Fixing characters' values, worldview etc in your head

Dragonlady

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I'm reading a book set in the late 30s at the moment, with a young female protagonist. The way she thinks about her behaviour is very different from the way a modern girl would - she worries about shame, about what complete strangers will think about her, as well as worrying about her makeup and figure, which modern women do think about, but I don't. It's reminded me that this is the stuff I struggle with when writing or worldbuilding. Giving a character, or a culture, a set of values and preoccupations, and a way of relating to people that's different from my own.

How do you research, and write this sort of thing? I don't in general world build or plan in intricate detail, and my culture doesn't have a direct historical analogue - mediaeval but non feudal. I'm sure there are more things I could read, but how do you get this stuff to stick in your head? That your character believes women are the lesser sex, or that showing leg is not done, or that only the rich eat martian soup or whatever, so it feels natural?
 

CTRandall

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I am still learning how to do this myself so take my example with a grain of salt. I focus on a couple of key traits for each character, a set of things I can describe in one sentence. For example, "Anders is highly intelligent and well-educated but lacks the self-confidence to stand up for himself, particularly when confronted by someone in authority."

This kind of statement helps me understand and visualize character actions that are alien to my own behaviour. It also helps me see when I'm forcing in something that doesn't fit the character and identify key moments when characters change (and what aspect of their personality is changing, as well).

You can do the same for important elements of culture. Another example: "The Church's central tenet is that strict adherence to the Law is the sole means to achieve peace, security and happiness for society as a whole."

I have rough personal histories for my main characters, as well, but they are pretty basic, almost bullet points, with a few exceptions that get more detailed treatment.
 

sknox

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For me it's like learning one's way around a new city. In the first days and weeks, it's hard to remember which way to go, what was where, and so on. After living in a place for years, you can almost find your way with your eyes close.

It's familiarity--a great word, btw, deriving from the word family. The more familiar I am with a character, the better able I am to say how they would behave in a certain situation. And the only way to become familiar is to spend more time.

And then rely on your editor to catch out the inconsistencies.

If it's cultural or historical, of course, then add a quarter lifetime of research. Stir well.
 

zmunkz

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I, too, fixate on a few specific aspects of the character that serve to summarize their personality, and make those things very consistent. Real people aren’t always so clearly segmented, but I find making characters a bit more particular about their ways makes up for the fact they are, you know, made up.

A sentence or two like CTRandall’s is enough to color the lens I use when writing them, and then revision brings it all together.
 

Lumens

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Another inexperienced writer here, but I see it as similar to acting, only it all happens in your mind. I agree with the familiarity aspect - as I continue to revise, my characters' personalities start to crystalise.

Also, all my characters are aspects of my own personality, in some way or another. It's an interesting way to explore the depths of your self, if you see it this way. It can be scary and challenging to get under the skin of a fictional (or real) person that you really hate.

I think in part what makes a character convincing is that they must in their own way believe that they are "right", and that how they think and act, is justified in their view.
 

LukeLee

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Lumens answer reflects my own method. I can play all my characters (in my head - I’m no actor) and I would behave the way they behave given the same inputs. They may be a very extreme version of me, or they may be based on a character in real life that I know well enough to predict their behaviour ( for the purposes of fiction anyway).
 

Toby Frost

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A lot of it is familiarity with the character, and thinking/writing about it long enough for each character to develop its own "rules" by which it will run.

One question I would ask is "If I was to give this character to someone else to write, what limits would I impose on them?" I suppose that's another way of saying "What would this character not do?" "What are the fundamental rules by which this character operates?"

Limits can be moral, or imposed by the setting. I've written two books about a female thief in a fantasy world. She's not a "sexy" thief a la Catwoman, because the setting is meant to be realistic and wouldn't allow that (and it's not what I want to write). If anything, her inspiration comes from private eyes, and that's useful for me to know, because it helps guide how she would respond to things (she'd try to do right, in a reluctant and weary fashion).
 

The Bluestocking

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It may sound like a cop-out but I'm from the sub-set of writers whose characters walk into their mind's eye fully realised. I just get to know them very well as we journey through their story together.

One thing I do which may be of some help:

Whenever I get stuck in terms of story/plot-line, I basically ask myself: "What would this character/these characters do in this situation?"

That basically cuts through the knots/jam-up because I know how she/he/they would respond, react, problem-solve etc when faced with a particular situation. It's a good test of how well you know your character because you need to know them well in order to be able to lean on this method for avoiding writer's block/untangling plot lines etc.

There is another method that had been recommended to me by several authors if you don't have characters emerging fully-formed from the creative/imaginative side of your brain:

Before you begin your WIP, sit down and interview your characters. Write out the questions asking them about their family, their work, their likes and dislikes etc and write down their answers. It helps create a bio that you can then go back to for reference, to flesh out etc. as you write. This exercise also helps get the creative juices flowing.
 

sknox

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There needs to be a button for "mystified admiration." How can I write about a character's likes and dislikes when I don't yet know the character? And yet, many people can do this.

