Friday, September 24, 2010

Character Roots

As I hop down from my censorship soapbox, I jumped on the bandwagon and doing a post today about writing compelling characters.

I think most people will agree with me when I say that compelling characters must be fully realized, rounded out characters. They have to be, otherwise there'd be nothing in them to relate to, and then no one would care about what happens to them. If you've ever read a book/watched a movie/seen a play/listened to a radio show where the characters are really just cardboard cutouts chilling in the story while the plot does its thing, then you know that can get old fast. After all, what's the point of watching people you don't care about do stuff, since you won't care if they succeed?

One thing that most fully realized and rounded out characters have are personality traits. You know, they have likes and dislikes, favorite things, things that scare them so much they scream like little girls as the sight/sound/taste of them.

Now, here's the kicker about personality traits: they can't be completely random.

Why? They'll make no sense, and they'll look like you put them there to make the character appear rounded out, and the audience will be able to smell it.

Story time: A while ago, Captain Film Major and I were discussing an old kid's movie, and he pointed out that the MC, a girl of about nine, I believe, had a big thing for Elvis. Captain Film Major's response to this was something along the lines of (and I'm paraphrasing, dude, so if you see this, chill), "It would've been great if they'd explained that at all, instead of just chucking it out there so that it made no sense." (Okay, so, I paraphrased a lot. Probably should've written the exact wording down. Note for next time.)

Much as it pains me to admit that Captain Film Major might have point about a movie, he had a point. Most nine-year-olds I've met aren't Elvis fans. Most probably couldn't tell you who The King is. So how did this character know? They don't say. They just say she likes Elvis. Now, if she'd said, "He was my dad's favorite... before he died. He used to sing along to the CDs when he did the dishes... drove Mom crazy," it would have had meaning. Because now we know how she developed this knowledge and interest, and we know a bit more about her character as a result.

Here's the deal: If you're character is anything like just about every human being I've ever met (and I've met a fair number of human beings), likes, dislikes, favorites, and phobias come about for some reason. There's often something in someone's background that led to that reaction.

Story time: I love Irish music. I listen to it all the time. Captain Film Major hates it. He listens to it never. He blames his dislike on having to listen to it all them time when we were kids. I blame my love on having to listen to it all the time when we were kids. Both of our responses to that music are not random but the result of things in our past.

Obligatory Harry Potter reference: (Contains SPOILERS!) (And, seriously, if you haven't read all 7 Harry Potter books, stop reading this post now and get on it.) (No, I'm not kidding. It's much more important. Go.) Severus Snape considered himself the Half Blood Prince, because he preferred to associate himself with his mother's side of the family, because he didn't like his Muggle father, because his dad beat his mom. See how that relates to his life. Snape wasn't a fan of really any Muggles, because his dad beat his mom, which is how he could so easily fall in with Death Eaters. Severus Snape loved Lily Evans (later Lily Potter), so he betrayed the Death Eaters, joined the Order of the Phoenix, fought against Voldemort, and did everything he could to keep Harry alive. See how that relates to his history?

(Okay, so that was several Harry Potter references, but I think I made my point.)

To create compelling characters, they have to be fully formed individuals, and they aren't going to be fully formed by being hashed together bits of randomness. Follow the random to the history that made them who they are, and follow the history you have to the everyday things that will present themselves in your character's life.

Have you ever come across a character seemingly composed of unrelated bits? How did you feel about that? Could you still relate to the character? How much time do you put into your characters' histories? Have you ever learned something about a character by looking for the cause of a seemingly random aspect of their personality?

65 comments:

  1. You're right- character traits can't be completely random. And every character, whether good or bad, has to have a mix of positive and negative traits. Otherwise they just become stock. That's a lesson it's taken me a while to learn.

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  2. Very true. Even if I do insert a little unexpected randomness, I then figure out a logical reason why :o)

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  3. Yep - compelling character have to make you love them, worry about them, feel the need to get in there and stop them doing the wrong thing. I had faith in Snape because my faith in Dumbeldore was unshakeable, he was compelling.
    Are you posting at THE REJECTIONIST'S Public Humiliation Uncontest on Monday?

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  4. Personality is important, you want to make sure they are different and unique, but relateable, there is a fine line on going to far and you don't want to cross it!

    Great post on compelling characters! Thanks for joining the blogging experiment.

