OtterMan's picture
OtterMan from New Jersey, near Philadelphia USA is reading Ringworlds Children November 27, 2015 - 5:48am

I don't know if this is a common problem or if more experienced writers find it second nature. I have difficulty summoning characters out of thin air when I need them. Occasionally however I find a chance encounter more or less drops a character into my lap. I'm curious if this happens to others or how often you might encounter a stranger or co-worker perhaps who instantly seeds a character for you. 

This is just a personal excercise but if it sparks an interest fell free to add your own. I was at a stop light the other morning, a man pulled up next to me. From only this comes Bobby Tuna, I'm not even sure where or how Bobby will play into a story. For now he just sits in a small box on my shelf waiting the right opening...

________________________________________________________________________

I saw a mobster in a Cadillac this morning He stopped beside me at the light. Fat goombah face separated from his fat goombah body by a heavy gold rope chain and a four inch Madonna medallion laying incongruously on his green and white track suit. The Cadillac was not an Escalade or even a classic Coup de Ville, it was just a battered old white Allante from the 90’s. Bobby Tuna, I’d never known but for a kid in the market once pointed him out to me. Bobby had been making the rounds picking up slips from the old men and young tough guy wanna be’s. College, Pro, Ponies, Politics, Bobby knew the odds or made them up as he went along. It was all smalls, twenty here a “high roller” for a hundred there, Bobby didn’t handle large, Bobby Tuna didn’t run the whales just the small fishes in the neighborhood. The light changed, Bobby made a left down the side road that led to the refineries, and I continued straight on into the university district. By the time he was out of sight I had already decided on nice sausage parm grinder for lunch that day.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like November 27, 2015 - 8:41am

For me, it's easier to come up with characters than to come up with interesting things for them to do. (Perhaps some action can be more interesting simply because you already like the character.) Really, that's my biggest hangup with long narrative fiction: a plot worth the time. I've never had a problem with questions like, "Who would do this?" or "What people would be present during this scene?"

DrWood's picture
DrWood from Milwaukee, WI, living in Louisiana is reading A different book every 2-5 days. Currently Infinite Jest November 27, 2015 - 8:57pm

Many writers base characters on people they have encountered.

 

OtterMan's picture
OtterMan from New Jersey, near Philadelphia USA is reading Ringworlds Children November 27, 2015 - 11:31pm

@jyh - I guess I make the assumption, justified or not, that I have something interesting to say. If I put it all down in one long first person lecture it quickly becomes boring to read. So I try to find an interesting character or two and let it play out as a plausible conversation. 

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami November 27, 2015 - 11:59pm

Most of the time when I was writing short fiction between 2006 to 2013 I would base characters on personal friends. For example certain characters would represent people I knew in computer class in my high school years. And certain plot elements were derived from pop culture elements as well.

What I've learned sense is that inserting time period pop culture dates the piece. That pretty much rules out science fiction for me these days that's based on current pop science.

with fantasy you pretty much don't have to worry about datedness.

OtterMan's picture
OtterMan from New Jersey, near Philadelphia USA is reading Ringworlds Children November 28, 2015 - 4:45am

That's an interesting take L.W., from a sci-fi viewpoint I would point out that the original Star Trek series used an awful lot of current events/pop culture elements in the script. The science was mostly extrapolated from what was current theroy at the time. Which is basically one of the big elements I try to use. 

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami November 28, 2015 - 9:26am

Well like I just finished a flash fiction called Elsa's Last Dance. I came up with the character when trying to write a story that went with a darkly thematic tap dance theme. About the arts and depression.

But like my first SF was not even SF, but a story about the high strangeness of walking into the 14th century, and the sudden cultural dissonance. Such as the nature of modern criminality in the face of experiencing historical disciplinary measures--such as capital punishment. And I threw in Japanese ghosts to, because well ... Yurei's you know.

My early work has been largely more about contrasting modern and historical technologies in a way. The main timeline could be 19th century, so long as the other century is at least a century previous.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal November 28, 2015 - 9:38pm

Maybe you're trying to create a character to perfectly fit a role. If this is the case, I'd suggest doing the opposite. If you need someone to be a mentor, why would he not be so good for that positoin, despite doing it anyway? Run with that, see what you get. (For example.)

