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Proposition: Characters > Plot, and design process

11 months ago

So are interesting characters more important than a well-thought out plot? I'm of the opinion that you can succeed based on characters and setting alone. Taken to the extreme, you don't even need a story as long as readers are hooked on either aspect. Just take a look at Garfield. Those comic strips literally just rely on his catty attitude and now the series is a classic. It's not really riveting stuff, but the character is definitely well-defined. Another example could be Sherlock Holmes - it's got great mysteries, but I'd argue that without Sherlock's cold charm and big-brain shenanigans readers couldn't engage to the extent that they would. Long-running tv shows with filler arcs, or sitcoms like The Simpsons, also fit the bill. On the other hand, works that fail to capture readers usually have problems with their characters (citation needed but it shouldn't be hard to find an example). Basically, the bare minimum you need are scenarios to put your characters through.

Given that character motivations are usually what makes up the meat of a story, and that they drive the development of the plot, incongruities between theme, plot and character development are usually symptomatic of issues within character design. They may not be well-defined. Their actions, personality and(or) motivations may be contradictory. So what should I expect from a good character? The most important thing should be clarity. Can I sum up the character in one or two sentences and distinguish it from all the others in my story? For example: 'He's dedicated to his friends and his school and, despite struggling with great responsibilities, possesses the determination to succeed over evil. He bears a lightning-bolt scar which dictates the course of his life.' Pretty hard to mistake that for anyone but Harry Potter. Just like that, you only need to figure out a situation to put your character in - bam you have a chapter, or another episode, or another short story. Everything else - such as complexity, capacity to build empathy with the reader, the role it plays for the plot, themes and other characters - is secondary. Therefore, having these well-defined (and preferably interesting) characters are infinitely more useful than any great, poetic plot-line. 

In my design phase the two questions I reckon needs answering are: 'What does my character want to do?' and 'What is my character's name?'. Character motivation is self-explanatory; establishing the purpose of the character is paramount. Personality can be introduced and developed later. Names reveal information about one's parents - their values and demographic. Same goes for self-made names, or names pinned onto anything by society. They also determine the direction you'll take with your character. How would you treat someone named Bob? Or Annabelle?

But I've come across a problem. If characters are the most important thing in my story, how should I go about making and planning one? Unlike plotlines, I think it is essential to have a good grasp of my characters from the outset. Sure, I can always change or erase them later on. Knowing who's going to be driving the damn thing, and what their motivations are, would indicate where things should go, however.

Anyways, feel free to add to or challenge whatever. Main question is: 'What's your character planning process?'

Proposition: Characters > Plot, and design process

11 months ago
I would argue that if you have an interesting, developed character; and that character changes during the story; then you have a plot, whether you want one or not. But to answer your main question, here is a bit of an outline I use when building characters: In case it helps, here is what I use to start developing a character for a story: Name: Tom Forsyth Age: 24 Job: Graduate Student / Teaching Assistant Ethnicity: White Appearance: Geeky and athletic Residence: Dorm room at the college Pets: None Religion: Christian Hobbies: Research, collecting ancient artifacts, reading Single or married? Single Children? No Temperament: Classic nice guy Favorite color: Blue Friends: Few close Favorite foods: Pizza Drinking patterns: Flavored water (all the time) Phobias: Heights Faults: Spends so much time on research, ignores the world Something hated: Lazy people Secrets: Strong memories: Riding bikes as a kid Any illnesses: No Nervous gestures: scratches his ear when nervous Sleep patterns: very little, just a few hours a night are enough Imagining all these details will help you get to know your character, but your reader probably won’t need to know much more than the most important things in four areas: Appearance. Gives your reader a visual understanding of the character. Action. Show the reader what kind of person your character is, by describing actions rather than simply listing adjectives. Speech. Develop the character as a person — don’t merely have your character announce important plot details. Thought. Bring the reader into your character’s mind, to show them your character’s unexpressed memories, fears, and hopes. The archaeology student: The character’s name: Tom Forsyth A one-sentence summary of the character’s storyline: Tom wants to find the lost artifact to preserve it for the greater good of humanity and prevent Steve from using it for evil. The character’s motivation (what does he/she want abstractly?): To discover and advance knowledge for good. The character’s goal (what does he/she want concretely?): To obtain the ancient artifact before the Steve gets it. The character’s conflict (what prevents him/her from reaching this goal?): Steve. He is also “just a grad student,” and nowhere near good enough to go on real trips for real discovery. The character’s epiphany (what will he/she learn, how will he/she change?: He is good enough to beat a master archaeologist and thief in the form of Steve and will be welcomed into the ranks of archaeology. A one-paragraph summary of the character’s storyline: (This is often a key part of the story, as I refer back to this paragraph often during the story to determine if the portion I am writing is actually leading in this direction. If it's not, then I am likely to delete that portion and/or adjust it so that it works with this specific paragraph.)

