Creating characters: Am I missing something,?

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Robert M Derry

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Nov 28, 2018
Wrexham
When it comes to creating three dimensional characters, I feel as though I have quite a different approach to many writers and I'm not sure if I'm missing the mark here?

A few weeks ago in a creative writing group, we were given the below list (it's quite long) and it was suggested that we build a new character using the below titles;

Name
Age
Date of birth
Place of birth
Height
Weight
Hair colour
Eye colour
Skin tone
Shoe size
Scars/handicaps
Mannerisms/habits
Favourite food/drink
Favourite colours
Education
Attitude to life
Ambitions/fears
Skills/interests
Home
Parents
Family
Current situation
What will make the reader like/dislike your character?
What will make the reader remember your character?

I looked down this list and felt as though the most important aspect of character was missing: Motivation. This suggestion got a rather subdued response, but to me, what drives a character is surely their most important aspect, plus it immediately gives you a sense as to their role in your story. Alternatively you could create a great character that has no place in your story, because they lack the motivation to exist within it.

What drives us as individuals, what pushes us to get out of bed each morning, is the core of our being and that surely must be the key part of your character that you need to understand in order to flesh them out.

I also think this list approach is nonsensical, it doesn't seem to appreciate that traits are interlinked. For example, you can't start with your character's name! In order to know what your characters name is you need to know where they come from first. I kind of imagine my key characters growing out from a central idea or concept and one trait logically slots the next one into place.

I also have an issue with focussing too much on appearance first. Behaviour dictates appearance, not the other way around. Surely you've got to decide who your character is, in order to understand what they look like?

I also tend to find that when I'm reading, I ignore the writers specific description about the characters appearance. In my head, I form an idea of what characters look like based on their behaviour and the way they speak. I don't like it when writers try and box me in with very prescriptive features.

Besides some of these traits in these list approaches are totally arbitrary. For example in the list above; eye colour, favourite food, shoe size, favourite colour are (unless they are purposefully distinctive) pointless pieces of information as they don't inform anything about how your character behaves. My favourite food is Pizza and I'm quite confident that, that fact says nothing important about me as a person.

Maybe I'm being harsh, maybe I'm missing something, but I just feel that these list character bios miss the mark.

Any thoughts?
 
I think you've raised a very good point @Robert M Derry. Motivation is essential. One of the earliest pieces of characterisation advice I was given was to ask:

What would this character kill for?
What (or who) would this character die for?

I also remember being told (rightly or wrongly) that all motivation boils down to the four Fs: fighting, fleeing, feeding and fornicating.
 
I'm with you @Robert M Derry. I don't think I do it well, but I don't spend a lot of time worrying about what my character looks like, or their shoe size (shoe size?! Really?)--instead, I worry about why they're there, why they stay, why they love/hate/are indifferent to other characters, what role they play in the story... Of course, if their motivation in life was to find the perfect pair of stilettos, shoe size could be a critical thing to work out, in which case, I'd definitely spend some time writing out the details of their size 12 dogs. ;)
 
Yeah, I guess 'how to books' have to fill their pages and writing courses have to create content. The 6 weeks course I took gave us a similar list then asked us to write a scene including all such details. Hmmm. Didn't work for me.

I only ever write down details like fave food and shoe size if it's relevant to the plot and I want to remember it for consistency. I could easily lose track, and suddenly someone has three sisters instead of two. Details like shoe size might matter if i.e. the criminal leaves print on the floor, and scatter brain me might give the baddie a different foot.

For the last novel, I did no character building in advance. I just wrote away and discovered them as I went. However, for my current WIP, I changed tact. I wrote down goals, higher purpose, what they want to achieve in life as well as in the story, motivation, flaws, strenghts, their greatest fear, what's important to them, what they want from life, how they feel about certain others, plus a tag line for the main characters, and tons more. I also wrote a one page life story for the protagonist as well as two other main characters, concentrating on their childhoods; all relevant to the plot. I need to remember it for consistency. I wanted to get a feel for who they are and how they react before I set out. I also picked their most important driving force, wrote it in on a piece of note paper and stuck it to my computer. It's flaping at me in the top left corner of my keyboard as I type this.
 
I've always done in depth character profiles before I write. But then, I write character-driven stories, so that's my focus. My feeling is, if I don't know them well enough to understand how they'll react or what they're likely to say in any given situation, how can I write them authentically, and without making them sound like every other character in the book? This is what gives them their uniqueness. All of this information may not make it into the book - and in fact most of it does not. This is for ME, as the writer, to give my characters depth and humanity.

