Separating people from other people
June 7, 2013 10:23 AM   Subscribe

Hey AskMetafilter - calling on all writers for help. I write screenplays, and I think my greatest weakness is that I have trouble developing clear, consistent characters in my work. I seem to constantly make characters do things that don't fit their personalities - which creates a lot of confusion for my readers. I need help figuring out how to create well-defined characters who are consistent throughout the text.

Half of the problem is that the characters are not well-defined enough initially, and it's usually not until the third or fourth draft of something that I have a specific sense of who the person is, how they behave, what their relationships are to others, etc.; the other half is, once I think I've defined the character, I unwittingly "break" these characters by having them do things that I don't think they would do - forcing me to go back and rethink those scenes later on.

So what I'm looking for are practical exercises that I can try, that will help me better define who my characters are, and help me to give them some internal consistency.

One solution I was thinking of was to try writing spec episodes of TV shows I like - trying to stick to someone else's characters could be a good way to go about this. Another possible solution I was thinking of, was to write a screenplay where all the characters are based on people I know from real life - having that crutch could be enormously helpful. Do any writers out there have experience with this problem, and can any recommend some practical solutions?
posted by sidi hamet to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Base your characters on people you know, yes. But they don't have to be people you know CLOSELY. Base one on the cute shop clerk you're crushing on, and make his/her boyfriend/girlfriend be the bully who beat you up in kindergarten.

By starting with total blank slates, you're falling into the trap of always writing the same person.

Also, characters in fiction are defined by what they want and what they do. The only glimpses you get into characters are in what they want (and strive for) and how they go about getting it (the plot, essentially). If you always write characters who want something and have a certain way of trying to get it (whether successful or not), you're mostly there.
posted by xingcat at 10:30 AM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is a skill not easily acquired by anyone, and so it needs constant honing. You need a sketchbook with characters that you know from real life, and you need to add to it constantly. You especially want to spend time describing when and how these real-life people you know do things in a way that could be expected of them, and do things that are surprising somehow. Try to write down in precise wordings how these things are expected or surprising.

Nobody just invents fictional characters.
posted by Namlit at 10:33 AM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I base my characters on people I know in daily life. I know what makes them tick and we have enough of a history that I have a good feel for the mistakes they'd make and the way they say things.

I also base my characters houses on places I've been.

I don't really write fiction now that I think of it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:34 AM on June 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

I swear to god reading AskMe (especially the human relations ones) has given me so much insight into the human condition and made my characters so much better. No joke. Not that I base characters on real people -- I decidedly don't -- but it gives insight into the many ways in which people can be broken or irrational and/or can fool themselves. (Sometimes the askers, but also often the people they're asking about!)

Beyond that, it helps me a lot to just think about the background for a character for a little while when they first waltz onto stage. You take the root of what you think that character is ("surly postal worker," "loving mom," etc.) and sort of trace that person's life backwards to discover how the character got that way, and what it implies about them going forward.

That means asking a lot of questions like: What kind of person are they? What are their fondest hopes and their greatest fears? How were they raised, what do they do for a living, what kind of friends and family situations do they have? How would that environment have shaped this character as a person and how they react to situations? What does the character want, and how might that change over the course of a story? Pretty fast, you can get from 'well she's a trust fund baby' to 'she's trying to live on her own but she's bad at it so she's always calling her parents' lawyer to take care of problems for her, she's unreliable but she means well, her arc over the story will be learning to take actual responsibility for her actions when she sees how they affect others.'

Once you've done that little bit of fleshing out -- and I mean this can all take place in five or ten minutes in your head -- I feel like l've 'met' that person (or maybe found that person inside of you) and they start to take on a life of their own. Then you can't tell them what to do in a story; a situation arises and what that person does in that situation becomes the only possible choice, given their personal history and beliefs.
posted by Andrhia at 10:47 AM on June 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

This is going to sound weird, but I get a lot of mileage out of having characters speak (in my mind, not necessarily on the page) in thick accents. Maybe accents isn't the right word, but they have very definite and recognizable (to me) ways of speaking that my brain somehow accepts as code for their personalities. In written dialog they only say the kinds of things that I think someone with that accent would say, and they only do things that I think someone with that accent would do. 'Accent' might also include a whole range of verbal tics, or even something like how they hold their faces or move their mouths while speaking.

