Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Become Best Buddies with Your Character, and Ways to Build Characters and get Ideas!

Inspiration comes from all over, as many people know. For characters in creative writing, ideas can start off as very vague - a distant memory of the nasally way an old neighbor would complain about the state of the drains, or the unusual gold-flecked eyes of a childhood friend as they played in the sunshine, for example.
But sometimes these little friends or despicable villains that we come to know as characters, just pop into your head as you're walking to school, and from there their personalities, stories, quirks and opinions simply build up and up until they feel as realistic as your best friend or least favourite teacher. Seemingly, they then take it upon themselves to walk to school by your side, talking your ear off about themselves and offering opinions about the state of this world, Marmite, and cats; speculating how they would react to situation A or B; and explaining what they desire more than anything else in the universe.
It could be whilst taking a shower or walking the dog, as routine activities are good idea-boosting methods; keeping the body active in mundane tasks whilst daydreaming is more effective than sitting still and forcing yourself to think up a multidimensional being.

Other methods of conjuring up a main character could be any or all of the following!

Real-life Examples
I remember a lot of my earlier characters were inspired by people I used to know at school, sometimes intentionally and sometimes accidentally, i.e. I didn't set out to write a story that featured somebody I knew from French class as a major player, but they just worked their way into being the spitting image of a beloved character, even if reality and imagination did grow apart or completely separated!
Look at people you know in day-to-day life, and those that interest you. What features do you like about them? What don't you like? If you don't know them well, what do you imagine their life is like?
Study the way interesting people react to certain things, such as a stressful meeting, or how they recount their weekend date on a Monday morning. Listen to the way they speak as well as what they say, watch their smiles and frowns, the way they raise their eyebrows at a silly joke, and how they walk. Does she make the room light up when she walks in, or does she carry an air of gloom or mystery everywhere she goes? As for interests and quirks, do you know if she has a special interest in stag beetles, or enjoys five-star cuisine? Be a fly on the wall and pay attention to both friends and strangers, but don't make things weird or intrusive.
Important: I probably don't have to say this, but - people-watching and inwardly speculating is fine, but spying on or harassing somebody is not. Please don't feed the rumor mill or picture speculations as the truth! It's always better to know someone before jumping to wild conclusions; however, for writing, the guessing game is okay - as long as the inspiration source is discrete and changed up a bit, which takes us to the next point...

Character art - © Nami (left), Ellie Morris (right)

Recycling and Frankenstein-ing
And lots of it. This is mostly how I - and I suppose a lot of other authors - come up with decent ideas. There are so many imaginary people buzzing about in my thoughts, that it would be very difficult to write about them all (unless they decide to chain me to my laptop one day, close all the curtains, and tell everyone that I died in a mysterious incident). So, to save myself from that grizzly fate, I try to appease them all and merge characters together, Frankenstein-style. Like one of those online dressing-up games that I used to play as a kid, you can chop and choose favourite aspects of all these different characters. Do you like the attitude of an older character from a couple of years ago, but know that you won't write their tale due to their backstory being weak? Do you like the history of a more recent character begging to be written, but don't think they'll win any favours with readers due to a lifeless personality? Add one character's personality to the history of another potential-hero by merging them together with others, and you might just make a winner. Or a monster... At any rate, there's no shame in recycling.

Myer-Briggs Personality Types
Once you know the outlines of a character well enough, using online sources can flesh them out a bit. I have used Myer-Briggs in my most recent writing project, and found that it came in very useful for finding out their personality type, and how they would react to certain things. The results of the test don't need to determine absolutely everything about the character, but I found that it helps for finding out more about the different types of people (I have a habit of splitting people into the "introvert" or "extrovert" categories without thinking more about other key traits).
Once you can answer how your character would do certain things - i.e. do they initiate conversations easily, or how do they organise their living spaces? - you can compare the personality group answer that you receive, with those of real-life people that you know.
For example, I received these results for my main characters:
Maxime - ESFP
Leopold - INFJ
Leone - ENFJ
... And then I compared it with my own results: INFJ. So, in that case, I am in exactly the same group as my character Leopold. It is likely that we would act and react in similar ways, depending on the circumstance. Using those insights into the X-type personality, you can understand more about what drives, worries and inspires those types of people, and what motivates yourself or others.
You can also get a wide range of questions that you can consider from your character's perspective, which would give you more answers on behavior in certain plot points.
Alongside the tests you can take, there is also lots of information about personality traits in general, which could inspire a certain type of character to grow from just a couple of lines about "analytical people".
The website I like to use for information like this is 16 Personalities. There are lots of details to look through, and the pictures are very cute.

