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Doubt about a particular point of view on how to do character creation


Of course developing a character is quite an intimate process. But still, like a story, you can in fact have some tools that give you some sort of axiomatic path on "how-to".

There is a TV writer named Shonda Rhimes. She has an interesting, but confusing, point of view about how she created a particular character. She said that for some characters she knows everything about their lives; for some others she knows almost nothing. Then, she said something quite curious: "I didn't know that character X was violent until that moment".

My question isn't about the particular process of hers. But this "phenomena" that you (you as a writer, as a human being) you carry a character in your mind and suddenly you know something about her/his life. It seems that you have something "alive" in your mind.

Now, how can a creation of your mind (a character) do something that you don't imagine?

Because I suppose that when you read a book or consume some reference on how to develop a character and the author says something like "You must put your characters in situations to discover more about them", they're saying that your character must have some sort of "independent will, against the mind of their writer".

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This makes sense to me because my characters act in very similar ways.

Have you ever been in a novel situation in your own life where you did something unexpected? Maybe you intervened when someone else was being bullied or threatened. Maybe you kept perfectly calm as the car you were driving suddenly spun out of control. Or perhaps you hit your limit and lost it when someone pushed you too far.

You might not have known you had it in you to act this way. Because you'd never tested it. Sometimes we surprise ourselves.

I know my book's characters well. I'm inside their heads. I know their hopes and fears and how they feel about the other characters. But I can't know how they'll act in every situation just like I might not know how I would act.

Even in more mundane situations, you may not know how they'll be until you try them. Sort of how the best way to know if you're compatible with a partner is to take a road trip together.

Do characters have independent will? To a degree, yes. They're imaginary of course but, in a sense, we the authors just birth them. Like with our flesh and blood children, they slowly separate from us and develop lives of their own. With characters we can always write them to say and do whatever we want. We have that control. But, as we get to know them better, some of what we imagined will turn out to be wrong.

If you are in tune with your characters, you'll let them show you who they really are. And you'll listen.

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You're asking how a character, a creation of your imagination, can have free will. It's not easy for me to answer, because "they do". On a very fundamental level, that's what happens when I write. I 'find' my characters, I 'find out' who they are. I can look at an in-story event and say 'this is true', or 'this is false, it couldn't have happened'.

Let me try to delve deeper into what this 'true' means.

I'm sure when you read, you can spot if a character acts "out of character". And you can probably imagine how a character would respond to a situation they haven't encountered before. Criticism levied at fanfics is very often that the characters "would never act this way". What is meant by that?

As a reader, you get to know a character the same way you get to know a person: you observe their actions, you are party to the thoughts they share with you. Think of your friends: you can imagine how they'd answer certain questions, you know how they'd act in certain situations. It's the same with characters - you establish the same kind of familiarity with them, so you can spot when something is "off".

Now, when you are writing, your characters are not pawns that you move on a board at will. Your characters - you're trying to make them complete people. The kind of people whom one could get to know, just as we've discussed above. The way you do it, is you think of them as people. You ask yourself what would this person do, how they would respond, what situation could provoke a certain reaction from them. You carry them in your mind just as you carry your friends in your mind - as complete people, not lists of traits.

You are your characters' god. You put them in all kinds of situations. Doing this, you find out how this "person" you've created in your mind would respond. You can imagine how your friend would respond to an unexpected situation, right? Same here. And if you think about it, you know your characters more intimately than your best friends - you share every thought of theirs. That's where surprises come from, intuiting, "finding what's right". You treat the characters as people.

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A character is a bundle of desires. (One could debate whether that is an adequate description of a human being, but characters are not complete human beings, they are artefacts of story.) When you create a character, you know what they desire, because that is what a character is. A simple character has one desire. A complex character has multiple and often contradictory desires.

There is a certain logic to desire, and a certain more complex logic to the intersection of desires. Only when you put your characters into specific situations will you fully work out the logic of their desires, and thus discover what they will or will not do. Thus a character can genuinely surprise you.

One of the most sure and fatal ways in which stories fall down is when the writer fails to work out the logic of desire for an important character, allowing them, for the sake of the planned plot, to act in a way that is contrary to the logic of their desires. I sometimes comes as a great disappointment to a writer to discover that the character you have created just will not act as you want them to act in a particular situation. Alternatively, it can sometimes come as a happy surprise to realize that another character, according to the logic of their desires, will act in a way that saves the plot.

But in cases where the logic of the desires of the characters will not conform to the intended plot, the writer is left either to go back and rewrite one or more characters with a different set of desires, or to introduce incidents into the plot that will force the characters, according to the logic of their desires, to act in a way that leads them to the intended climax and denouement.

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How can a creation of your mind (a character) do something that you don't imagine?

Implications. I will explain! What I imagine when designing my characters is scenes, things they have done in the past, traumatic things that have happened to them, Successes, Failures, and how they have responded to those things.

I think our lives are shaped by events, big and small, and what we experienced and how we responded to those experiences is what defines our character. So that is what I do for fictional characters. How did she get here, to the point where she is an adult female in this job at this time? What happened in her life up until now? If she was in love at some point, how did that happen? What was her first love like? How did they meet?

Later, when my character is in actual scenes of the story, then those events from her past bubble up, and sometimes those have Implications.

I did not imagine all the implications of all that history, but underlying that history is a single character that has to fit together. And then my character can do things unexpectedly because that is who she is. Of course she would do X, that fits with so many things she has done in the past.

By Analogy, if you read the Harry Potter series, a lot of incidents (just incidents) are described that you watch Harry live through, make decisions, and take actions. You know Harry, within the first book.

And then there could be scenes Rowling could write that you'd say "That's not like Harry, he wouldn't do that." Because underlying those scenes is a Harry that is brave, and loyal to his friends, and doesn't treat people like shit. Rowling never has to TELL you that, you gather those underlying traits from his actions, and then can apply them to NEW actions and say Yes, that is something Harry would do, or No, Harry wouldn't do that.

Our own fictional characters are the same way. We come to know them, through stories we tell ourselves, and fix those underlying traits without ever actually naming them. Then later, while inventing yet more scenes that will be a continuation of the life we have imagined, implications of those underlying traits can feel like they force us to write her doing what she most certainly would do, given her background.

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