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Writing is Hard: Formulating Characters

Welcome to another random post for the summer.

Quick life update: True to form, I have been far too busy this summer to write anything. I miss it horribly now, and can't believe that I willingly didn't write anything in June - though, I am well aware that I was burnt out at the time. Right now, I want to write about 3 things at once - though the epic original fantasy is still the most daunting of the projects.

I'm doing another writing topic today. This was another question asked by the lovely kailita

Topic 2 - How Do You Formulate Characters?

This is how *I* formulate characters, of course, everyone is different... we'll look at 3 types of Character Creation, they're applicable to both Fanfic and Original Fiction, but I'll focus on Fanfic, since people will be able to read the characters I mention... and I'll stick with the demented'verse, since I think those are my most read stories...

The Deliberate OC - (Plot-Required)
Case Study: Till and Phil

Both characters were needed for the plot.

Till - The "Someone you know" Template
Harry Potter, as the original 7 books stood, had not provided me with a Healer/Medic character in the wizarding world... or at least, not a well-rounded one. There might have been a few mentioned or named, but I needed someone that I could write POV from. I needed someone who could be my audience's eyes, someone they could sympathize with and enjoy spending time with - ie: Someone INTERESTING.

Well, let's pick someone that I found interesting, even though I didn't know anything about them when I met them - and still don't really. Someone I found interesting on sight - my mind went to a guy who lived on my floor in my residence in Germany... his name was Till. There, we have a name and a look - tall, sort of Swedish looking. Was the real Till Swedish? I can't remember. Maybe he was from Eastern Europe? Okay, so tall, Swedish looking, but possibly not Swedish... possibly Eastern European. Man, how come I didn't find out more about Till? Oh yeah, he was extremely shy and soft spoken. Man, I wonder what it was like going to Durmstrang when you're so soft-spoken, because OC-Till definitely went to Durmstrang if he spent time in Eastern Europe.

And there you go... OC created. From there, I just made an epic backstory for him as required, just by asking the standard Universe Specific questions: What did he do in the War? Does he have siblings? What are his opinions of Muggles? Did he come from a Wizarding family or was his family mixed or muggle?

Phil - The "One Extra Interesting Thing" Template
Harry Potter also didn't furnish me with any American Wizards of note. But, here I was writing a Harry Potter story in America - and I needed Harry to interact with American Aurors. So, let's invent a character from New England (due to the way I, personally, invisioned Wizarding North America, he HAD to be from New England.) Philip is a good used-to-be-a-colony name. O'Shaunnessy is a good large-irish-immigrant-area name. So, woot, done.

Then the standard WORLD questions - Wizarding family or not? What did he do during the War? What's his family like? What are his opinions on Muggles?

So, then I had a name and a backstory, but not much about the way he interacts with the world. Is he bold and brash? Shy and soft spoken? Why or why not? What makes Phil fun and interesting? What's one fun thing that I can think of about Phil that makes him someone you want to spend time with? What's an amusing character trait that he might have?

How about... when he gets tired, he swears like a sailor and tells you what he REALLY thinks, but at all other times he's a consummate professional - or at least attempts to be. That'd be fun!

Done.

Character From Thin Air
Case Study: Dove (original fic)

So, I wrote this whole thing and then realized that sometimes characters aren't based on someone I know, nor are they the "one interesting thing" template - sometime, mostly in original fiction, they're just people I would find interesting.

So, Dove is the protagonist of my fantasy novel. How did I create him? He came out of what I needed to tell the story, just like both Till and Phil did.

Dove was originally Nenver, then because of the history of where the name Nenver comes from (which I can't get into, but suffice it to say I associate certain character traits with that name), I realized that Nenver couldn't be my protagonist. He could either be my Antagonist or my Protagonist's bestfriend.

So, my protagonist needed a new name.. and I won't get into naming, because that's a whole other kettle of fish... but I decided on Dove.

After that, it's back to the World Specific Questions: What's Dove's family like? Where did he grow up? How has having Nenver as a BFF informed his personality? How do he and Nenver get along now that they're older? What does he do for a living? Does he like it? How does he get sucked into this adventure? How does he feel about me constantly referring to him as male, even though he isn't actually? How does he feel about Nenver doing it? Why is he okay with it sometimes and not others? etc... and my answers to all that inform me who Dove is.