Or try this character chart: http://www.epiguide.com/ep101/writing/charchart.html. Don't know if you dig them, I don't much, but it's one of the better ones I've seen.

Someone suggested taking a person or combinging people you know in real life. How about this? Take a character you like and straight up steal that person, change the name, put him into your book. Tyler Durden, Luke Skywalker, Risa Ward... I bet by the time you're done with this character that you stole and renamed it won't be the same person- it'll be yours.

OtterMan's picture
OtterMan from New Jersey, near Philadelphia USA is reading Ringworlds Children November 30, 2015 - 9:26am

Thuggish, That worksheet is pretty through, thanks! That one earned a bookmark.

bethwenn's picture
bethwenn from Milwaukee is reading The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann December 2, 2015 - 7:52am

My problem is I come up with too many. It's something that innately comes easy to me. Not sure how to translate the process into advice. I would say the eaiest way to make a character more interesting is to put unusual combinations of contrasting elements together in their personality, backstory, appearence, etc. The more complex they are, the more round they become and the more color it lends to the story. e.g., A lonely, gay Russian drug dealer who used to do ballet, but he's an addict now and sells to supply his own habit. I just needed a minor, one scene character to fill the role of "drug dealer" and then came up with him. Sometimes stories just emerge from nowhere when you put contrasting elements together. I think our minds naturally look for and create narratives to make sense of unusual, unconnected information, similar to the way we naturally look for and see faces in patterns like specks on the ceiling.

OtterMan's picture
OtterMan from New Jersey, near Philadelphia USA is reading Ringworlds Children December 2, 2015 - 12:28pm

Bethwenn, I think this is close to the dilema. I can also come up with any number of odd ball character traits. Gay Russian drug dealers end up sounding very contrived to me however and I'm looking for ways to take very ordinary character traits and make them interesting to read. I'm looking for a way to blend the ordinary and the odd to make it more believable. The kid in the car was pretty large and he looked Itialian to me, I added the Cadillac and the Mafia part. I did go towards the University district which might work either way but the guy who went left would usually have been going to the waterfront or the warehouse area and I used the refinery for a venue because that's exactly what's down that road and it struck me as a little different from what might be expected. Although there is an adult emporium on the same road just before the refinery so maybe he was going there anyway... Thanks for the feedback!

bethwenn's picture
bethwenn from Milwaukee is reading The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann December 5, 2015 - 6:25pm

“ Gay Russian drug dealers end up sounding very contrived to me”

Well the story takes place in Russia and follows a criminal who's also a drug addict, so the Russian part and the drug dealer part are the “ordinary” parts, so to speak, or at least the bare minimum parts that would be required for a flat character. All I needed to write was a Russian drug dealer. The emphasis is more on the ballet thing and his sexuality. It's not about making the character an oddball—it's about creating a vivid contrast that also shows complexity. Flat characters have no depth or complexity. Round characters do. They are often contradictory, just like real people are. The scene in question deals with the character interacting with this dealer with the intentions of robbing him. The dealer character could be somewhat contrived if indelicately approached, but I play with the sympathetic identification in the scene so that the reader is inclined to feel that the protagonist is in the wrong, despite not knowing much at all about the dealer character. It's a complicated scene to describe and is further complicated by the fact that the protagonist is on acid at the time, so maybe not a great example without having already read it.


“looking for ways to take very ordinary character traits and make them interesting to read”

What you want to do then is to create round characters, avoid flat, stock, and foil characters, and to build sympathetic identification. There are 6 main reasons why readers will find a character compelling and sympathetic.

Sympathetic Identification:

  • 1. Similarity: The reader finds aspects of the character similar to themselves or to their own experiences.
  • 2. Credibility: This is subdivided in 2 parts.
  • Expertise: The character seems credible because of their expertise, whether due to inside knowledge, personal experience, or formal authority.
  • Honesty/candor: The character seems credible because they are somehow honest or frank or unfiltered.
  • 3. Usefulness: The character is useful in the story. They have demonstrable value.
  • 4. It's interesting: This one speaks for itself.
  • 5. Fairness: The character exhibits traits of fairness in their thoughts, actions, judgments, etc.
  • 6. Modesty: The character isn't arrogant, more or less.