Proposition: Characters > Plot, and design process

11 months ago

Proposition: Characters > Plot, and design process

11 months ago
As soon as I finish my succubus story I'm gonna have some things to say here. Looking forward to reading other people's thoughts in the meantime. Feels like it's been awhile since we've had a good writing thread. I know we discuss a a lot of this stuff on the Discord but the format is completely different, the forum is needed for proper in depth replies and to act as an archive of the discussions.

Proposition: Characters > Plot, and design process

11 months ago
Commended by mizal on 8/9/2019 12:47:47 PM

In regards to your first question: Do I prefer character-driven stories to plot-driven stories?

I am clearly drawn toward character-driven stories. In fact, action-based stories (punches thrown, objects exploding, dialog that serves only to set up the next scene, villains getting their just desserts) bore me to no end. Really.

As a writer, I just see the other writer(s) creating a machine that is intended to get from Plot Point A to B to C to D, making X amount of money along the way. Macguffins, love interests, comic relief, catastrophic setbacks followed by the hero(es) rising up and triumphing over evil. Bores me to tears. I could count the number of Marvel movies I've seen on one hand, because if you've seen one, you've seen them all. If I can see your plot machinations at work--your calculated attempts to make me laugh, cry, despair, and cheer on cue--then I don't think you have much of a story. And most likely, you don't have any real characters either, just roles that espouse certain popular and/or necessary attitudes.

I am more drawn to character-driven stories, because a major reason why I want to watch a movie / read a book is empathy. I've enjoyed some stories that have a pretty good character arcs, but no "plot" in the way most people would understand the word. Which is to say: the character undergoes a personally significant change, while superficially not much happens.

But character and plot are not mutually exclusive concepts; the best stories are perhaps the ones where the characters drive the plots. To this end, here are some of my favorite novels/movies/both so far this century:

  • The Gangs of New York (Scorsese flick, one of his best)
  • Catch Me if You Can (it's amazing what Spielberg can do when he isn't preoccupied with CGI trickery)
  • Atonement (both the novel and the movie are equally good)
  • Oryx and Crake (first entry in a dystopian trilogy by Margaret Atwood, better known at the moment for The Handmaid's Tale (of which I was a fan before anyone ever heard of Hulu or Brett Kavanaugh))
  • The Wake of Forgiveness (2010 novel by a first-time writer, Bruce Machart; nine years later, I need to read this one again)
  • Salvage the Bones (by Jesmyn Ward, about black people in Louisiana riding out Hurricane Katrina--not an experience I would otherwise know much about; as someone who loves pit bulls, I was hooked by the premise and stayed for the exceptional writing)
  • All the Living (by CE Morgan; this is not a book I'd expect anyone here to know about, and not a single thing actually happens)
  • Anything by the Cohen brothers, but No Country for Old Men and True Grit are high on my list of favorite movies
  • These more recent movies also made an impression, but ask me again in the 2020s what I still think of them: Blade Runner 2049, Prometheus, Skyfall, Christopher Nolan's last two Dark Knight movies, The Revenant, Gravity.

Now for Part 2 of your question: How do I design characters?

Well first off, I don't "design" them per se. But dealing with characters is a big part of why I'm here, because writing fiction is somewhat new to me.

For my Orion stories, there are only a handful of characters I had strong opinions about long before I started to write. I knew that Captain Siggo liked to sing odd little ditties. I knew that Dionysya Andrade was middle-aged, had a grown son, was a good mentor, but was trying to stretch herself by moving into a command position. Captain Ynthramanni is always cool and in control, because you don't get to command a starship otherwise; I know little about his background (and I say as much in SotGP) but I love writing his dialog, because he knows what he wants and how to get it. Chief Dansmith is a plain-spoken guy from the Midwest; he has a robust personality with strong opinions; he is charismatic, popular among the crew, with a conservative streak that shows up now and then, as well as the occasional desire to be alone in his workroom.

The other characters I didn't know as much about, so I simply wrote their dialog and literally let them flesh themselves out. Lt. Ceta Hun-Spruk is mousish at first, but there are some topics that she is personally close to, and those get the better of her. Dr. Wildon turned out to be the practical adventurer, always looking to get off the ship, but never willing to do anything to get himself killed. Sisny Quabiss is quiet and observant, learning instead of speaking. Commander Diston was modeled after some random stranger I walked by at work one day: tall, broad-shouldered, clearly ex-military; but now my age, wearing a button-up shirt and tie, heading to a job where he's probably at a computer for most of the day.