I don't think the accent itself is really important. This just somehow works for me as a way of marking characters as different from each other and quickly accessing my impressions of each one.

The accent (or whatever you want to call it) in your mind should be more extreme than you want the character to be. The singularity of it will get muffled on its way from your mind to the page.
posted by brianconn at 10:48 AM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Writing specs is a good exercise, and writing characters with a specific actor in mind is also a good way to build a strong, recognizable person. You can just write a scene, if you don't have the time to do a whole episode.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:49 AM on June 7, 2013

You could also try filling out a dating profile for your character -- one of the long ones where you have to pick stuff like a favorite song and a "best memory".
posted by spunweb at 10:57 AM on June 7, 2013

I think writing spec episodes of TV shows you like (or, hey, fan fiction) is a good idea. Another possibility is to practice writing works in genres not your own: a noir, a western, erotica (why not?!). More formulaic genres tend to have set characters, with set attributes and set relationships: the hero, the villain, the femme fatale, and so on. They are inherently very different from each other, and many of the rules that distinguish them are set from the outside. Therefore, if you're self-consciously working in one of those genres, it's harder to fall into the trap of creating a million sensitive, funny characters that are all basically you. Don't worry about leaning too hard on stereotypes at first - stereotypes are crutches you can set aside when you're more comfortable writing on your own.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 11:04 AM on June 7, 2013

I get up and act like I'm Character A, then I turn around and act like I'm responding as Character B. The separation from each other just by that little physical shift really helps differentiate them.
posted by Etrigan at 11:05 AM on June 7, 2013

There's some good advice here.

"What does the character want?" is a very common thing you'll here. I agree, but I take it one step further:

"What does the character NEED?" I'm not interested in a character unless they're after something they absolutely need. This, incidentally, is why "likability" is such an unhelpful red herring. People don't need to like characters or think they're good, some of the most popular characters in history are completely unlikable (ie, Tony Soprano). But we can *relate* to him, and that's what really counts. We all need things, and the stronger your character's needs are, the more people will relate to him or her as a real person.

Whether they are "likable" in the way they go about getting it is just window dressing. You're not creating the character to be liked- you're creating him to be human.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:09 AM on June 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

I get up and act like I'm Character A, then I turn around and act like I'm responding as Character B

Building off this, it's always a good idea to do a draft or exercise where you think of the story from the villain's POV. Remember, in his mind, he's the hero. This will keep the bad guys from being cardboard-cutout stock villains. Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) in GLADIATOR is my favorite example of a villain who is completely evil, and yet we can totally understand his point of view and how he got that way.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:11 AM on June 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Part of what you can do is to build the characterization into the plot from the beginning. Frankly, if you can't tell how your character will behave when placed in the circumstances that comprise the plot, you're already sunk. It's like writing something for an "unreliable narrator" --- and then letting the narrator surprise YOU! The narrator is allowed to surprise the AUDIENCE. But not you!

"Tristan, a super-fastidious jelly bean store owner, loses all control of his business and his life when a tornado hits in the form of his wild and wacky cousin Isolde."


"Elizabeth Windsor, a clinically-depressed mother of four copes tries to keep her family together while they do everything in their power to ruin the family business."

Just reading those, you already know exactly what is going to happen and how the main characters are going to behave and what their primary objectives are. Once you've taken that step, play around with plopping them into a scene without any context. Drop Tristan into a literal tornado. (Spoiler alert: he doesn't cope well!) Put Elizabeth in a meeting of the board of directors, where her CEO son is snorting cocaine under the table. (Spoiler alert: she doesn't cope well!) Essentially: take the characters for a test drive in various circumstances.