Trait Generators
I don't use these often myself, but others may find this a good way to get the mind working. Just Googling "character trait generator" can come up with a whole load of results. The first one I clicked on gave me a button to press for three traits, and I got "bold, secretive, depressed". Some of the traits might not sit easily together and seem like a bit of a strange and unlikely combination, but through looking at it in different ways and thinking outside the box a bit, maybe an interesting protagonist can be discovered.
For example, clicking the button again, I received "easy-going, devious, helpful". "Easy-going" and "helpful" doesn't seem to mesh well with "devious", and could be dismissed for another click of the button. But perhaps there are two sides to this person, and they are two-faced. Perhaps they are an anti-hero, or somebody that pretends to help others, but in reality they are working towards their own goals, which are actually something quite sinister. They hide their unsavory motivations behind an easy-going facade, and pretend to help others when actually it's just a mean to an end...
Like the splitting before with introvert-versus-extrovert, I also tend to split people/characters into the "good or evil" categories. I tend to have very black-and-white thinking patterns. But with this, it can get you to consider different sides to one character. Nobody is 100% good or 100% bad, as there are many faces and goals to one person. Perhaps the 'good character' that everybody loves is actually manipulative and fake, or the 'bad character' has had his reputation besmirched and is actually just misunderstood. There are so many possible ways to think about this... and the "easy-going, devious, helpful" combination is just one result.

This is quite similar to the "people" one, in that looking at a photo or painting of somebody can cause all sorts of thoughts and emotions to arise. There could be a painting of a tearful old man; what could have broken his heart, and what emotion does that give the viewer? What kind of life has he lived? Or, a photo of a smiling child playing in a garden; where is the garden? Is it large and filled with lush flowers, or small, tatty and filled with rubbish? Is it her garden, or was she invited to play, or even trespassing? Who is she playing with, or is she happy alone?
Even an image more focused on the location than the subject herself can get the mind whirring. You can imagine what kind of life they live, how they live, and who they live with. Some artwork can be very emotive, with hidden meanings and symbolism that relate to the person in the image. Visual clues can be very powerful, even if you get the meaning wrong.
Take a trip to an art gallery, or look at a friend's photography portfolio. Study images carefully, and before reading descriptions or explanations behind the artist's choices, let your thoughts run wild. Online galleries can be great resources too! Find an artist that really resonates with you, and provides inspiration.

In history, we mostly hear about the queens and kings, the rich and powerful, and the very evil and terrible things that have happened in the history of this world. But what about normal people? How did everyday people live, not just very well-known historical figures such as dictators or royalty? Do you know how your ancestors lived, where they came from, what they believed in, and who they knew?
As well as the resources about "general history", finding out local history of the people who once lived in your area, or great-great-great-grandmas, can be equally as interesting. Maybe your living relatives have some very funny or thought-provoking stories to tell about "the good old days" or their distant cousins.
Aside from that, social history about all the different classes and ways of life long ago can inspire ideas that could also be applicable to modern-day settings. The issues that humankind had in the past can often still be issues that we continue to have today. And people have and probably will always be motivated by similar things, such as fear, greed, love, religion, etc.

When the Summer Ends covers - © Nami

TV Tropes
I've spent many a happy hour on TV Tropes, reading what insights and common themes other people see with a certain character, book, or TV series. If there is one trope that catches your attention, after seeing it in a favourite piece of literature or film, you could consider using it as inspiration for a certain character in your upcoming story.
The great thing (or perhaps a bad thing) is that looking through TV Tropes is like falling into a wormhole and getting sucked into spending hours and hours looking at different aspects of all sorts of things. There are an incredible amount of links to keep clicking through, each with different ideas that can be applied and considered.
However, here is a note about originality: Nobody can be 100% original with characters due to the way the mind works, scooping things up along the way and mashing them together like leaves and grime on a trailing coat, often without any idea where the ideas come from. Somebody may think that their work is a new concept that nobody has thought of before, but in a lot of cases, as my old art teacher would tell the class, "everything in art has been done before, nothing is entirely new in this age" (I'm paraphrasing, of course, but you get the gist). As long as nobody is plagiarising, you shouldn't feel bad for having a "predictable" or "slightly familiar" character. So I think that TV Tropes is an acceptable way of garnering inspiration. Of course, don't let that stop you from being creative!

Don't Force it
Constant thought is how the character matures and becomes as complex or detailed as you like, and it's a hard thing to rush. In a way, I find it like a new friend. You find somebody to connect with, and everything is new and exciting, and you wish to spend a lot of time with them. Over time, they open up to you, telling you their secrets, innermost thoughts and dreams, and gradually revealing what kind of person they are. Once you get a good idea who they are, the relationship grows, and you're constantly learning new things about the person and what makes them tick. You've got a lot (or not a lot) in common, so he or she is now one of your best friends! The important thing is that the friendship wasn't rushed or forced, and that you put thought into nurturing and growing it, working with the person and supporting them with new ideas, fun, and inspiration.
So, I challenge you to become best friends with your new protagonist, even if they are a bit of a battleaxe!

There are many other ways to get character ideas, and these are just a few. If you have any other ideas, comment them below and I'll add them to a list!


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