So after writing their scenes and getting a sense of who these people were, I went back to the beginning and gave them all a stronger introduction, primarily in the mision briefing scene.

Then there was Lt. Skaxa of Tyuu, who was nameless in one of the MoGM endings, but almost got written into SotGP late in the process when I realized how much potential she has. Then wisdom prevailed, and I realized I didn't need her quite yet. Therefore she has only a background role in SotGP, with plans for a larger part in Orion III... although I'm not sure in what capacity yet.

In a decision that may frustrate some readers and go unnoticed by others, I don't dwell on physical descriptions, especially ones regarding skin/eye/hair color. First off, I can only assume that a thousand years from now, race won't have the same significance that it does now, and so the characters will be less preoccupied with who is black, yellow, brown, red, or white; they might, however, take notice of the Tyuuans, because that is significant to the history of the world in which they're living. And if I'm going to write: "And you notice that Lt. Hun-Spruk has brown hair and green eyes," that just begs the question why are you noticing this? Do you have a crush on her, or something? (She's married, by the way.)

So in terms of visual descriptions, I try to just give the overall impression. The hair color, eye color, and weight of a character doesn't tell me squat about who they are. If I do mention one of those aspects, it better be a key detail.

But whether or not my approach to any of this is actually any good remains to be seen. I knew that I'd have to be patient in terms of feedback on SotGP, partly because there are two concurrent contests right now, and partly because I wrote the story to be a long, narrative maze. And there are characters who appear late in that story that required a bit of risk to write for; I really don't know how readers will respond to them, and that's one reason why I'm holding off on Orion III for the moment.

Proposition: Characters > Plot, and design process

11 months ago
A character can't have any development at all without a plot is the main issue I see with the OP. Or really, do much of anything.

Plot is important and plots are also *simple* at the framework level so there's no reason to neglect them. Plots are like the support beams and walls and roof of a house. There may be a few differences in the design but ultimately it has to be built a certain way to do all the things houses are supposed to do, that's pretty similar to any other house in the neighborhood. The characters can move into any house and tailor it to themselves and make it their own.

As far as creating characters, it's hard for me to recommend any kind of process. For me they just come into being organically as part of the setting. There really can't be a character without the background that made them and whatever that is is tied too deeply into the specifics of the world.