Writing an entire spec episode is probably not necessary. You just need to know whether you've fully developed the character in your mind yet. If you find yourself thinking "huh... I really have no idea what would happen next," then you ask yourself why, and answer it. Suddenly, you know your character better and you're prepared for anything!

Beyond that, I'd say, also try not to lose sleep over this. It happens. You'll write something for your character and then look at it later and think "Holy shit, that's so wrong." It happens. It was probably right for the plot and wrong for the character. Find something that is right for both of them, and don't freak out that you did something "wrong."
posted by jph at 11:17 AM on June 7, 2013

This isn't really an exercise, or anything creative for that manner, but have you tried writing in something like Scrivener? Many of the people that talk so highly about Scrivener love it because it easily helps those who write fiction keep track of their reference materials and characters. Here is one such post. Prince has a default character template in Scrivener for all of her characters. I think it might be worth watching the video just for that section.

I am not connected with Literature and Latte. I have just heard a lot of good things about Scrivener.
posted by Silvertree at 11:27 AM on June 7, 2013

Characters should feel complex and believable and human. Note that I said feel. Actually being complex and human is a terrible thing in fiction.

Start by separating them this way: What role do they fill in the story? What is their arc? Great. Now do not allow any characters to deviate from their role (unless this change is part of their arc - more or this below) and do not allow any characters to share roles. If one character is the sarcastic one and one is the cheerful one, the cheerful one shouldn't be delivering cutting sarcasm. Delineate.

But something you said stuck out to me:

Half of the problem is that the characters are not well-defined enough initially, and it's usually not until the third or fourth draft of something that I have a specific sense of who the person is, how they behave, what their relationships are to others, etc.

Not a rhetorical question: Then what are they doing in your story? If you don't know who they are or what their relationships are to other people, why are you adding them?

Define each character by their role in the story. Follow their line of interaction through it. Once all that is done, flesh them out with humanizing characteristics.

You don't have to even write spec episodes - just watch some shows you like and keep a notepad handy. See if you can pick up on what each character's role is. Take notes on when and if they do anything that's out of character, and see if that happens for no reason or if it happens as part of their arc (remember, ideally everyone should be ending the story at least a slightly different person than they were when it began, so you will see change, but it should be happening organically). Do this with a few different shows. Sooner or later, you'll see the rhythm of it.

Another possible solution I was thinking of, was to write a screenplay where all the characters are based on people I know from real life

This isn't a bad idea, but if you do this, then first you are going to need to sand these people down to a small handful of recognizable traits per person. Remember: There's a difference between believable and realistic. Characters should always be believable, and never realistic. Realistic people have murky motivations and make decisions that don't make sense; they contain multitudes, which doesn't come across wonderfully in fiction.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:34 AM on June 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

I only write for extreme leisure, but did you ever think of doing a myers briggs personality type for your characters? Or if they have some "issues" or fatal flaws, you can pick one from a host of typical insecurities which then dictate how they cope with stress. Also consider what they ultimately want from life (attention, acceptance, reverence, money...) and what metaphor they use to interact with the world (all the world's a stage, life is a game, we're all here to help each other grow, waste not want not, the only bad risk is one not taken...). Then the cherry on the top is speech patterns. Do they waste words, love slang, stupidly say smart things? As practice, watch tv (especially regular series with an ensemble cast) and listen to how the characters are differentiated by how they speak.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:53 AM on June 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

The accent (or whatever you want to call it) in your mind should be more extreme than you want the character to be. The singularity of it will get muffled on its way from your mind to the page.

The exaggeration is important.