[edit: I should clarify, you don't need all of these in one character! Often times, it just takes the right combination of a couple of them. Sometimes you might not want most of these traits, such as with unreliable narrators or antiheroes. You can make them sympathetic by really amplifying the other traits that do apply to them though. e.g., Tony Soprano. Not similar to us, not credible, not modest. Super, super interesting though, and very uniquely useful. He's great at what he does, as bad as it may be. He also lives by a code, which qualifies as "fairness" I think.]

You would also find it valuable to use a descriptive technique that employs tropes of comparison, specifically metaphor. Tropes of comparison are similes, metaphors, analogies, etc. Their major parts are the target domain and the source domain. The target domain is the thing that is to be compared to something. The source is what you are comparing it to. Analogies help us to understand difficult concepts by comparing the target domain with known, simple, and easily understood things in the source domain. Metaphors help us to re-see, re-think, and re-understand things that we are familiar with, which we think we know, by comparing the target domain to unfamiliar and complex source domains, often with surprising implications the more sophisticated the metaphor. John Updike is great at making the ordinary extraordinary again with metaphor. I'd say to check out A&P for inspiration if you haven't already read it, or re-read it with those things in mind if you have: http://www.tiger-town.com/whatnot/updike/ :)

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal December 4, 2015 - 10:27am

You know, I think anything will feel contrived if it's not deep enough. Even if it's the most ordinary boring person in the cubicle next to you that you're writing.

Likewise, pick the most interesting character you've ever known, book, movie, TV... That character could have been contrived and boring if done the wrong way, I promise.

So. Gay ex-ballet Russian drug dealer might sound contrived when you just say it. But when you start thinking of the events that got him there, the character's history... Actually it can make perfect sense. Ballet and gay go together well (oh no, stereotypes, but statistically i bet it's true). Russia and drug use go together (more stats for htat one), and drug users often sell to other users, and/or dealers often end up using their product.

So... a little history of a guy who didn't quite make it in ballet (hardly unbelievable) who either used drugs to train harder, or cope with not making it, or sold them to make ends meet... It comes together more succinctly than a lot of real-world examples of contrasting people. 

And that's just off the top of my head.

 

And! Like Bethwenn said, "vivid contrast." What that really means is conflicted. And in conflict there's a story.

Anyway, get to know your character might be the advice you need. If he's not real to you, he'll never be real to anyone else.

bethwenn's picture
bethwenn from Milwaukee is reading The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann December 5, 2015 - 7:17pm

So. Gay ex-ballet Russian drug dealer might sound contrived when you just say it. But when you start thinking of the events that got him there, the character's history... Actually it can make perfect sense.

Yes, and what order you learn information about the character in also makes a difference. I've realized too late that this is a terrible example because the scene is somewhat impossible to describe, haha. The characters are on acid and the scene itself is hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness hopefully channelling Kerouac, HST, and Virginia Woolf... But basically, at first you think he's a flat character, a shady dude, kind of a general piece of shit with no depth. He becomes more human as the scene goes on. The ballet thing is the last thing you learn. The main character robs him, cracks his safe, and finds heroin, cash, and ballet shoes inside. I think/hope he inspires pity at the end. Because he's a minor character with only this one scene, the way that I made him complex/round was to gradually include disparate elements, things that are at odds with the misconception of him as a flat shady character -- to show the "what" of his story, but not to explain the how or the why, and to leave that up to the reader to infer and to fill in. Also the POV is unreliable and limited in a way that is obvious and makes the reader want to question the main character's perceptions, which can sometimes also help to create depth (one example apart from the hallucinatory stuff: he doesn't remember the dealer's name and keeps saying things like "Ingmar or Ingvar or Ingrid or something" and "Ingrid or Igor or Gregor or whoever the fuck you are" in his narrative; he takes the guy's wallet at the end and figures out his name was Alyosha and doesn't even know why he thought it was ing/gr/gi sounding name).

