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Jewlyn Rahn
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So, out of curious, how do you come up with your characters? What comes first? Do you change things as you work on the story so they will fit the story better or do you change the story to fit the character you already created?

I personally, well. I draw a design. I like the design, give them a name and an idea for a personality/backstory and then slowly build from there. And usually I'll build any other characters around them (in a visual design way) so like, one of my duos is supposed to be completely contradictory. White/red colors, slim build and then I got black/blue colors with a very bulky build. And my white/red kid's allies are the more white/ethereal color schemes 

Downside of it- I have a wide variety of people coming from a very teeny tiny kingdom so now I got to actually break it apart and have the cultures make sense haha. But I'm unwilling to change the designs so... yay world building so it just doesn't seem like a bunch of randomness (given, I don't know if it'd come across as randomness or if I am just worrying about something very minor... hm). 

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  • To be honest I usually have an idea for a scene with characters involved in it already? Like, it's usually a scene halfway through the book that I have no idea how to get to or anything, but something about it seems cool enough to want to write about. The character just sort of... pop up? And then I think about who's in it and who they are and just write from there. I don't plan, almost at all, so the characters flesh themselves out throughout my first draft!

    It might not be the most efficient way of working, but it keeps writing fun for me

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    • I plan paragraphs verse word count, but build off friction. 

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      • To write a full and coherent answer to this question would take… a book. To write such within the confines of this platform's reply wordcount limit… that would be a task of much editing.

        The simple answer: it depends.

        The more elaborate - equally true and equally unhelpful - answer: I'll tell you when I reach a solution that is no longer evolving.

        Taking my current, primary WIP, I devised a cast to fill out the story I wanted. I gave them a bit of backstory each, because that's what dictates how they will deal with the issues the story throws at them. Then, I wrote. And, having written, I rewrote (not just edited), and more depth evolved. I understood, better, what I wanted them to be. I understood the story's arc. And now, on my third complete rewrite, I also have a more coherent theme. I have character depth to work off, and the harmonics of interaction: how each character's personality is a representation of an aspect of the theme.

        Of all those elements, I would say knowing and understanding backstory is the most important. (There is a theory of story structure that says that story exists to expose the trauma of backstory, to uncover the inciting incident of the protagonist's personality.)

        And, yes, obviously, looking backward, you will need to build a world that makes sense: one that naturally converged on those first lines of your tale, to catapult the reader into a literary adventure.

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        • Interesting topic - How to make the imaginary clay of characters.

          You can do worse than take an insightful look at (and listen to) the people you know. Try to work out what made them the way they are.

          As Rick just said (and contrary to much writing advice), it’s not about knowing what their mother’s sisters dog is named, or even what their favourite colour is, but about understanding how their life that came before made them the way they are.

          If your story requires a hero who rushes into danger – you need to understand the upbringing/life events (preferably both) that made her that way. Their physical appearance should fill out from there.

          Short answer: reverse (emotional) engineering.


          All the best

          -Heather (A still-learning writer whose opinions should be assessed in that context)

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          • Wow! What a broad question! 😀 

            My characters mostly evolve slowly over time, I think. The initial spark of creation can be almost anything, from an idle 'what if..?' thought, to an idea from an unrelated conversation, to a memorable person I pass in the street, to a story requirement that demands some sort of personification or agent to make it happen.

            These embryonic characters percolate and grow as I mull them over, sometimes forming their own connections that drive new plot arcs, slowly becoming more complex and detailed as they develop. This can sometimes be over years! I don't very often use formal character development techniques (questionnaires and detailed templates etc.) and prefer to let the person's traits and foibles develop organically as the plot or their individual story demands. Sometimes they will serve a particular plot purpose, of course, in which case their main character aspect might be there from the start as a necessity.

            I do find the 'back-story' method of development quite useful, though, as Lisa Cron describes in her book Story Genius. This is where you develop and write full scenes from specific formative points in your character's life before the story opens. These open up and and explore certain areas of the character's personality development, and allow you to bring a character to their initiating event with a detailed and complex set of fears, flaws, pre-conceptions and motivations already in place - as well as the events that created them. These scenes may not get actually used in the book itself, but if a space opens up to explore the character's previous life they're there, all ready to be incorporated; so much more useful than a dry 'character sheet'!

            What I share with you is a very visual aspect to character creation. Like you, I often do character sketches very early on, even immediately after the first conception of the person. As the character grows in detail and complexity so do the drawings and paintings, and I usually end up with a gallery of portraits of at least the main characters. 