But then there's the second part of it. GMC. Goal, motivation, conflict. Every story needs conflict, or it's not a story. It's just rambling or memoire, or something else. So at least for your main characters (and you can do this for secondary and tertiary characters as well), I'd strongly suggest writing out their GMC.

Debra Dixon describes this much better than I can, but I'll use an example from her book.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy's goal is to return home. Her motivation is that Oz is not the magical place she envisioned when she was singing in the farmyard about going over the rainbow. In fact, it's horrible. She's entirely out of her element, scarecrows, lions, and tin men talk, and she's killed a witch whose sister is now out to kill her, and steal her pretty red shoes. Home wasn't such a bad place after all. The conflict is that she can't seem to find her way back without first traveling to the Emerald City and enlisting the help of a mysterious wizard.

And yes, it can be something as simple and easy to write as that. Knowing why your character is doing what they're doing, and what obstacles they need to first overcome to reach their goal and resolve the story's conflict, will keep you on track and give you a guideline for why they say this and do that. Every piece of dialogue and every scene in that book needs a reason to be there, or it's just fluff and filler.

So yes, motivation is important for your characters, but it's also just one piece of the backbone of your story.

Hope this helps. :)
 
Maybe just make the questions both a little deeper along with perhaps adding a sense of the absurd to them. Have some fun.

So if they have a bacon sandwich, do they have red or brown sauce with it? Or none at all? Or if they are a veggie, would they sneak the occasional one as a guilty pleasure? Would they watch reality TV and chat about it with their friends? Would they have voted Leave or Remain? What was the last book they read? The last film they saw? Did they enjoy it? Their first memory? Their biggest regret? Do they like Marmite? Give them a mild phobia. What might surprise other people about them? Where did they go on holiday? What is an unpleasant habit they have? What harmless quirk of human behaviour annoys them? (for example, I hate it when people who do not know me call me 'mate'. It really riles me). What don't they like about Christmas?

Make up your own questions. Have some fun with it. Be crude even. Do they always wash their hands after using the loo if nobody is looking? What is their favourite sexual position? Do they fart in public then look to blame others with their eyes. Now you are not going to be able to use every answer and maybe none at all but at least it might offer you a deeper insight.
 
Robert , you were right. That list, I would find completely useless for anything but a cardboard cut out. It doesn't begin to help you say who they are. The character emerges from the inside out and the details follow organically. The character is not painted by numbers from the outside in.
 
In writing a series, it helps me to make detailed profiles of recurring characters. As @Carol Rose said, it's more for me than for using to convey information to the reader.

It's easy to forget things while lost in the maze of plotting. For example, with my MC the Cornish Detective Neil Kettle, I was three books into the series when I realised I hadn't said anything about when his birthday was...a small detail, but something I could use to show his state of mind and sociability. As the plots I'd written were in Spring, Summer and Winter, I gave him a birthday in October. He's a widower, slowly getting over losing his wife in a road traffic accident, but I hadn't said whether he was still wearing his wedding ring...something I rectified—and added jewellery worn as a detail in my character profiles.

I tend to approach character descriptions in a roundabout and gradual way. I dislike detailed listing of someone's appearance when I'm reading a book—their height, weight, complexion, eye colour etc as if it's a passport application form. Instead, I use similes when using my authorial voice and I also get in what someone looks like through the thoughts of people interacting with them. For example, one detective constable is "as big as a wardrobe" though I don't say his exact height or weight—it's good to give the reader work to do with their imagination—they become part of the process and they like the writer for it. In Book 5, just completed, a thief hears of a detective asking around about him, and he says "Is it that red-headed dyke?" That was the first mention I'd made of her hair colour, though readers were already familiar with her sexuality.

Unusual factors that hint at who a character is, include which perfume or aftershave they wear, the colour of their footwear and what music they like. Put it this way if a 40-year-old was obsessed with keeping their trainers immaculately white, and they wore Lynx body spray and favoured listening to boy bands made famous through The X Factor, then a reader might think them shallow, unsophisticated and desperate to be part of crowd.
 
if a 40-year-old was obsessed with keeping their trainers immaculately white, and they wore Lynx body spray and favoured listening to boy bands made famous through The X Factor, then a reader might think them shallow, unsophisticated and desperate to be part of crowd.

@Paul, why do you talk about me so disparagingly?? (There are no weeping emojis, but note, if there were, I'd have a LINE of them. Weep!)
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(I also need to note that I don't own trainers, don't use chemicals and have never seen the X-Factor, just, just... y'know... lest the description sticks to me :D :D :D)
 
Maybe just make the questions both a little deeper along with perhaps adding a sense of the absurd to them. Have some fun.

