Saturday, September 04, 2010
Sean Cloran asked if I had any advice on developing characters.
I've always been much more character driven than plot driven when approaching my work, with the plot usually serving to get at least one character from developmental point A at the beginning to developmental point B at the end of the story. I usually choose plots that will best deliver this transition.
This is also how I begin to approach developing my characters. The first thing you need to think about is what do you want to do with them? Is it some shy high school kid who you want to end up with the girl at the end? Then you need to think about what demonstrates his shyness and what makes him shy. Is it because of how he perceives himself, how others treat him? Then you need to decide who the girl is, and what makes her so desirable to him. How does she react to him at the beginning of this story so you need to know how much work your character has to do to end up with her at the end. After you do this you need to think about what steps the character needs to make to get himself to a position where he does end up with the girl. Does he have friends to confide in? Who are they? What's their relationship to your main character? What's their relationship to the girl? Are there other characters who are obstacles to him getting where he wants to be? Even if it's the jerk jock boyfriend of the girl, figure out why the girl is with him, and so on.
My feeling is the more you know about your characters the more real they will come across, and the easier they will be to write. Stuff you don't think is significant, and may not even have a direct bearing on the story, can inform your character's actions and interactions with others. Knowing that they grew up with overbearing parents may make their interactions with authority figures antagonistic. Knowing that they love roller coasters would suggest them being more adventurous and quick at jumping into things others would hesitate to do, and so on. If you do this for your major characters, it makes their interactions more natural and believable, and it's easier to tell if their dialogue rings true or not.
I generally give my characters a general backstory which goes back to at least high school. Not only does knowing their developmental stages up to their current stage help me develop them foreward, but it provides material to draw on if I want to highlight some future obstacle in their development by tying it to something from their past, but it also makes doing so not seem like it was pulled from thin air. A casual remark along the way such as "my parents hated taking us on vacation anywhere because my brother and I always fought in the car the entire way," suggests a past, gives insight into a family dynamic, and identifies two parents and a brother, all factors that could come into play later. One of the things I hate most in comics is when a character with a long history such as Spider-Man, who has never mentioned having a sibling in twenty-plus years of stories, suddenly has a brother who appears out of nowhere.
Likewise, I always hate it when I watch a movie and can tell you everything that's going to happen by the end of the movie. Whenever you see a father grumbling that his son is never going to amount to anything because he wastes too much time playing paddle ball, you know that a). the dad's going to die, b). the son is going to triumph in a way that would make his dad proud, c). somewhere along the way the son is going to have to use his paddle ball skills to save the day by defusing the bomb, or something. Even if all these things are going to happen in your story, introduce those elements subtly and naturally. Maybe the father and son don't see eye to eye, and the son turns to paddle ball as a way to cool off and de-stress. If it's there without drawing attention to itself early in the story, it won't project itself as an obvious outcome later, nor will it seem to come out of left field.
You'll know your characters are working when you can write them without much effort. They'll also surprise you by seemingly doing things you hadn't anticipated them to do. Even if it's not where you were planning for them to go, it might be the right way for them to go. If pushing them back in the direction you wanted them to go in feels forced, then it probably is forced. Go with what feels right and true.
I'm not sure how helpful this post is, but I hope it's enough to get you started.