Basically, creating a character out of thin air involves asking a LOT of questions.

And then, even after all that, you can have accidental surprises while writing... which I'll get into below... but with Dove, once I started writing, I realized that Dove was a bit of a flirt - at least when he's in a good mood. And that just came from the way the dialogue flowed as a I wrote... what I found amusing to write and interesting to explore - ie: a flirt who is afraid of intimacy.

Most everyone in my original fic is created from Thin Air. Except Nenver and Alibriel, who come from inside jokes with my BFF, and Maeve, who comes partially from a D&D character I used to play and partially from a woman I saw on the Sky Train one day on my way to the Archery range.

Anyway, this means very little to anyone, because I haven't written the goddamn book yet. BUT YOU'LL SEE EVENTUALLY (hopefully.)

The Accidental OC - (Not required by plot, not originally intended to be interesting)
Case Study:Nate

Nate was NOT INTENDED to be what he became. I had Teddy's friends already lined up. I put him in a trio - in true Harry Potter fashion - with Iggy (a pure-blood wizard from a nobel family) and Andy (a muggle-born). Iggy's sister Isobel worked at the Weasley's shop... he had syltherins in his family, but was a Hufflepuff. Andy was just your typical Muggle born. Shenanigans and friendship was supposed to be explored solely through Iggy, Andy, and Teddy (hence why they all have names ending in y, while Nate is just... Nate.) Do you want to know why this failed? It wasn't solely because of accidentally creating Nate... it was because I didn't make Iggy or Andy very interesting on their own. I failed to round them out well. They were too "just another average wizard kid."

Then all that uniqueness I had failed to pour into Iggy and Andy, I accidentally poured into Nate.

Nate was created solely because I needed other boys in the Hufflepuff dormitory. Just like Harry, Ron and Hermione, also had Neville, Seamus, Dean, Lavendar Brown, etc - so too did Teddy need at least one fellow Hufflepuff in his year who wasn't necessarily his best friend (how ironic). Teddy's year was small, due to the war, so I figured I would just throw one other boy in his dorm. Nate was created because I said: "Well, statistically, he'd likely be in the LGBT community."

And I can tell I didn't intend to do much with him, because I made him my standard default description - fair, pitch black hair, sky blue eyes... it's the celtic look that I've had a thing for since I saw my first Irish boy. I totally regret is now, because now that I've written him a bunch, that isn't actually how I picture Nate at all. In my mind, he's a little brunette kid with maybe hazel eyes or something... but whatever, gotta stick with continuity. (And yes, I recognize how stupid it is that my "default" is a very unique rare genetic presentation, you'll just have to forgive my illogic.)

My downfall with Nate wasn't just creating him and making him LGBT, it was the fact that I thought, "if I were a little gay 12 year-old boy, my reaction to seeing Sam Winchester would DEFINITELY confirm my sexuality." Followed quickly by the thought, "I'm totally giving Nate a crush on Sam, because that will be adorable."

And then of course, Sam Winchester goes and "dies" and Teddy is in mourning, but Teddy also knows that Nate really liked Sam too... and really, that whole not-close-friends thing goes out the window as soon as you are united in grief.

Add into that my opinion of Remus' sexuality and how Teddy may or may not react to finding out about it - and who would he talk to besides his gay friend? And who would he feel comfortable with when exploring his own sexuality when those questions inevitably arise (as they do for everyone, in my opinion.) And suddenly my throw-away "other boy in the dorm" becomes Teddy Lupin's BFF/non-sexual life-partner... and one of my more beloved OCs. Completely accidental interesting character creation.

A NOTE ON DIVERSITY:

As you can see, I suffer from the problem of defaulting to white males when I'm creating characters. Whenever you can, try to avoid this. I've gotten better over the years - identifying the fact that I do it is a huge first step - but I'm still not perfect.

[more on this topic]Although I've started adding in more women (replacing Ron with Maria in the Auror department, for example), I still tend to default to white. THOUGH, I did make the America Auror team more diverse in DDD.

Anyway... when you can, try to diversify. Making Nate LGBT was part of what made me want to explore his experiences more - What's it like growing up gay in the Wizarding world? If Wizards are 10% of the population, and LGBT people are 10% of the population, does that mean that your dating pool is 10% of 10%, and then whatever percentage is in your age group? Wow, that much suck. (Note: I don't know if those are the actual statistics, it's just an example.)

