Saturday, September 04, 2010

Developing Characters

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.


Sean Cloran said...

Thanks for the answer, I am curious about your additional thoughts on character development, some authors base their characters on (fully and partially) people they know; I have a problem with this simply because (truthfully) most people I know are not that interesting, also their motivations can not be easily adapted to fit within the context of the story. Also, a problem I have with this is those I know really well, I find myself blinded by sentimentality.
So I guess, my follow up question is have you or do you ever base characters on people you know?
Also, a writer once said regarding characters, that they are all based on parts of the author. I do agree with that to an extent. I was wondering you thoughts on that assessment. Thanks again.

Sean Cloran said...

edit: should read... your thoughts on that assessment.

John Rozum said...

I would say they are based more on aspects of myself than anything else, though it would probably surprise people to find out which ones come more from me than others.

I've named lots of characters after people I know. One character in "The Hangman" not only was named after a friend of mine, but also held the same job and supplied some dialogue, but I can't say I've ever really based a character on anyone I know. I'll take aspects of people I know; a certain habit from one person, or the way someone else dresses, or maybe a hobby, but I've never used anyone's specific personality. It's never really occurred to me to do so, and thinking about it, I can see some danger you can get into, because at some point you'll have to veer from the real person, and if your clearly recognizable fictitious version of your friend starts acting like a racist, or has an extramarital affair then you can screw up their real world relationships as well.

As you say, real people's personas and motivations aren't necessarily going to fit your story. So, no matter what you take from real life you're changing the character enough that it's no longer the person you based them on.

I have based characters on specific celebrities, a number of which, such as the Car Talk Guys have appeared in "Scooby-Doo" or Bill Nye appeared in "Dexter's Laboratory," but these were simply caricatures of their public personas. This is really no different than writing characters to sound like their existing counterparts from other media such as the Scooby-Doo gang, or Mulder and Scully in the X-Files, or even Batman.

I'll often keep an actor in mind when I'm first building a character because it lends a makeshift foundation to anchor what you're bringing to the character, though usually things veer away from them long before I'm done. In terms of comic books, the visual of an actor will often serve as a short hand way of communicating the character's body language. Usually though it's simply a starting point. I might see a performance by one person and immediately connect with it and think "that's so and so's sister" and later try and center on whatever it was about that performance that caused that connection to click on and then build from that. I just feel when ever those lightbulb going off moments come you should seize them without asking why they happened. They did, so whatever registered with me is usually right.

I had an epiphany moment while in the process of developing "Midnight, Mass." while sitting at a traffic light one day. The day before I had seen "Deep Rising" and knew immediately that Famke Janssen was Julia Kadmon. Seeing her performance locked in my head the center point of where her character had been elusively spiraling around for a while. At the traffic light, I also realized that the series was really about her and not Adam, and immediately the entire series began falling into place really quickly.

John Rozum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sean Cloran said...

Great insight, Thanks