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  5. Random character traits drive me crazy. Great point.

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  6. Great tip! In fiction, everything has to make sense.

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  7. I've definitely learned things about my character by following these seemingly "random" fears and likes back to their beginning.

    Although I think my fear of needles and spiders is completely irrational and based in nothing because neither has ever harmed me overmuch (yes, needles hurt, but still). So there could be an irrational fear thrown in for good measure ;)

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  8. I like how you discussed tying together seemingly random character traits. Nothing bugs me more than a quirk just thrown in there for the heck of it.

    Like the grandfather in my novel currently on sub always wears pajamas. Eventually you learn it's not because he just likes wearing pajamas all the time, there's a reason for it.

    Now, me, OTOH, I just like wearing pajamas all day long when I can get away with it. But I'm a real person and need no logical motivation whatsoever! ;)

    Awesome post!

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  9. You are so right about this. Each character has a history of a series of events starting from birth that shapes them and makes them who they are when we meet them. What is it about their past that makes them do what they do now?

    Lee
    Tossing It Out

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  10. So no randomness, then. Okay, I might be able to live with that. Great post!

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  11. Excellent post. Randomness is OUT, relevance is in.

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  12. I care too much about my friends - I mean characters - to throw random quirks in the mix. They have plenty enough reason to be quirky as it is! Glad to see you agree:0)

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  13. I like your take on this subject. I agree that character likes/dislikes must be explained--it helps the reader to feel more connected to them.

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  14. 'Fully formed persons' - completely agree. I haven't read a book where the MC was made from random bits, that would be too difficult. Nice post! ;)

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  15. I don't like it when I come across a character that does something that doesn't make any sense...It makes you say out loud....Why didn't you just run the other direction from the one legged man who was trying to attack you? You know what I mean?

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  16. You point on random bits is important. When putting together character sketches, writers should be sure they aren't filling in the blanks just to do so. The pieces should have layers behind them.

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  17. Stephanie -- I concur that all characters should be a mix of good and bad traits. Otherwise, they look flat and all dull.

    Jessica -- You can learn a lot about a character by following the randomness to its roots.

    Elaine -- Unfortunately, I don't have any of my journals nearby to embarrass myself with, but I'll look forward to your post. ;)

    Jen -- My pleasure. You're right about there being a fine line between unique and unrelatable.

    Susan -- Thanks. Glad you stopped by.

    Carolyn -- As they say, "Fiction's harder than reality, because fiction needs to make sense."

    stickynotes -- Depending on how one feels about formative memories, what seems random in a person could have a real root, much like character randomness can have a real root.

    Tere -- I'm glad you liked the post. Thanks for weighing in. Your comment represents the truth that sometimes life makes less sense than fiction must.

    Arlee -- Exactly, people are a series of events. That's why a lot of writing on character biographies recommend writing a chronological history.

    Elana -- Thanks. :)

    Melissa -- Thanks for stopping by. :)

    Cinette -- Indeed. I think if we care about our characters, we should care enough to figure them out. Well described.

    Ibdiamond -- You're right,I think understanding a character definitely helps feel more connected to them.

    Talei -- Thanks. I'm glad you stopped by.

    Sharon -- I concur. When characters do irrational things that make no sense, it makes me want to morph into the book and start giving the character advice.

    Tricia -- I concur. Just filling in the blanks to fill the blanks -- sometimes I must admit I've made the mistake of doing -- you miss the point.

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  18. I agree! Its too tempting to what to throw together a bunch of random traits and adjectives and call the mess a character, but it really comes down to seeing and knowing them with our mind's eye.

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  19. Your post definitely keeps Elana with her kidney. You brought up a very valid point.

    Well done. :)

    And, nice to meet you. I'm your newest follower. (still trying to catch up on everyone's character post. *wipes brow*)
    ~Lola

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  20. Dayana -- I think knowing them with our mind's eye is a great way to put it. We've got to know what makes the character tick, not just what the tick sounds like.

    Lola -- Well, I'm always glad to help such a nice person keep a kidney. Useful organs, those. Thanks for stopping by. It's a pleasure to have you here.

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  21. Snape is a wonderful example of a compelling character. Great post.

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  22. Nicole -- Thanks. Glad you stopped by. :)

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  23. Great point about how character likes/dislikes have to come from somewhere!

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