Consider Tulkinghorn and Vholes, a pair of quiet, unprepossessing, but certainly evil lawyers from Bleak House. Both walk in a dark cloud of professionalism. Dickens could easily have made them too much alike, but he distinguishes them by their attitudes toward their job. Tulkinghorn takes his professionalism for granted and never mentions it. He wears breeches and stockings, but that's the extent of his ostentation. Vholes, on the other hand, constantly insists on his duties to his profession and his family. I don't doubt that the differences between the two were even clearer in Dickens's head than they are on the page.

They also serve different functions in the plot, but the manner in which they perform those functions is really what distinguishes them from one another.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:16 PM on June 7, 2013

I've found this book of "master characters" (based in mythic archetypes) to be a useful tool in thinking about characters' back stories, motivations, conflicts, etc. I definitely don't think you have to pick a specific archetype and write your character to slavishly imitate the characteristics that the author lays out, but it's a good way to think about how choices reveal and reinforce character (and therefore what things are or are not likely for someone to do).
posted by scody at 12:54 PM on June 7, 2013

I found that John Green's discussion in these videos helped me a lot in character development. If you're not familiar with Green, he wrote The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska, and is a great character writer. Disclaimer: he talks about these things while playing Fifa soccer. And he has narratives for all the players. Some people find it weird to watch a grown man play soccer badly while talking about random subjects on youtube. I find it hilarious.
posted by guster4lovers at 1:54 PM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

it's usually not until the third or fourth draft of something that I have a specific sense of who the person is, how they behave, what their relationships are to others, etc.; the other half is, once I think I've defined the character, I unwittingly "break" these characters by having them do things that I don't think they would do - forcing me to go back and rethink those scenes later on.

Spend more time outlining, and outline more thoroughly before you get to the part where you actually write the scenes.

I'm also a fan of spending a little more time with my characters and ideas before I jump into the actual writing part, whether that's outlining or writing scenes. That said, my one feature length screenplay I've written still has character problems. So I don't think there's a foolproof way of creating deeply written characters.
posted by Sara C. at 1:59 PM on June 7, 2013

write a screenplay where all the characters are based on people I know from real life

I think this actually might be the worst way to go about this, since it's hard to separate out the people you know in real life into what their roles in the story are, and what needs to happen in the story, and whether a particular character is a good fit for your story, and what aspects of that person's character need to appear in the story.

But... what if you wrote something about historical figures? Or characters that are already floating around in the cultural ether? (Whether that's from folklore, or stock character "types", or even preexisting IP) That way you have a sense of, like "Cinderella is the protagonist, and the Wicked Witch is the antagonist, and Spock is the sidekick..."
posted by Sara C. at 2:13 PM on June 7, 2013

I totally don't believe in any kind of mysticism or woo, but I actually have found it useful when creating characters to do a Tarot reading for them. It can give you some metaphors for where they've been in their life, what they want now, what forces around them are influencing how they get it, and what the possible outcomes are. If you do a reading for each of your major characters (and maybe a 3-card reading just to set the stage for minor characters), they're bound to come out different, and you can flesh them out by writing their "biography" in your writing notebook, which you can then come back to to refresh your perspective on them. It does require learning a bit about the different archetypes and metaphors in Tarot cards, but there are tons of books out there that you can use as a cheat sheet.
posted by matildaben at 2:59 PM on June 7, 2013

Zelazny used to think up little side-scenarios that didn't appear in in the written story. "How would Corwin think and behave when so-and-so?"

Why not create and maintain up a small notebook of canned set-ups you can drop a given new character into to see how he or she behaves? Populate the side characters with existing well-defined folk like Cinderella, Wicked Wtich, Spock, etc.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:10 PM on June 7, 2013

I like the opposite of the 'making the villain the hero' exercise-- in what way is your hero a villain? How can they create problems in a scene? Can you match a situation to each character's weakness?

Wilkie Collins is amazing at this, and such a great example of how the most suspenseful stories are character-driven. Read The Woman In White or No Name to see how well he can build drama from the reader's anticipation of how each personality will screw up a situation in a specific way.