That being said, if you DO diversify, you shouldn't make the ONE INTERESTING thing be the fact that your character is a minority. Nate is not ONLY interesting because he's gay, he's also interesting because he's a Hufflepuff through and through, he's got an affinity for charms, he's from a wizarding family, but wants to try to make his life in the muggle world... while simultaneously living in the one of the oldest Wizarding houses in London.

Likewise, let's say I had made Till Nigerian instead of Swedish, there's no reason for me to have stopped at Nigerian in his development, just like I didn't stop at "Swedish" for Till... Till isn't JUST Swedish, he also grew up, at least partially, behind the Iron Curtain. He's got an airy sweet voice that doesn't really match the modern image of masculinity, nor the strength of the language that he would have grown up speaking in school. He went to a school that, at least in the movies, is portrayed as hypermasculine... how did he fit in? Did he? How did all those issues translate to the work environment once he graduated? HOW did ALL THAT inform the kind of person that he became?


Anyway, I'm doing my best to stop defaulting to cishet white guys. I'd suggest you do the same! When you default to "media average" too much, you run into the problem I ran into with Iggy and Andy, where their stories had been done before, and although I love them as characters, I'm not as enthused to write about their experiences.

I guess that's my final note: When creating characters, create characters where you are interested in in their life-experiences, worldview, personalities... and if you can't do that, at least give them an amusing character trait - it's what makes them seem like actual people.

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
borgmama1of5
Aug. 10th, 2016 03:47 am (UTC)
Very interesting read!

Sometimes I have a physical image in my head and start with that, and then try and make a character who would look like that. And I try to throw in nonwhite characters without drawing attention to them because I don't want the reader to perceive them as 'special,' I just want them to be part of the milieu of the world.
hells_half_acre
Aug. 10th, 2016 04:17 am (UTC)
Yeah, that's the way to do it with diverse characters. Just accurately reflect the world. I don't necessarily do enough of that. I find if I rely too much on how I initially imagine people physically, that's when I tend to default to white male... I have to actually take a minute to think about it, and ask myself "do they have to be male? Do they have to be white?" then I can come up with more varied characters.

I also don't tend to be very specific in my imaginings. Everyone is always very nondescript, even when I'm reading other people's work, I'll sometimes forget how people were described, so I'll just sort of picture them as faceless figures.

Or sometimes when I'm reading, characters I've seen in similar roles on TV will serve as my "actors" DESPITE what the author wrote. Recently, I read a story by a friend of mine where there was a Hacker character - I'd just come off yet another rewatch of Leverage, so immediately, the young teenage hacker, became a young teenage Aldis Hodge... and then every time my friend (the author) referenced the fact that this was a white kid, I would be jarred out of the story, because it was like the AUTHOR was getting it wrong, and not me... which was ridiculous.

Anyway, this is all to say that I can't rely on physical image much. A lot of the time, that's actually the last character trait that I think of.

The exceptions, of course, is characters like Till, who is based off a real person... and characters where I'm deliberately playing with certain tropes that concern appearances.
supernutjapan
Aug. 10th, 2016 11:07 am (UTC)
Stop defaulting to white males - this is such a good point.

Insightful post! Thank you!
hells_half_acre
Aug. 10th, 2016 01:38 pm (UTC)
You're welcome! Glad you enjoyed it!

And yes, stop defaulting to white males! They have enough stories about them - and if you're writing fanfic, odds are you're already writing about white males as the main characters, there's no need to populate your world with even more. :)
kailita
Aug. 13th, 2016 01:51 am (UTC)
I thought, "if I were a little gay 12 year-old boy, my reaction to seeing Sam Winchester would DEFINITELY confirm my sexuality."

Truer words have never been spoken!

I won't get into naming, because that's a whole other kettle of fish...

Please get into naming!! As a fellow fantasy writer, it is one of my particular fascinations/struggles. Maybe for the next installment? :)
hells_half_acre
Aug. 13th, 2016 03:55 am (UTC)
Haha, I'll put naming on the list! But I'm horrible at it really... I'm in no position to give advice! :P
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )