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Is this the key to writing great characterization?

Brian G Turner

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I've been reading J. Michael Straczynski's notes on writing Babylon 5, when I came across the following he'd made:

Here is the key to characterization: who is your character, what does he want, how far will he go to get it, and what is he prepared to lose in that process?

I find that interesting, because all too often writers initially think of characters and characterization in terms of physical attributes, interests and personality - I certainly did!

However, as I've repeated across the forums, character development arcs can be a worthwhile consideration in novels, which means thinking less in terms of personal attributes and more about how that character is changed by the story as much as changing it.

Anyway, I thought it might be a worthwhile quote to refer to, in case anyone here discovers any revelations about their own lead characters by think in those terms. :)
 

Jo Zebedee

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I get into their head and try to be them - which means understanding what they want, how they’ll react etc etc. I only know what any of them look like because people want me to come up with something. Ditto personality - they’re them, eg, Sonly - not a ‘confident lady who takes no prisoners.’
 

zmunkz

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I like that quote. I think the idea is to consider them as a person with personal stakes and needs, rather than to see them as a role in your plot. By forcing yourself to think in the terms the quote identifies, you’re more likely to have your character reacting and wanting with the depth and nuance a real person would.
 

-K2-

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I've been reading J. Michael Straczynski's notes on writing Babylon 5, when I came across the following he'd made:

Here is the key to characterization: who is your character, what does he want, how far will he go to get it, and what is he prepared to lose in that process?

I'm simply a novice... blah-- blah-- blah, you've heard the story :rolleyes:

However, that rings rather shallow to me. It reads more of what applies to the brief amount of time the story takes place. Granted, her ultimate resolve may require some previous motivation that helped form her/him, but, that statement alone doesn't urge me to try and look deep enough.

As I have mentioned 100 too many times, the lions share of my characters I base off some stage(s) of my life. This maturity, that drive, personality, level of culture, etc.. So, those characters should clearly have tremendous depth. That said, other characters which I have no relation to, I find myself typically in my mind, sometimes on paper, hashing out rather elaborate backstories that leads the character to have the wherewithal-- or not, to answer the criteria above.

IMO, it's often not the extreme demonstrations of resolve which demonstrate a characters depth... but, the tiny insignificant things which together form a complete and well rounded character personality.

Another aspect I think folks tend to forget, is that characters cannot always win. Meek Mary SHOULDN'T always suddenly find the resolve to face and defeat Krom, Conquer of the Universe. Sometimes she needs to fail, lose, make things worse or even trip on the last step accidentally driving the dagger in. Think of anyone you know in your life intimately. It's not just their parts you admire that you think of, yet also their flaws and weaknesses.

Point being, though the backstory doesn't need to be in the story itself, I believe, you need enough backstory in your mind to make the character believable, yet more so, consistent.

Just my opinion...

K2
 
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Extollager

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To respond to the question that I misread in the thread title (I saw it more as "Is characterization the key to writing?":

Only sometimes.

"Characterization" wasn't the main thing in literary forms that dominated entire centuries -- epic poems, philosophical dialogues, love lyrics, dream-visions, heroic romances, etc., as well as popular forms such as folk tales, ballads, &c. You could eliminate all of the literary classics whose usual claim in the excellence of their characterization and still have lots of masterpieces left.

"Characterization" in the usual sense has been a key thing for many modern-era plays and for the modern realistic novel -- which is a subset of the modern novel.

For centuries, authors focused on extraordinary people, on beautiful or dreadful sights, on great adventures, etc. The extraordinary people typically acted in the ways that audiences expected them to: heroes acted heroically, wicked people acted wickedly, and so on.

So today a writer may need to decide what kind of writing is to be done. The popular mass-market sf or fantasy work probably does need to have some "character development" because that is desired by readers and appropriate to the conventions of the genres. So then the writer may need to ask if that is the kind of work he or she definitely is going to write.

For myself, though, it's not necessary or perhaps even a very good idea to be too deliberate, methodical, conscious about such things too early in the writing process. Often what seems to work is to have some ideas going, yes, but to work with images. In my most recent story, "Nails," I had the idea of two friends talking by a school boiler and the image of an apparition of an elderly man who is pounding nails into an empty house, splintering wood, etc. It was as I wrote the story that a key element emerged, such that the story is largely about those two old friends. It was appropriate for me not to be too sure about these two at the outset. This allowed the story to become more about them and certain ironies, rather than that they should be plot devices for getting at the apparition.
 

Toby Frost

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I think it could be very useful at times, and I'm sure I've used something like it myself. Other times, I find myself needing a particular sort of person and end up fleshing them out from there. I think genre writers are sometimes a bit shy about saying "My story needs this sort of guy". Two takes on "a cowardly space smuggler" or "a rebellious princess" could be totally different, both in terms of style and depth of characterisation.

I find the "role" of characters very interesting, and how that role can change. Depending on who's in the room, any one of the four leads in the Space Captain Smith books can be the voice of reason or the voice of madness, which makes them more rounded and gives more potential for conflict and jokes. I've recently been working on a story where a sidekick, who is seen as a bit ridiculous, takes the helm and becomes the lead. It's interesting to set up a character who can look slightly absurd but who is motivated credibly, and can become a "full" character without having to change too much.
 

sknox

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I've seen much the same said elsewhere. Its good insofar as it gets a person thinking about stakes, but it's too clear-cut for me to find useful over the long haul.

First, few people know any of this about themselves. If someone were to ask me what do I want, I'd have to ask what they mean. I want lots of different things. I probably want things that, were I to gain them, I wouldn't want or at least would discover came with complications I'd not expected. Moreover, what a person wants isn't usually one thing. Even were they to make a list, it wouldn't be a list of utterly separate items but would be things large and small variously entangled with each other or even mutually contradictory.

