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On characterisation
Wed Sep 13, 2017 9:19am

One of the things I've always struggled with in writing is figuring out how to craft characters who are actually different from each other, and keep them that way. All of my characters have a tendency to drift towards the same snarky baseline, which is fairly undesirable.

Recently, I've tried out a number of different ways of fixing this problem, and I thought it might be interesting to throw them out here. Perhaps they'll help anyone else who's having the same issue. Perhaps there are Boarders who've come up with their own ways of solving the problem, and would like to share them (hint, hint). Perhaps they'll just spark a bit of discussion. Let's find out!

#1: Modelling on People/Characters

This method grows directly out of being a fanfic writer. If you can write Legolas in-character as Legolas, then why not use the same technique to keep your own creation 'in-character' as a canon? Write what the canon would do, if they were in your character's situation.

This approach has the advantage that, if you watch/read enough of the source canon, it's pretty easy to form a good idea of what they would do. This is a fundamental skill for a fanfic writer, so it can be extended easily across to OCs. The downside is that it might end up being obvious (if your character keeps getting angry and smashing things with a lightsaber, people are going to look at Kylo Ren), and that the further you get from the character's baseline, the harder it can be to reliably predict their reactions.

The ultimate extension of this is self-inserts: you try and write them doing what you would do in the same situation. But we all know how badly self-inserts can go wrong…

#2: Keywords

Agent Kaitlyn is 'bouncy wannabe hobbit'. Agent Huinesoron is (or was, originally) 'racist snob'. If you can describe your character in two or three words, they can be pretty easy to keep to that characterisation.

This works very well for secondary and background characters; if they're only showing up occasionally, having a quick handle to latch your writing onto is ideal. It's less useful for protagonist types: it locks them out of progressing as characters, and can render them kind of flat. Agent Huinesoron has been breaking out of this (deliberately); Agent Kaitlyn has mostly stayed there (again, deliberately), because she's fun the way she is.

#3: Key Phrase

"I like guns, and I don't do scared… and apparently I'm a maudlin drunk." That's Agent Morgan, and that sentence let Lily Winterwood characterise her perfectly in the Blackout epic 'Generic Surface'. If your character can be tied to a phrase like this - not necessarily a catchphrase, though it can be - it can be a good way to share them with other people.

It gives more than the plain keywords, too. Morgan's 'don't do scared' shows off how she talks, and hints that she's not so much without fear as unwilling to admit to it. I think this method comes out of my fondness for acting - you can slip into an accent or a performance much easier if you have a key phrase to get started.

The downsides are much the same as for keywords, but in spades: they end up sticking as the character who would say the phrase, regardless of what it is. Luckily for me, that works pretty well for Time Lords.

#4: Twin Elements

There are 118 four elements - Earth, Air, Fire, and Water - and each of them can be used to describe a character. If I tell you someone is fiery, you imagine them as feisty, hotheaded, maybe angry; you can immediately tell they're not going to be calm and water-like.

So far, so shallow. The trick with this technique is to layer the elements. I phrase this as 'X, with hidden Y'. One character I've used this for is described as 'Water with hidden Air'. He's mysterious, magical, 'deep' - but underneath it all, kind of flighty (and actually a huge geek).

This is a great way to construct characters with multiple layers, and since it's about basic characterisation rather than specific traits, it can carry through character development. It does run into the problem that two Earth characters are likely to look much the same, even if one has hidden Water and the other Fire. Use it in small groups to set up differences; don't try and spread it too far.

#5: Animals

Almost a callback to #1 - rather than starting with another character, begin with an animal. If I tell you a character is owlish, or hedgehog-like, you conjure up an immediate idea of how they'll act, and maybe even how they'll look. That idea may be completely different from what I imagine - but that doesn't really matter so long as I, as the writer, can keep it consistent.

This is also another 'layered' characterisation tool. The ideas we have about animals tend to be multifaceted. A cat is prideful, but also lazy, and can be prone to fits of rage. A hedgehog is both adorable and prickly, and can be extremely defensive. Of course, this can be prone to drift… I'm pretty sure the character I pinned 'owl' to isn't a silent hunter type, but the animal might end up pointing her in that direction…

In our messy reality, most of the time you're going to use a mix of different ways to keep your characters IC, and probably even change it up over time. But I feel like having something to latch onto makes it easier - not only to get them started (and to stop them all consisting entirely of snarky one-liners), but to keep them going once they're made.