That's just one of many ways to do it. But the point is, the contrasting elements, the unexpected ones that defy flat, 2d stereotypes, can kind of bring a character to life sometimes. They make them more human.

 

Anyway, get to know your character might be the advice you need. If he's not real to you, he'll never be real to anyone else.

Fantastic advice! I couldn't have said it any better.

OtterMan's picture
OtterMan from New Jersey, near Philadelphia USA is reading Ringworlds Children December 7, 2015 - 7:39am

Thanks for the input, there's a lot of good information here. I'm still trying to process the details but this has helped me better indentify some of the issues I've been trying to grappel with. 

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore December 8, 2015 - 11:26am

Unless they're the protagonist—and those can be tricky to create—I pretty much define everyone else by their relationship to that person. They serve a specific function, whether it's to obstruct or to enable them, and from there, they can be fleshed out. Great advice above about using contrasts in that regard. If it's a protagonist, I'll usually assign them traits that make them the least likely type of person to achieve what they're tasked with, to create a more exciting arc over the course of the story. I also like to begin with occupations, as those so often define us, so I maintain a reference list of interesting ones, just as I do with locations.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated December 12, 2015 - 9:44pm

For me the character and a scene the rest of the book is written around come together. Almost fully formed.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal December 13, 2015 - 12:02am

Gordon-

How do you make sure your characters don't exist solely to fulfull their plot role? You know, hero in his own story, live beyond the page stuff.

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore December 14, 2015 - 12:02pm

True, it's unrealistic to have someone whose entire existence is devoted to the destruction of the protag, or to be their lifelong helper or whatever. Those are merely the interactions I focus on in the story, to keep things moving. I don't think they come across too much like cogs; it's just that even in third-person, they're still kind of defined from the protag's POV—fuctionally—the same way we see others in our own "heroic" lives. It's all that Joseph Campbell stuff, the monomyth archetypes and whatnot: mentor, temptress, shadow, etc. Their motives are still their own, and I'll clarify those, but I'll leave most of their "iceberg" (90% under the surface) off the page, and just focus on having them be interesting in some way.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal December 14, 2015 - 3:16pm

okay... so personal motives... what are some ways you make them "interesting in some way" ?

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore December 15, 2015 - 12:05pm

How to make side characters interesting? God, there are hundreds of ways. Physical tics, genetic defects, speech patterns or dialects, catchphrases, subtext (usually saying one thing but contradicting it with their body language), talking tougher than they actually are or vice-versa, quirky wardrobe/accessory choices (and what they try to flaunt or obscure), occupation, hobby, mode of transportation, addictions, neuroses, ambitions, family status, etc.

Anything can be interesting, especially when it's a contrast or contradiction as mentioned previously. Look at Woody Harrelson in Seven Psychopaths: the ruthless gangster who wuvs his wittle doggie. Or the soap-makers of Fight Club. Or "The Butcher of Luverne" (his wife, even more so) on this season of Fargo: kind simpletons who happen to leave a lot of corpses in their wake. Tony Soprano in therapy. Start with an archetype that readers think we know, then subvert our expectations of their behavior. My novel Flashover featured a musician struck deaf, a pair of unobservant detectives, a pugilistic priest, and a redneck with an affinity for sissy drinks, among others.

Sometimes I like to use succinct metaphorical descriptions that get right to the core of them, like calling them a tornado (wildly gesticulating), peacock (flamboyant), a piece of furniture (invisible or insignificant), shit like that. Or even just use a synecdoche and refer to them by what defines them in the eyes of the main character, like badge, duckface, hard-on, Kangol, fishnets, etc. (You ever watch Veep? They call her assistant "The Bag" or something like that because that's what he does: shadow her 24/7 with a carryall purse. Who cares what his name is?) That's definitely the opposite of fleshing out a character—objectifying them—but can be efficient for day players.

bethwenn's picture
bethwenn from Milwaukee is reading The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann December 16, 2015 - 12:52pm

Woody Harrelson in Seven Psychopaths: the ruthless gangster who wuvs his wittle doggie

That's so creepy you used that example because he's one of the people I had in mind when I wrote that, haha.