Or, I mean, Shakespeare.. every scene in every play would happen differently if you switched the characters around, because he targets the action around the specific hang up of each person. It doesn't mean these hang-ups are unattractive-- just that they in themselves bar the solution to the drama. I'm thinking say of Viola in Twelfth Night- she's practical, sensible, hangs back and observes.. all of which are great, but it drives the action because she's not going to be the one to say, "Guess what! I'm a girl! Let's just clear all this mess up!", because it's never going to be the perfect risk-free time. Even when the jig is up she's still hedging in hypotheticals! When she's tricked into fighting a duel with the timid Sir Andrew the comedy of the non-duel comes from her having been set up as not just a woman, but a specific woman who is cautious and cerebral-- As You Like It's Rosalind would have had a game go at swordfighting for the heck of it and it would be a different scene with a different outcome. And of course Rosalind is exactly someone who says, "Guess what! I'm a girl!" when she's done with getting her kicks out of everyone, because it's her playful personality that creates a lot of the situations in the first place.

When I see what I'd call poor characterisation, I'd say it comes from the urge to keep everyone in their comfort zone, showing off how cool they are and how good at stuff. I want to see this too of course but it means they don't drive the situation because they're solving problems rather than making them.
posted by Erasmouse at 5:07 AM on June 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hilary Mantel uses this exercise: she imagines that her character has come into the room to sit beside her, and then they talk to her about what they are feeling. Allowing a character to "speak" to you can really help create a sense of the individual human being who you are trying to portray. And you do have to know their background: write a biography for each character, as detailed as is appropriate. You don't have to put any of this into your story, but you do have to know it.
posted by jokeefe at 12:49 AM on June 9, 2013

The best writing advice I ever got was from David Milch:

- Two voices. No description, no names.
- Write for no less than 20 minutes. No more than 50 minutes.
- Then, forget about what you wrote. (Milch says put it in an envelope, seal it, never look at it again. However, he's a technophobe and therefore has a paper trail. Since you're probably writing on a computer, just delete the file.)
- Do this every day.
- Only write when you're writing. Don't carry a pad around with you or a voice recorder. If you think of something not during your writing time, forget it. "Everything you think about your writing when you're not writing is wrong, wrong, wrong." he says.

(Note that you're not trying to write a cohesive piece over these days. You're trying to train yourself to write and hear the voices of your characters in your head.)

After a couple weeks, try adding a third voice.

Eventually, you will find yourself incapable of keeping to these rules, especially the time limitations. Once that happens, you'll find yourself being what you imagined being a writer to be.

I still write with the "two voices no description" rule. Then, I go back and add the description, usually having it replace dialogue rather than provide description.

For instance, if I have a character who says "sorry", I'll try and replace that with an action, because that often will reveal more about the character whereas "sorry" rarely does. However, when I'm doing my initial pass, there's no action, so "sorry" might appear. On the "action pass", I could have the character turn his back instead of saying sorry. I could have him take money out of his pocket and put it on the dresser. I could have him clench a fist, then unclench it. I could have the character flee. I could have him weep. All of these things are something someone might do which would mean "sorry" to them and each of these actions helps define a different character.

I find the "action pass" to be *very* natural and easy. Because my characters are speaking to me, I can see them in the space and they just "do"; they behave. I just transcribe.

However, do not start doing "action passes" until you've mastered the voices exercises. This will take weeks or longer.

Most importantly, don't believe that failure today means you're a failure as a writer. Begin each day anew with a concerted effort to complete the 20 - 50 minutes.
posted by dobbs at 1:47 AM on July 21, 2013

Oh, and Milch's most difficult rule to follow: NEVER OUTLINE. This is very hard to follow if you've had any "training" as a writer. It took me years to be able to not outline, but it enables me to do the best writing I'm capable of. Writing is an intuitive process. Outlining is a logical process. These two approaches clash and since you want to be a writer, not an outliner... write.
posted by dobbs at 1:52 AM on July 21, 2013

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