Proposition: Characters > Plot, and design process

10 months ago
Commended by mizal on 8/9/2019 11:56:58 AM
Just to respond to the tl;dr, I'll try to give an example of what I mean by it being tied into setting for me, by creating a character from scratch here. Expect some aimless rambling because this is all stuff I normally do in my head. I've mentioned before that almost none of my settings include dwarves, so I'll make a dwarf character here just to make sure I'm not 'cheating' by retreading ground, or inadvertantly creating yet another thing I actually want to write about to throw on the pile. He will be a member of an adventuring party because I'd like this to open in the classic fantasy way, and so this must be a setting that accomodates a dungeon loot based economy. He will be a he because I do not wish to get inside the head of a 'stout' and hairy alcoholic butch lesbian, and I haven't ever settled the beard question in my mind. He doesn't have a name, because right now he's only a concept and doesn't need one. I do names much later in the process, when it's time to actually write something down. And in his case it'll depend on whatever naming conventions I decide on for his society of dwarves. I don't want it to be that unusual to see a dwarf in a major city on the continent this takes place on. That would be nothing but a long series of distractions, having to write about people staring at him anywhere the party travels and none of that ultimately having anything to do with my plot. So there must be a reasonable number of other dwarves out there intermingling in human cities. Why?
  • YAAAY IT'S WORLDBUILDING TIME!!!! Well now is the part where I have to start thinking about how dwarves live. Or at least ones in the closest or most populated dwarven city. Not trying to do any groundbreaking shakeups here so yeah, they live in mountains in caves that extend into massive cities they've hollowed out themselves. They've got to feed themselves of course and I don't feel like making this so extensive as to developing entire fantasy cave ecologies. There must be a peasant class that farm and herd and chop wood and hunt in the valleys and along the mountain ridges, and they probably live above ground in settlements more similar to human villages. They're hard-working, honest people, but a bit rough around the edges. These dwarves, and maybe soldiers from the interior city patrolling for monsters and bandits are the ones most travelers and traders from elsewhere will encounter. Except for diplomats and very wealthy traders, few outsiders are invited to see the inside of the mountain. The Upper Dwarves are healthy and well fed with homes and goods made to last, but they don't use much ornamentation. Maybe a bracelet, a beard clip, a bit of silver on a belt, but unless you're royalty or some kind of merchant prince, anything beyond that is frivolous and just showing off, maybe even a sign of being suspicious. Upper Dwarves, despite having the most contact with humans and other travelers, aren't the ones that keep leaving their homes to become adventurers. There'd be little reason too; they're happy where they are, can easily trade for everything they need and have no lust for treasure.
  • As for the city dwarves inside the mountains, I want them to be a contrast to all this but not in a generic 'snobby city folk' or 'evil rich people' way. The city of the Lower Dwarves is built on both sides of a massive underground river. They use this and a network of canals to travel about, transport goods, clean and sort ore, etc. Waterwheels powering mills and other facets of their industry line the riverbanks and they have running water and plumbing figured out in a way that rivals anything you'd find in a modern real world city. The city is well lit as well, although it's from a form of enchantable crystal that they have as a raw material in abundance.
  • I'll just go ahead and decide right now that magic in this world is pretty much all based on enchanted crystals, gems, and metals, with so far mostly unsuccessful experimentation in inventing a variety of glass strong enough to hold spells. This also shifts the balance of things so that 'most magical race' is actually dwarves instead of elves. You're not going to see even low level stuff like the lights in the possession of commoners of any other species (although elves will retain a closer connection to the gods).
  • City Dwarves Lower Dwarves have a complex 'lawful' society that emphasizes personal integrity and detests lying, stealing, and shirking duty above all. Honor duels are still a thing but more often things are settled with the guilty made to pay fines or issue public apologies, with exile or humiliation such as shearing of the beard reserved for the truly despicable. Careers are organized into guilds, with dwarves in many positions that aren't stereotypically dwarfy at all. But they all value the creation of beautiful things from the precious materials they have such unique access to, so that influential positions are held by their great artists and new works are looked forward to like the release of a new book or movie by someone famous today. Nobility and even royalty are expected to apprentice for many years under master metal workers and gem cutters, and in the more traditional families a marriage won't be considered unless bride and groom both prove their skill in making some exquisitely crafted good for the new household. The other ways to get ahead in the more respectable stratas of society are to be skilled at magic or simply wealthy as fuck. Skilled enchanters live on the king's dime kind of apart from it all, but the most successful merchant families have a status similar to nobility and are the biggest patrons of the arts. There is some friction between the more worldly merchants and traditional nobility that has threatened to break out into fighting a time or two in their history, but life is pretty good for the dwarven people as a whole and so both sides play nice to prevent a situation that could upset that by turning into some kind of civil war. I know I said before that dwarves were the most magical race in this setting, but they keep to themselves and allow few visitors into their cities so that others might not be aware of that. And among dwarves you don't get the flashy irresponsible and 'eccentric' magic users like in various other fantasy settings. Dwarven enchanters are paid well by the king, have easy access to raw materials and work on projects that benefit the whole city. They're unlikely to go off adventuring. So I'm back to the original question of who does go out on their own to live among humans and the other races?
  • The more successful merchants have contacts in the upper world and a lot of irons in the fire, so it's not uncommon to send their people out on contract to accomplish some specific goal. Exiled criminals might go out to human cities and get into some underhanded business, but more of them live in other dwarven settlements elsewhere in the mountains. The worst of the worst would find a place in a settlement around an underground lake where dwarves and goblins trade and intermingle. (And here's where I decide that goblins will be the ancient racial enemy of dwarves in this setting. My goblins will be more civilized than a lot of depictions, just hedonistic and impulsive in nature and natural thieves and liars, putting them at odds with the non-degenerate majority of dwarves in every way.)