            I also do this with scenes and settings, too, but it's the character studies that I benefit from most, I think. There's sometimes an extraordinary, almost spooky, moment when the painting stops being a mere depiction and suddenly a real person opens their eyes and gazes back at you from the paper, or the screen, staring out into your world from theirs - as if they have an existence outside your imagination and you're merely their chronicler rather than their creator! I find this 'reality' really helps anchor the character (although obviously not precluding change and development as the story is told). 

            Here's my current 'cast'.

            image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=241&dpx=1&t=1601286505image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=242&dpx=1&t=1601286527image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=243&dpx=1&t=1601286547image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=244&dpx=1&t=1601286566image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=246&dpx=1&t=1601286614image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=247&dpx=1&t=1601286633image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=248&dpx=1&t=1601286647   

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            • Thanks Jewlyn! And right back at you! I really like your style of sketching - such character! 😃  You should check out that Lisa Cron book I mentioned (Story Genius). It takes the idea of the back story 'one-shots' and turns it into a really fun and creative way of finding out how the character got to where they are at the beginning of the story. Of all the character-building techniques I've tried over the years it was definitely the one that resonated with me the most, and which I've found really helpful, especially as it incorporates a degree of world-building too that connects directly with the characters.

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              • Thank you, Kate! 😊 

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                • Just grabbed that book, maybe it'll help when I get to my rewrite :) 

                  (and thanks)

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                • I find they reveal themselves as I get to know them. In my profession as an interior designer I have worked with a lot of strong personalities. Understanding their needs and what makes them choose certain objects is necessary to design and furnish their homes. Some buy things because they like them, some because it is what they think they should have, some because it will impress others. Also, when working with someone so closely, I get an intimate look into family dynamics, at how some marriages truly are partnerships and others are power struggles. Enormous inspiration and fascination for me. That is probably why my novels deal more with relationships than big scene building. Luckily, I have a large library of personality types to draw from. I don't mimic someone in particular but pull traits from various individuals that seem to ring true. It's more intuitive process than a plotted one. Really, they tell me who they are as I write about them. They so often surprise me!

                  One of my favorite books of recent times is 'A Gentleman in Moscow'. Count Rostow's whole existence depended on his relationships. Loved the characterizations.

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                  • I loved that novel. And Rules of Civility.

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                  • This one might just apply to me.


                    In my head, I've built a multiverse of my own, which is alternate realities that I've created. Although a lot of the people in my universes are from the real world, just alternates of them, there are a people that I created. In my novel, the characters are all from my universe, so they naturally came with backstory and personality and all sorts. But even so, I'm with Jon, they evolve over time. For example, my main character is from another planet and one of the main arcs of the story is how she discovers friendship. But I hadn't originally planned that, I planned that she was from another planet and I even though I added friends, it was only when editing that I realized that the whole friendship thing could be an arc on it's own and could be explored deeper.


                    So in other words, I have had my characters with me since I was 7, the ones in my novel, just an alternate of them. 

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                    • I typed a reply earlier and then deleted it as I felt unqualified to give an answer. But in case it is relevant to anyone, I’m writing historical fiction and so my character development is a meeting between what the historical record says and doesn’t say about my characters, what I have imagined into the gaps and what my storyline requires. I held off building up too clear an impression of who my cast of characters were until much of the historical research had been completed as I didn’t want to entirely contradict the known facts, but once the gaps became clear I had fun filling them in.

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                      • I don't think there's any real qualification for this haha.

                        But that is 100% understandable. Bright side of fantasy, I can bend the world around the characters, but if you already have a world it kind of has to be the opposite.

                        Did you take real life people as your characters or did you make up the characters themselves? (I know people who have done both)

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                        • The four main characters in my story are historical people, but with vastly differing amounts recorded about them. My protagonist is little more than a name in history, so there was a lot of leeway in imagining her character. Whereas my antagonist was once mayor of the city and there’s a lot written about him, and I’m sticking as close to the recorded evidence about him as I can manage. Since my story involves people mostly on the fringes of society there’s plenty of imagining within the parameters of what would be plausible for the period. Personally I rather like the framework-with-gaps approach to discovering my characters. Hats off to all of you inventing fantastical worlds and characters!

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                          • I'm the same as you CatherineDj !  Also writing historical fiction with little information about most of the real characters.  I've really enjoyed filling them out though, and inventing new ones to fit the situations!

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                          • Bearing in mind that I haven’t actually managed to finish a book yet I suspect I am less qualified than Catherine to answer anything! But this place is all about exchanging ideas. I have to admit I am a bit of a pantser (is that right?) My stories tend to pop up from all manner of points of inspiration. Some start with a very definite sense of place and I have to make up people to fit it but some start with a definite character and  I have to make up a world for them to inhabit. 