I agree completely. Tropes of comparison are great shortcuts, although I don't think all of them are objectifying. Analogies are tools that help the reader to understand a difficult or foreign concept by comparing it to something simple. Synechdoches are fairly similar except that instead of using something alien, they take something that's part of the target domain and give it to the reader to simplify the target. But metaphors are tools for just the opposite. They take a target domain that is simple, familiar, and uninteresting, and they help the reader to see it in a new light by comparing it with a source that's alien. I would say that analogies are objectifying, but metaphors are expansive and create depth. They can all be very vivid, though, which makes them work well for the purpose of making the character come to life.

For me, the trick is to flesh out the character for yourself but not to spend as much time on helping the reader get to know them as you do with your main characters. You can give the reader the what, when, and where of the character, but you tend to omit the how and why.

The contrast thing can't be emphasized enough. I recently gave my friend some advice to help her make a confidante therapist character in her story more interesting and dynamic. He was a flat character, which is fine, but my advice was that if the written scene she had were a film scene, the camera would be in close up mode on her protagonist almost the entire time and we'd barely see the therapist's face. He had hardly any action of his own other than to react to the protagonist. Zooming out and showing your side character a bit can help the reader to feel like the scene is real, the people are real, and like they can picture themselves there. It's not necessary to tell side character's stories completely or build up a whole complex and thoroughly thought out backstory and past for all of them, but sketching them out more lends a lot to the story. The “what” of the character can be contradictory and unexplained, like with Woody as someone who is both a cold-blooded killer and an animal lover with the tenderest heart who would give anything to save his dog. That's the “what”. It's contradictory, which makes it interesting. If we knew the “how” and “why” he was that way, it'd take more time and he'd end up being more of a main character. But leaving that out while still having a complex character can immensely add to the humanness of it all.

People who surprise us are interesting. Another great example is Richard Harrow from Boardwalk Empire—the veteran sniper with half a face. The one who wore a half-mask of his own face made out of tin to cover the parts that had been mutilated and burned away in trench warfare. He was socially awkward if not inept, could only speak in very slow croaks, and basically he was just really, really good at killing people. He was like the best at killing people. His favorite things were guns and shooting people with guns. It was what he liked to do and to talk about. On the other hand, he really envied the other character he worked with, Jimmy Darmody, and the fact that he had a wife and a kid. There was one scene where Richard is alone in a bedroom and he's got a little scrapbook and he cuts out photos to make a collage of a family, imagining that he's the dad, and I don't think I've ever loved and felt for a side character more (he went on to become a main character in later seasons, but initially he was just a side character). He was my favorite character of the whole show. There was a love interest for his character much later on in the last few seasons, and I don't think I've ever gotten so excited about potential romance among imaginary people before. It was mainly because he was just so contradictory and odd, seeing him do ordinary things became extraordinary.

I think good advice for making interesting characters is just to be creative. Be unique, imaginative, and try to make somebody who can surprise us in some way. Contrast is one very effective way to go about that.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated December 16, 2015 - 2:00pm

@Thuggish - Only use side characters who you could do a spin-off story about.

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore December 16, 2015 - 3:40pm

if the written scene she had were a film scene, the camera would be in close up mode on her protagonist almost the entire time and we'd barely see the therapist's face. He had hardly any action of his own other than to react to the protagonist.

And were it a comedy, the camera would slowly rack focus onto the therapist in the background—out of the protag's view—discreetly chewing a sandwich. Then cut to an over-the-shoulder closeup of his hand scribbling a grocery list in his notebook margin, abruptly halted by a reverb-drenched voiceover wondering if he left the iron on. His banal voiceover continues as we pan over the now-muted patient still in the middle of her tear-streaked confession.  heh

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal December 17, 2015 - 8:58pm

@ Dwayne

That's an interesting way to look at it. Not a bad litmus test if nothing else. I'm going to add some advice to myself- never actually do it.

I imagine others could very successfully though.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal December 17, 2015 - 10:22pm

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