So if they have a bacon sandwich, do they have red or brown sauce with it? Or none at all? Or if they are a veggie, would they sneak the occasional one as a guilty pleasure? Would they watch reality TV and chat about it with their friends? Would they have voted Leave or Remain? What was the last book they read? The last film they saw? Did they enjoy it? Their first memory? Their biggest regret? Do they like Marmite? Give them a mild phobia. What might surprise other people about them? Where did they go on holiday? What is an unpleasant habit they have? What harmless quirk of human behaviour annoys them? (for example, I hate it when people who do not know me call me 'mate'. It really riles me). What don't they like about Christmas?

Make up your own questions. Have some fun with it. Be crude even. Do they always wash their hands after using the loo if nobody is looking? What is their favourite sexual position? Do they fart in public then look to blame others with their eyes. Now you are not going to be able to use every answer and maybe none at all but at least it might offer you a deeper insight.

Yes. This. Exactly. Lists of favorite colors, etc. are only a skeleton and a basic starting place. You're trying to create three-dimensional human beings, as individual as each of us. Give them a family history. Give them vivid dreams that stay with them years later. Give them sense memories. Give them things they can't seem to forget, no matter how much time goes by. Give them those horrible moments in life they wish they could go back and change. Give them that one perfect memory they go back to when things seem dark and desperate.
 
The list approach does seem a bit sterile and formulaic. Maybe tweak the approach a bit so that the list items surface on their own? One writer (David Mitchell) recommends making each of your characters write a letter to you, in which they talk about themselves. That might be an interesting way of exposing their key attributes? I've never tried it, though .... and writing this, it occurs to me that putting your character on the couch and playing Freud to their fruitcake might also be a fruitful exercise. [too much effing alliteration there...what is happening to me? I blame Irene]
 
@Paul, why do you talk about me so disparagingly?? (There are no weeping emojis, but note, if there were, I'd have a LINE of them. Weep!)
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.
.
.
(I also need to note that I don't own trainers, don't use chemicals and have never seen the X-Factor, just, just... y'know... lest the description sticks to me :D:D:D)
Found this pic of @PaulWhybrow on his way to a BoyZone concert. The photographer has caught him in the act of shoving a can of Lynx into his pocket.
1544204274632.png
 
Believe it or not I submitted to Mills and Boom ONCE and I studied their guidelines carefully. One of these were to submit a picture (preferably from a magazine) of the male and female main characters. So I browsed through tons of magazines, but eventually I did find a living portrayal of my main characters. They DID like my book, and I knew they weren't just saying it, but it wasn't for them because the male MC went off to a monastery to become a monk and left the female MC as the eternal spinster headteacher of an infant school. Tut... tut... tut...:oops: But basically I work like @Rainbird - no extensive planning, I just draw them from real life... I may mix a bit of one into a bit of another to make a brand new person, but they are all from real human stock. That way I don't have to make notes about their characteristics, since I know them quite well as I have lived with them in a previous life, this one.
 
Actually I think Marc took that picture himself.

paparazzi-photographer-stock-image-687235.jpg

As for character creation, I've never got on with the pre-profiling approach -- though it's clearly a powerful tool for some. I prefer to put my people in a scene and see what they do (I do have @Carol Rose's GMC worked out). It does mean I get through many drafts, but it works for me.
 
I wonder what you mean by "motivation"?

In a scene I think you need to know what the protagonist wants and also obliquely what the the other characters want, even if only to provide conflict.

But this is is the thing worth noting - traditionally a character needs wisdom before his or her wish is granted. And wisdom is usually really a Truth about Self vs Ego - why do you want to be king anyway? So what you need to know about your character, or find out through writing, is what is the thing he or she needs to know about why she (or he) wants something before she can safely (or unsafely) gain it - or survive losing it?

Motivation is usually stitch up of fear and the need to get a mate and/or self actualise (grow).

Different characters going to fairyland will be tested in different ways and most of them will fail the test at least once. Edmund will eat the Snow Queen's turkish delight.

To me the real conflict in a good story is that between what a character needs to fill a hole in his or her soul and what the character THINKS will help (but won't). The most obvious is always the need for love vs desire for money/power/status. But the fun is finding out the specifics.
 
So in an Officer & A Gentleman our hero had to dig out the truth about his own motivation and connect with others before can fly jets.
 
I wonder what you mean by "motivation"?

In a scene I think you need to know what the protagonist wants and also obliquely what the the other characters want, even if only to provide conflict.