But what do you think?


    • A few of my own thoughts/approaches.PoorCynic, Tue Sep 19 11:52pm
      First off, yes, I'm still here. I haven't left. I'm just kept very, very busy with tiring RL things. I'm hoping to carve out enough time and energy to get back into the community, but it's not a... more
    • 2 and 3 together work well.Hardric, Tue Sep 19 2:48am
      There is a RPG system, FATE, wich works by creeating 'Aspects' for the character, which follow these rules. Mainly a core one, a complication, and other for importants steps of life. The game system... more
    • Is this going to be placed in the,,,N. Harmonik, Mon Sep 18 3:53pm
      ...Characterization page on the wiki?
      • Hm, not a bad idea.Neshomeh, Mon Sep 18 4:48pm
        There's a ton of information in this thread, though, and condensing it down into a format that would fit on the page will be tricky. Not that the page has to keep the structure it has now, but still. ... more
        • Hm.Zingenmir, Tue Sep 19 1:50am
          I...*might* be up for it in a couple of weeks, but the subpage sounds like a better idea. Especially since it means that people who weren't involved in or around for the initial thread could add to... more
    • My own method (corrected)TripleDES, Sat Sep 16 9:13pm
      -----BEGIN PGP SIGNED MESSAGE----- Hash: SHA512 When it comes to pitching fictional characters, I've really been a fan of what I've called the "Mini Story" method, and not using adjectives or... more
    • I use my own method, here it is for reference.TripleDES, Sat Sep 16 9:12pm
      -----BEGIN PGP SIGNED MESSAGE----- Hash: SHA512 Great to see you, Grundleplith, I'm new to the forum as well. Hearing about Redwall makes me feel nostalgic, I think Redwall was one of my first forays ... more
    • Ooh, thanks for this interesting bit of info!twistedwindowpane, Thu Sep 14 9:19pm
      Very useful. Question for everyone: What are your personal tropes in terms of characters, plots, settings, etc? I'm curious to see what everyone usually does. -Twistey
    • Chemistry!Larfen J. Stocke, esq., Thu Sep 14 8:15am
      I actually, just a bit ago, spent a whole heap of time fiddling around with working in a new character, and had a similar issue. I've found that, at least for me, with what I write, how I write, et... more
      • Oh yes, the why.Neshomeh, Thu Sep 14 10:53am
        That's also central to how I make my characters. Not so much the badfic recruits, because everything about them is already known, but Nume is a good example. For him, the basic starting concept was... more
        • fascinatingThoth, Thu Sep 14 12:42pm
          I know, "fascinating" is rapidly becoming my catchphrase. But it's interesting nonetheless.
          • (( Also, apropos of nothing, the radio is currently playing the Ride of the Valkyries on piccolo. It's like the tiniest heroic charge is happening. This is hilarious and I had to share. ~Neshomeh ))
    • Voice is very important.Neshomeh, Wed Sep 13 11:11am
      For me, characterization is build in large part upon what they sound like in my head—what kinds of words they use, are they prone to rambling or not, subtle or blunt, evasive or direct, and... more
    • A simple solutionMaxewell, Wed Sep 13 10:46am
      I view my characters as starting off like a ball of snow (dirt, wet sand, whatever) and as the story progresses, they roll around, becoming bigger. Do they roll over sticks? Do they pick them up, or... more
    • Since characters pop into my head fully formed, and all. >_> —doctorlit can't help the way ideas show up
      • But do they come out varied?Huinesoron, Wed Sep 13 10:45am
        I mean, I get that, but in my case it tends to result in a lot of snark-happy protagonists and an alarming number of bouncy homicidal women. The reason I've been struggling to put together some... more
        • I think so?doctorlit, Wed Sep 13 2:08pm
          I mean, I feel like Vania is noticeably upbeat compared to Doc, Yoof and Séverine have pretty unique speech patterns . . . I do worry some of my Nursery kids are going to wind up sounding similar, as ... more
    • OhgodthanksThoth, Wed Sep 13 10:06am
      I have always struggled with this. It's gotten better, and I've read a lot of advice on it (much of it similar to what you wrote), but it's still helpful.
    • Good stuff.Iximaz, Wed Sep 13 9:57am
      I do a lot of the Keywords model. The Aviator is "cranky drunk", Zeb is "fluffy cutie". From there I just kind of... you know. Um. *scrambles to hide lack of notes* I guess I just write around the... more
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