Write Thinking - Giant Roblog's New Column

The only constant is change...

Ready for a format change, Giant Robloggers? Today marks the introduction of Giant Roblog's first continuing, semi-regular column... Write Thinking. Posts marked as Write Thinking will contain articles on the craft of writing, with a heavy bias on fantasy writing skills.

Without further ado...

Write Thinking #1

Creating Characters Who Live And Breathe

"Character is what you are in the dark."
Lord John Whorfin

Something just wasn't working in my novel. The plot was honed to a razor's edge, but for some reason I kept getting stuck. The plain fact of the matter was that I just wasn't interested in what was going on... Worse, my characters weren't interested either. Everyone was simply going through the paces, spitting out their trite lines and getting on with business. There was no passion, no vigor. There were no signs of life.

The problem was that I didn't really know my characters that well. That is, I knew all of the facts about their lives, but I didn't know who they were. They were little more than shallow archetypes... Granted, archetypes who did weird things, but archetypes none-the-less.

It was time to go back to the drawing board and really investigate these imaginary people. I needed to know what made them interesting people. More than anything, my characters needed contradiction.

Randolph's Law of Character:
Archetypes are boring;
Interesting characters are born from
their own contradictions.

Most of my characters were shallow stereotypes (which are a sort of archetype), and that just isn't satisfactory. Archetypes have no momentum. You're forced to drive them like cattle. On the other hand, interesting characters... Real, living, vital characters will tell the story for you. They'll do what they want to with or without you, and captivate readers as they go.

So, how does a writer create a living, breathing character? It's all about finding a character's contradictions. You have to examine the situations where a character will act "out of character", because that's where dimension and depth hide. Characters who always act "in character" are stale and predictable. They're mechanical, rather than organic. To most people, they're alien.

To take it a step further, an archetype only truly becomes a “character” when they do something uncharacteristic. They need to break out of the mould if they're going to live. Each and every human being is a walking mass of contradictions, capable of investing in multiple, mutually-exclusive beliefs all at once. It's what separates us from software. Without contradiction, a character simply looks like a cardboard cut-out.

Large contradictions are the engines of plot, while small contradictions are subtle details which make a character real. In order for a character to be well rounded, they must be composed of both large and small contradictions in their morals, interests and preferences.

Which leads us to this weeks exercise: Character Sketching

By "Sketch", I don't mean a drawing (but those can help). Instead, what we're going to be doing is describing a character in quick, rough terms. It's a quick and dirty description of who they are.

This is a really simple exercise, but it can do wonders for your writing. The better acquainted you are with your characters, the more the story will tend to write itself. When you get to a difficult part of a story, you don't have to imagine how a character would react. You already know.

In order to complete this exercise, you're going to need a notebook (or a pad of paper, or word processor, or blood & parchment... writing stuffs), an active imagination and about an hour of free time.

The first step is deciding who your main characters are. In the case of my book, there are 6 characters that are really key to the plot, and I needed sketches for all of them. Prime candidates are protagonists, supporting cast and (this is important) villains. Everyone that's central to the plot should be a fully developed character.

Once you've decided who you're going to be working on, we move on to execution.

  • Each character has 3 sections to fill out: Personality, Ethics/Beliefs & Goals.

  • Write everything down, no matter how seemingly insignificant or stupid. Brainstorming rules apply.

  • Don't be a perfectionist... These are personal notes, and no one's going to see them but you. You can put things in the wrong section, misspell words, and use poor grammar. Ain't that wonderful?

  • Keep an eye out for potential contradictions.

  • Investigate the differences between how a character views his own actions, and how other characters view those same actions.

...And that's it. I told you it was simple. What, you want an example? Alright, let's make up a character.

We'll start with an archetype. How about a white-collar worker in a software company? He wears pressed shirts, has a favorite coffee mug, is clean cut and well shaven, and is "career motivated". Now, on with the sketch...

Miles Bowden

Miles is an over-achiever with a high opinion of himself. He is aggressive, fast thinking, and is outspoken in most situations, especially when the topic is his low opinion of his peers.

Outwardly, Miles has utmost confidence in his own judgement and abilities, and has trouble trusting other people. On the other hand, he has complete faith in authority figures (teachers, bureaucrats, executives etc.) and almost always defers to their judgement.

In social gatherings, Miles is loud and usually the center of attention. He often declines invitations to parties, and his friends think he's "too cool" to go. In fact, Miles is very uncomfortable in large groups of people, and feels too much pressure to "perform".

His father was a botanist, and Miles himself enjoys looking at and collecting flowers. Absolutely no one knows this about him. He claims not to have any hobbies, because it would "waste valuable time".

He likes black coffee, nice clothes, and being alone. He is especially attracted to women who remind him of his first grade teacher. He dislikes sweet foods and alcohol, and he hates rebellious people (considers them traitors?).

Miles was raised Lutheran, but is not especially religious (attends on holidays?). He does believe in god, but more as a passive force than as a person. He occasionally muses that order in the natural world is the manifestation of god.

He believes strongly in the value of authority, laws and the establishment, often preaching about the topic with an almost religious fervor. Law is "what separates man from the animals." Contrary to this, Miles cheated on several tests in school (including placement exams), and feels continuing guilt over the matter.

He claims he could not kill a person, but agrees with the death penalty. He also feels war is a justifiable tool of diplomacy, but doesn't want to know anything about it. He generally is politically conservative, but feels strongly about environmental issues.

Miles is driven to be "succesful". His father was an indistinguished researcher, and Miles has always felt that the man wasted his life. He absolutely refuses to have the same fate. Unfortunately, he followed his goal single-mindedly and is now working in upper-management in a company he doesn't really care about, while suffering his second ulcer.

Granted, this isn't the most interesting character in the world, but we certainly know enough about him to start a story. We know a bit about his thoughts, feelings, secrets, likes and dislikes. Undoubtedly, a lot more would be generated in the process of writing, but this is fine to begin with. Most importantly, there's some internal friction in Mr. Miles Bowden... Places where he's made the wrong choices (in his own estimation), and places where he could grow as a person.

It's that simple. Now run off and do a couple character sketches. After all, if you don't know your characters, how will we?

Keep those pens in motion, kids.


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