The same is true for how far one will go and what one is prepared to lose.

These things make more sense from an author's point of view, though. What shall I give to this character as a desire? How far shall I say this character will go to get it, and what shall I have him or her lose along the way?

A similar phrasing works better for me: what does the character want, and what does the character need? Put another way: what does the character think he wants, and what does he really want? And still another way: what does the character believe he wants at the beginning of the story, and does he still want that toward the end?

In brief: the comment is a good starting point, but not an ending point.
 

Cathbad

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For me, characterization is everything, when I read. It was the 'saving grace', for me, that made me continue reading Jordan's WOT. (I did not find the story itself to be 'great', thus worthy of such lengthy tomes.)
 

L.L.Lotte

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For me, characterization is everything, when I read. It was the 'saving grace', for me, that made me continue reading Jordan's WOT. (I did not find the story itself to be 'great', thus worthy of such lengthy tomes.)
That's interesting, because I found his characterisation to be quite poor in that, all the characters tended to have the same personality. It was like they were the same character with different names. The only thing that really separated them was a certain extremely overused mannerism -- ie: Nynaeve tugging her braid...

But that was the ongoing theme of the story. WoT was about gender politics more than anything else. Impressions of characters were skewed by how each gender viewed the other, which disguised any attempt at characterisation behind biased opinion. It was all about tearing down that biased view of the world.
 

Cathbad

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That's interesting, because I found his characterisation to be quite poor in that, all the characters tended to have the same personality. It was like they were the same character with different names.
I'm afraid I didn't analyze the characters, but came to care what happened to (most of) them. To me, that is what makes it 'good characterization'. But you know what opinions are like...

;)
 

Brian G Turner

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It probably helps to be able to reference something of JMS's writing, not least character arcs in the TV series Babylon 5 - all major characters undergo significant change and transformations (sometimes literally) and no character ends the series as the same person they began it as.

While G'Kar, Delenn, and Sheridan all have important arcs, Londo's is perhaps the most memorable - a figure who is introduced as a something of a washed-out old man given over to moments of clowning, but who becomes an increasingly dark and tragic figure. Frankly, Londo's development is one of the most memorable I've ever encountered in fiction.

londo-young-old.jpg


However, Babylon 5 was always conceived of as a TV series with a developing plot arc, and the characters with it. At the time most TV series were episodic so they couldn't develop and change their characters - Star Trek TOS and TNG are good examples of this, though they did attempt some limited character development in the films.
 

Toby Frost

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If someone were to ask me what do I want, I'd have to ask what they mean. I want lots of different things. I probably want things that, were I to gain them, I wouldn't want or at least would discover came with complications I'd not expected.
I've got to admit, this does sound like the plot of a good novel.

The tension between what a character wants and what they get is very strong, especially if they can't get what they want, or they realise that it isn't truly what they wanted after all. For me, a lot of the most satisfying characters don't follow a straight line of development (I want to win the war so I fight as hard as I can), but have some element of realisation that turns them into something slightly different along the way (I want to win the war so I fight as hard as I can, but I begin to doubt that it the war is just). On the other hand, the core of the character does need to stay consistent.
 

Karn's Return

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Ultimately, yes, at least as far as character-driven writing goes, I think it is very important to ask just what stakes your characters truly have in your work, and what they are prepared to sacrifice. However, in my own opinion, you have to let your characters be themselves. Don't try to force them to be someone they aren't, just as one shouldn't try to force anyone in real life to be. It's less creating them and more channeling them...I'm sure we've all had experience with our characters surprising us and taking directions we've neither intended nor foresaw from them...and that is what makes them all unique and interesting.
 

Stephen Palmer

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Plot comes from character.
Not large-scale, theme type plot, but the ins and outs of all the crazy and wise things we humans do.
"If in doubt, imagine it better." - I always forget which author said that, but it's stuck with me over the decades...
 

Steve Harrison

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As my characters are the last ingredients to be added to my stories - after I begin writing - I don't know what my characters want, what they are willing to do or risk until they find out. Prior to starting, I am much more interested in plot and setting, but once underway it's fun to see who turns up.

No doubt by the end Straczynski's character questions are answered, but I don't concern myself with them consciously beforehand.
 

Luiglin

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Fully agree with opening post.

For fun though, you could almost quote Pet Shop Boys first single West End Girls at each of your main characters.

If when why what how much have you got
Have you got it do you get it
If so how often
Which do you choose
A hard or soft option
 

Cathbad

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As my characters are the last ingredients to be added to my stories - after I begin writing - I don't know what my characters want, what they are willing to do or risk until they find out. Prior to starting, I am much more interested in plot and setting, but once underway it's fun to see who turns up.
Interesting! I begin with a vague plot and challenge, design the characters, then let them loose. :giggle:
 

sknox

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My characters don't do anything on their own. I recognize this happens with other writers, but characters no more surprise me than does a mountain suddenly spring up in the middle of a desert. It's all the product of my imagination.

I get that creation works on multiple levels, but when people start talking about characters doing unexpected things all on their own, I can only scratch my head. It all comes out from my own brain, my own fingertips. I can see it as metaphor, but as something literal (hah!) ... not so much. I'm much happier knowing my characters are how I have fashioned them. This is doubly true during revision, which is very often where my characters fill out and become genuinely distinct. In the first draft, many are vague and most have contradictions and inconsistencies (the plot hole kind, not the interesting kind). It's in threading all those elements that my characters stand out.

No big deal. In the end, all that matters is that the reader likes it.
 
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