woman who was sexually abused when she was young and raped several times in her adult life. She might be scared shitless of every man she sees. There are probably some women like that in real life, but they aren't exactly the same as each other, and my character isn't them either.

I think all I'm really trying to get at is it's possible to overthink this, and that's when you really get yourself into trouble.

Chris Podhola
Updated:

@Perv Otaku

My impression here is that you are overthinking it. The concepts I expressed previously are relatively simple.

In regard to your bank robbery example:

If I were writing a character robbing a bank I would have that character rob the bank according to his personality and previous experience. Is he smart criminal who thinks outside of the box? Or a bully thug who jumps headlong and uses force to get what he wants?

Klingons are warriors, sure, but when watching star trek, you can easily tell the difference between Warf's personality, General Chang and Warf's son, Alexander. The same could be said for Vulcan's. Spock and T'Pol. All of these characters had their own unique perspectives and had their own ways of dealing with situations.

That's the point of this thread. Don't just write generic characters. Write livelier characters by keeping their individual personalities in mind. Not only can you do this without overthinking it and getting yourself into trouble, you MUST learn to do this effectively if you ever want three dimensional characters.

Crumbly Writer

@Perv Otaku

Let's say I'm writing a woman who was sexually abused when she was young and raped several times in her adult life. She might be scared shitless of every man she sees.

Personally, I'd think she'd be more likely to suffer from PTSD, where she's easily spooked, rather than being terrified of every guy she meets, as well as dealing with depressive episodes. Again, if you're going to get into the head of a character, you need to research in order to understand what they face, rather than relying on stereotypes.

Not every lesbian is a man-hating rape survivor (not that you claimed that), but it highlights some common stereotypical views which might read false to many readers.

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