Storytellers thread - Character counts

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Og
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Storytellers thread - Character counts

Post by Og » Mon Oct 30, 2006 7:45 am

In writing circles, people harp a lot about "cardboard" or "wooden" characters - characters that lack depth, and are basically set pieces to be moved around by a sloppy writer ham-handedly advancing his plot.

What are some techniques you use to prevent creating cardboard characters? What makes them living, breathing people to you?
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Post by Dresden Codak » Mon Oct 30, 2006 12:00 pm

I think a lot of it has to do with dialogue, and how believable interactions are between the characters. Especially with fantasy, it's important to establish a sort of organic foundation to anchor your imaginative world; otherwise it just kind of floats off and the plot is reduced to jumping between locations. This is one reason why the original Star Wars films met with so much success (likeable characters with realistic interactions) and the newer films are almost universally regarded as a steaming pile.

I also think it's a common mistake to believe that a complicated backstory for a character fills this requirement. It's true that this can be a component of a three dimensional character, but it's certainly not necessary. What makes someone interesting is information that is not told to your reader, but rather shown through that person's behavior. It's fine if Johnny McProtagonistpants lost his parents in a cyborg war, but how does he respond to open criticism? How does he act under stress? In what situations is he most comfortable? Does he unknowingly repeat certain words or phrases in casual conversation? Additionally in a visual medium, different characters are also going to exhibit different kinds of body language unique to them, and this language too will depend on different situations.

When I write dialogue for my characters, I usually take a step back every so often and see if I could switch around who's saying what and not lose anything. If I'm able, then it means I've fallen prey to Talking Heads Syndrome, which essentially implies wooden characters. Granted, my own comic doesn't involve any continuing storylines, however the characters are persistent so I do try hard to make my protagonist somewhat rounded, given the limitations of my approach.
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Post by jdalton » Mon Oct 30, 2006 9:20 pm

Well now here's something I might be better qualified to comment on.

One of the best ways to keep your characters from being two-dimensional is to base them off of real people. And often I think people you know, but not your closest friends or relations, work best- because you can "sum up" their personalities into a small but complex picture, rather than a vast lifetime of sometimes conflicting tendencies that would be hard to get across to a reader. Of course you can use yourself as a model too- I think all of my characters have a piece of me in them- but you have to be careful about doing this too much because of the danger of entering Mary Sue land.

Once your characters have a unique personality, the next step is to show it off to your readers. A lot of times I try to write my plots around character-revelation. If a scene or a scrap of dialogue tells you something new and interesting about a character, you need it in your story. If it repeats previously-learned information, cut it. Johnny McProtagonistpants only needs to have one drunken fist-fight with a cyborg for us to know he's a cybophobe. Maybe he doesn't even need the drunken fist-fight- maybe the way he keeps an extra two steps back from any cyborg he's talking to and doesn't look them in the eyes is enough. Also important is to get different characters alone with each other, to show off how they react differently to different people.

I think the way you can tell if it's working is if you can take any concievable situation, stick your character in it, and realize right away how they would react. Especially if it's not how you would react. The coolest thing ever is when your characters start to write their own dialogue.
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Post by Scott Hallett » Wed Nov 01, 2006 8:02 am

I think to a certain extent your characters will actually drive your plot entirely. You may have a generalized plot in mind, but I often find that the story can become detached or jarring when a character acts out of place, emotionally detached or inhuman (unless of couse that IS the character).

I always like to think of stories in terms of the characters themselves. It helps to picture the characters, the situation and let their reaction dictate what they do, how they handle it, their emotional response. Breaking things down to plot point A, plot point B etc. never works for me.

But that's just my take on it.

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Post by Og » Thu Nov 02, 2006 7:49 am

Dresden Codak wrote:When I write dialogue for my characters, I usually take a step back every so often and see if I could switch around who's saying what and not lose anything. If I'm able, then it means I've fallen prey to Talking Heads Syndrome...
Brilliant.

You'd think that would be obvious, wouldn't you? But I think it is great advice that I think a lot of people would benefit from hearing. Lotta Talking Head Syndrome out there.

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Post by Dresden Codak » Thu Nov 02, 2006 12:16 pm

I actually got the idea when I was scripting a movie not long ago (I am one of those indie filmmaker blokes). To make sure the dialogue felt natural, I'd have a cohort close his eyes and listen to me read off a scene (without using any distinguishing voices), and if he could tell which character was saying what, we'd succeeded in avoiding talking heads.

I started applying it to certain very popular webcomics (that will remain nameless) and was astonished to see how easy it was to pinpoint the ones with cardboard characters.
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Post by Kazu » Thu Nov 02, 2006 1:11 pm

When I begin writing characters, I find that they tend to mirror real people I know (Daisy Kutter, or my Flight stories) or they feel a little cold (Copper), but the more I write them, the more they become people of their own. That's when the writing process becomes really enjoyable. I start feeling like I'm just hanging out with them. This is why, above all else, Amulet has taken me so long to write.

In the end, all of my characters are me. They're just my interpretations of what other people might be like, psychologically. I spend a part of my day writing back stories in my head about other people who I know or have met. The more I get to know those people, I get to see if my assumptions were correct. It's a great way to develop the skills necessary for writing very real, human characters. Man, I sound crazy.
Last edited by Kazu on Thu Nov 02, 2006 7:00 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Post by Nofret » Thu Nov 02, 2006 2:53 pm

I've had characters running in the back of my brain for so long, they're the ones telling me what to write! I wonder who is in control sometimes ;)

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Post by Scott Hallett » Sun Nov 05, 2006 7:44 am

I think Kazu nailed down what I was trying to say a little better. I think personally, the characters tell me what the story's gonna be.

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Post by Sankam » Tue Nov 21, 2006 7:37 pm

I think avoiding Talking Head Syndrome is a big one for preventing cardboard characters. More specifically, exposition through dialogue is one of the big yawn-inducers. I try not to explain anything that can be shown or inferred instead. That also tends to make the story tighter, since the characters can be saying one thing and showing another at the same time.

I don't always succeed... sometimes I still need to explain. But I still try to have something being said and something else being shown. A dialogue scene is always an opportunity to show something about your character visually as well, through expression, body language, nervous habits, etc.

Knowing your characters is really helpful too. It allows you to outline a scene in your head and then just let the characters run with it. Sometimes they do things that surprise you, which can help to improve your story. I've been having some trouble with my villain simply because I don't know him well enough. My main characters talk to me all the time.
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