                            Unlike some other people here I can’t draw for toffee, I do spend a lot of time with my characters in my head usually having conversations. Some have a definite appearance but a lot of them the physical appearance doesn’t really matter. What is important is how they feel, what they think and say and do and why. 

                            Like Connie, in my job I am lucky enough to meet people from every background you can imagine (and some that you can’t) so there is no shortage of inspiration there. I have a lot of stories and characters in my head just waiting for me to get time to actually write them!

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                            • It's funny, isn't it, the whole 'physical appearance' issue. I find that I absolutely can't write a character until I know pretty much exactly what they look like, their style of dress and so on. But when I come to write them as opposed to paint them, I'm very aware that the reader should be allowed to create their own version of those characters... which may be different from my conception of them, perhaps markedly so. I always remember the first time I saw the Peter Jackson 'Lord of the Rings'; most of the characters fitted pretty well with what I had in my head from reading the books, but Gollum was portrayed so completely differently from how I'd visualised him that I really struggled to accept him... still to this day, he's 'wrong' in my eyes!

                              So I try not to give too much detail about their appearance in the writing - hair or eye colour, height, build etc. - unless it's critical to the story or to their interaction with other characters. Or, at least if I do, to hint at it rather than describe it in detail.

                              It's a tempatation I have to fight hard though, since they're as physically fixed to me as real-life figures! 😃 

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                            • Blown away by the artwork I've seen on this site so far - Jewlyn, Jon, Connie, Laina.

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                              • Thanks, Chris. 🙂 

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                                • Aww, thank you :)

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                                • Such an interesting subject, artwork and answers here. Wishing I could draw better...

                                  I usually do a sort of amalgam of a few of the approaches above.

                                  I quite often go for setting first - rundown seaside resorts, the city of York, Bristol (where I live) have all served as settings.

                                  Then there'll be an idea of story and the kinds of people that will be an interesting fit - a bad tempered advice worker and a man literally battling demons who's suffering from PTSD; a septagenarian lesbian ex war photographer and a neglected teenage medium with a past even he's forgotten.

                                  I do the 100 questions method for each but much of that is looking at their past, important incidents that shaped their personalities.

                                  Then I write a first draft, review, write a second and by then I'm really getting a handle on who they are.

                                  For me it takes time - and a lot of writing!

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                                  • Such an interesting subject, artwork and answers here. Wishing I could draw better...

                                    I usually do a sort of amalgam of a few of the approaches above.

                                    I quite often go for setting first - rundown seaside resorts, the city of York, Bristol (where I live) have all served as settings.

                                    Then there'll be an idea of story and the kinds of people that will be an interesting fit - a bad tempered advice worker and a man literally battling demons who's suffering from PTSD; a septagenarian lesbian ex war photographer and a neglected teenage medium with a past even he's forgotten.

                                    I do the 100 questions method for each but much of that is looking at their past, important incidents that shaped their personalities.

                                    Then I write a first draft, review, write a second and by then I'm really getting a handle on who they are.

                                    For me it takes time - and a lot of writing!

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                                    • What a great question - it's thrown up so many possibilities! 

                                      This is something I have struggled so much with. Specifically how to create characters who are not based on either somebody I know or, more usually, myself. 

                                      I think I found a method, and I'd be interested to know what everybody here thinks. I have a character in mind, not fully formed at all, just a hint of a character really. Maybe they are the boss of a local company, or an ailing best friend. I then take that shadow of a person and put them through the Myers-Briggs personality test, working out how they would respond in certain situations. At the end I am left with an archetype. From there I can blur the lines and make them as complex (or not) as they need to be. Because we all conform to a type - but none of us want to be typecast. 

                                      Also I rarely focus too much on physicality. I dislike authors who over-describe their characters' physical detail. I'd rather let that character 'appear' as I'm reading. It's why I never watch the movie adaptation before the novel (or if I do I rarely read the novel afterwards). Graham Greene was a master of this, only introducing very subtle points of a character's physical features but really concentrating on the emotional detail. Raven, in 'A Gun For Sale,' is a good example. 

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                                      • Laurence Olivier as director used to maintain that once the actors knew what they had to wear they were half way to being in character 

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                                        • It's not as weird as it sounds. Wearing  certain styles - particularly period clothes - actually does change your physicality and the way you move and hold yourself. The great Dame Edith Evans always maintained that it was the shoes that did it! Once those were right... 😂 

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                                        • I think Dame EE also said the poise and pause were almost the same word. I like this as a reminder that when you're in control of the writing you know where the pauses should be and aren't afraid to suggest them in the text. That doesn't imply I'm always in control myself - far from it! 

                                          Re the clothes thing, Emma Darwin has said something similar - that when you know what a character is wearing, especially for historical fiction (hope I'm quoting her right), it's much easier to step inside the character. 

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