  • There are a number of common dwarves too, particularly blacksmiths and masons of no special talent that do well for themselves in human settlements where their mediocre abilities are much sought after. Humans tend to automatically assume all dwarves are fantastic blacksmiths without ever stopping to wonder why they're set up in some obscure little foreign town and not working for other dwarves.
  • But as far as freelance adventurers, they mostly would come from one background; the young and impatient from the families of the lesser nobility. Dwarves live about 300 years, which seems a long time by human standards but is still brief enough to feel the pressure of mortality. Spending a couple of decades as an apprentice to try and just meet a basic standard for skill that's been continually adjusted upwards over the years as expectations increase, and still just being left where you are at the end of it as a not especially important or influential "noble" in a civilization where that means very little can be very unappealing. At the time the city was being founded and for a few centuries after, titles and estates were handed out to everyone who distinguished themselves in its building or defense, and even with dwarves breeding slowly compared to humans there are enough of their descendents running around that low tier nobles are a dime a dozen. And of course, if you don't even like metal working or cutting gems you're really screwed.
  • (Also it's here where I randomly had some background lore pop into my head. Dwarves, because of their affinity with stone, gems, metal etc and mythological origin of being created from it, used to live much longer. 3000 year average for the ancients, until the stories say the goblin god tricked one of their gods and cut his beard short, which affected them all and began the eternal enmity between the races. This is also now mainly the god of disgraced dwarves and failures, who will have a name like Somethingsomething the Shorn. Their other gods all demand accomplishments and effort and stuff so this fills an important niche for dwarves who suck but aren't actually evil.)
So back to the actual character finally, the nameless Dwarfy McDwarfson, Adventurer. I now know that:
  • Character Sheet: Dwarfy is in his late 30s, and was born to a perfectly respectable family descended from a captain in the Great Goblin War. He was trained in combat and weapon skills from his teens, as is traditional. At age 30 he was apprenticed to a jewelry maker but had no talent or love for the work. (The most valuable thing he picked up there was the knowledge to identify traditional dwarven styles in gold and silver smithing and identify fakes, as well as a variety of gems and their value...these could all come up as plot points later.) He bounced around trying a couple of different opportunities but was too impatient for anything to take. Although his family weren't especially important as far as nobles go, they had a few connections and this led to him getting acquainted with some human merchants visiting from their kingdom's capital. Given how useful it can be to have a few dwarves around with their honesty and work ethic being well known, I figure it's become unofficial policy to poach them away to employment aboveground whenever possible. Recognizing his restless spirit, the head of the group of humans started talking him up about opportunities back in the capital, and when he became interested helped him pitch his leaving in a face saving way for his family's sake; Dwarfy would be going on an honorable quest to the overworld to recover lost dwarven treasures stolen and dispersed during the Great Goblin War. Dwarfy helped guard the human caravan on its return to the capital and was given a job guarding a warehouse there while he got on his feet and checked out opportunities. He of course actually would like to recover a few treasures and eventually return home wealthy with a good reputation, overworld connections, and stories to tell over mugs of ale. Even with no skill at smithing it wouldn't be a difficult thing to marry into some well to do merchant family at that point and be set for life. He may encounter goblins in the city or on his travel and regards them with a great deal of contempt and distrust, but understands the need for respecting the laws of the kingdom he's now in and if they're not up to any obvious shady business he will grudgingly interact with them if he absolutely must. If he encounters common dwarves he gets along with them fine, but he can recognize sub par work when he sees it and so he's just as likely to go to a human for smithing and repairs. (Thus a possible side character of a human blacksmith struggling to compete with a dwarf who just set up shop in his neighborhood is born.) Criminal dwarves however, exiles who moved into surface cities to become scammers and thieves, many of them organized, he has an absolute loathing and disgust for, and will be honor driven to interfere with their activities whenever possible, even if it puts him at risk or gets him arrested.
  • Dwarfy Today: After some minor adventurers in the city, making a few friends and enemies, he does encounter an adventuring group planning an expedition to the ruins of a goblin settlement in the mountains. They expect possible encounters with hostile goblins, bandits, and all the usual difficulties of mountain travel off the beaten path, so they could use someone with his experience and knowledge. He suspects he might find stolen dwarven artifacts among the treasure rumored to be stashed there, and so he agrees to go along with the stipulation that he has first dibs on any such thing. The human merchant who originally hired him is willing to outfit him with all needed supplies in exchange for 20% of any non-dwarven treasure that becomes part of his share, and a record of his travels including an updated map on the mountain paths they'll be using and opinions on how feasible it is to get wagons or packhorses through. So now I have the beginnings of a plot here, a lot of details that can lead to further plot points, and a good idea of how certain characters and personalities will interact. Besides the obvious obstacles, he may have to deal with his party members acting against his principles, or conflict when it comes to divvying up the treasure. He is pretty new to the city and naive to the ways of the world and other cultures after all, and honest people are inclined to think others are too until proven otherwise.
None of this came about with my having any specific ideas about the character or plot, it all just grew organically from the setting, which was the point I was trying to make (inefficiently) with this 2500 word text wall. It's been an interesting exercise for me though since as I said in the beginning, this is all stuff I'd normally just have simmering on the background in my brain a few days as it developed, rather than deliberately writing it all out.

Proposition: Characters > Plot, and design process

10 months ago
great job, me!