But this is is the thing worth noting - traditionally a character needs wisdom before his or her wish is granted. And wisdom is usually really a Truth about Self vs Ego - why do you want to be king anyway? So what you need to know about your character, or find out through writing, is what is the thing he or she needs to know about why she (or he) wants something before she can safely (or unsafely) gain it - or survive losing it?

Motivation is usually stitch up of fear and the need to get a mate and/or self actualise (grow).

Different characters going to fairyland will be tested in different ways and most of them will fail the test at least once. Edmund will eat the Snow Queen's turkish delight.

To me the real conflict in a good story is that between what a character needs to fill a hole in his or her soul and what the character THINKS will help (but won't). The most obvious is always the need for love vs desire for money/power/status. But the fun is finding out the specifics.

@NickP I see where you're coming from here. I'm viewing motivation in terms of what my character wants. This may be the motivation of the moment (e.g. hunger) or a broader sense of self-actualisation.

I think that the why and the likely success of your chosen path to what you want is trickier ground. It's very important, but I think a lot of it depends on whether your narration is first or third person.

If it's third you can quite openly muse on the morals of why your characters are doing what they are doing and challenge whether it's the right thing to do. Although in that sense your narrator is getting in on the story a bit, but that really comes down to personal style.

However, if you're in first person present from the point of view of your protagonist, I think it's slightly more difficult because although you, the writer, may be able to wax lyrical on the likely pitfalls of your characters chosen route to their desires, the character themselves cannot accept (although they could discuss) that they're on the path to despondance. i.e. Everyone has done things in their life that in hindsight were obviously stupid and everyone around us could have told us that it was the wrong course of action, but at the time, we did it anyway.

I think when your in third person you can challenge your protagonists decision making directly. In the first person your protagonist can't see the wood for the trees, so any criticism must be done silently in a knowing wink to your reader, who's screaming at the page; 'Don't do that you idiot!'.
 
Thing is Robert, a story is a metaphor for that internal struggle, fear vs love, greed vs cooperation etc. So commentary upon it is sort of redundant - what you are dramatising is the war between the Ego and Self. The antagonists are dark or light mirrors showing what you could become, what the risks and rewards are.

For me, first or third person living in on commentating upon the action is not really relevant.
 
For me, first or third person living in on commentating upon the action is not really relevant.

Sorry - that sounds a tad rude - meant to say yours was an interesting post but the person probably doesn't affect the character much.
 
I find myself agreeing with @Rich. I dump my characters into a tough scene and see how they manage. Usually their attributes and attitude will come through and I'll then "know" them. From that I will also usually draw ideas for appropriate clothing, hairstyle, education, means, etc.
Going back to the original post, motivation is certainly an important facet of a character in my view.
 
Found this pic of @PaulWhybrow on his way to a BoyZone concert. The photographer has caught him in the act of shoving a can of Lynx into his pocket.
View attachment 3017
Oh lordy, if I ever look this well-groomed, nebbish and nerdy I give you all permission to shoot me! Having said that, the whiteness of the trainers reminds me of an unfortunate fashion choice I made in 1982, when somehow I decided that wearing all-white ensemble would make me irresistible! This outfit included a white cotton zipped blouson jacket, white silk T-shirt, white balloon trousers (that were baggy enough to home an army of ferrets!) and white leather boots. The boots had two white plastic zips on the front for access, and were lined with white towelling...making them incredibly comfortable to wear. My only defence, is that it was the New Romantic era—though I did look like a reject from pop group Spandeau Ballet.
 
Paul, there has to be some photographic evidence of such a pivotal fashion moment. This is something that the world/Litopia needs to see.

We won't laugh. Swear ;);)

Nope, I destroyed the evidence. The strange thing about fashion, is that we always think we look cool, or at least normal, the way we're dressed now...but looking back in twenty years at our clothing and hair styles, we might fall about laughing. As the saying goes: "Fashion—in one year and out the other."
 
I'm just fascinated by the colourful world of fashion! Almost as much as I am about religious vocations. And when you get a top fashion designer who created dresses for the great stars, including Jackie Kennedy when she was at the White House and then at the height of his career he disappears only to find him locked up in a Monastery what can I do but write "GOD'S APPAREL". Now you know why, understandably so Mills and Boon said it wasn't for them (I mentioned this in a post above)- you just can't have the male MC go off to a monastery! I refused of course, to
change the ending. BTW Father1508212_426939384179988_3448168989303337634_n.jpg Franco Bertolotti's name in art is Chino Bert and here is one of his models:
 
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