What I appear to need to do, based on how I've approached three novels, two novelettes, and two short stories, is to start writing scenes and in those scenes there is some dialog and so the characters speak. Inconsistently. Varying. But over time, the unevenness smooths out and I begin to get a feel for the character, though that voice continued to evolve over the course of the book.

One way I know that, for me, there's no such thing as a character replying is that even after multiple drafts of a novel, my editor will still point out where the character's voice isn't quite right. By that time, I have enough consistency for an outside reader to spot a mis-step. But if the character were truly speaking, there would be no such inconsistency, right? Because there *is* no character. It's just me.

On the happier side, because it's all just me, I can fix it!
 
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How do you research, and write this sort of thing? I don't in general world build or plan in intricate detail, and my culture doesn't have a direct historical analogue - mediaeval but non feudal.
I do the research as I'm writing. When I come to a place where I need to know how the society of the day would react to something or how a person would typically act in that situation during that time, I just start doing intensive Google searches of societal behaviour and views of that time period. Right now, I'm working on a Regency Steampunk series so have been reading a ton of articles on the social structure and practices of both the Regency and Victorian eras. I also watch/read a lot of TV shows, films, and books set in those periods (I love history!). It gives me a basic familiarity with the views of the time so I'm better able to tweak them for my purposes.
 

Dragonlady

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Thanks for the tips all! One downside is that I decided to use a mediaeval non feudal society, which turns out to be hard to research when your native land was resolutely feudal.
 
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Thanks for the tips all! One downside is that I decided to use a mediaeval non feudal society, which turns out to be hard to research when your native land was resolutely feudal.
Have you tried researching Medieval cultures like those of the Vikings or Ireland? The Old Irish system of law/government was very unusual. Feudalism wasn't introduced there until sometime in the 1200s. The earlier Irish system of kings/high-kings wasn't a feudal one.
 
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No problem! Good luck! The other Gaelic or Anglo-Saxon cultures might also prove helpful. Many of these were clan based systems and though some had kings, again, the system wasn't quite the same as it is for feudal kingships. The ancient Irish law system was called Brehon Law and is an interesting system.
 

Paul Meccano

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I would suggest looking deeper into human traits. The upshot of that being: All teenagers are fundamentally, as are all adults, the same.
It doesn't matter what period, we're all driven by the same base-line emotions. Discover all you can of that and then extrapolate for your characters, in any situation you care to envisage.
That sounds simple I know, but we're all just on a rinse and repeat here; there's nothing new in human evolution.
Books, by Jordan B Peterson - 12 rules for life ( or others of his. (audio is best for these often verbose feasts)) and similar, are great for understanding the human psyche. We react, for instance with fear; what fear will drive the character – or generations of characters – to react a certain way? What has been taught? How does that affect the masses? How may teenagers, adults, members of a certain race, tribe or contingent react? and how do others around them perceive their reaction.

In Science fiction, augmented humans may be the goal. They may also be seen as something old school and quite grim to another generation.
Think like a teenager and you won't go wrong. They often know how to bum out about things for good reason. Next Gen lessons.
 

Dragonlady

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Thanks @Paul Meccano ! I've always been fascinated by what makes people tick. My main character in my current wip is a teenager/young adult written when I was then, and I feel like I'm on solid ground with him, but perhaps have some legwork to do with other characters.
 

sknox

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If it's any comfort, most medieval historians dislike the term feudalism, arguing that it was largely a legal fiction made up by 13thc (and later) writers on law. Yes there were fiefs and yes there were oaths of fealty, but they were not everywhere and they were not everywhere the same. Once enough exceptions pile up, it's really hard to argue there was a system (as indicated by the -ism suffix). Also, manorialism is not the same as feudalism.

Unfortunately, most people have very particular ideas about the Middle Ages and if you violate those ideas--at least without sufficient in-book explanation--they are likely to ding you for not being "historically accurate."
 

Paul Meccano

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Thanks @Paul Meccano ! I've always been fascinated by what makes people tick. My main character in my current wip is a teenager/young adult written when I was then, and I feel like I'm on solid ground with him, but perhaps have some legwork to do with other characters.
Having one character nailed always shows up the others. Sadly – and sometimes gratefully – it just seems to be the way of things.
Good luck with it. The journey to creating believable, world affected characters – ones that move us at least – is a never ending lesson and fun.

As a note: the book I mentioned is very broad although some aspects are pin sharp. Meaning, morality and connection are massive threads among others, and are talked to from a very core human perspective. Meaning, or our beliefs (if you like), are what drive us all I'm sure you know. Creating characters with a the need to see the world a certain way ( through injury, death, love,curiosity...) is the same as creating a tribe or even a race. create circumstance and you will create meaning and belief in individuals, or the whole if circumstance – a plague perhaps – were to decimate a country. Wiping your butt with your left hand and shaking hands with your right, when considered in terms of meaning holds a whole beautifully intriguing story in itself. Some indigenous tribes can't see the colour blue, only green in broader shades. Not needing to see blue has an effect on a whole people. What we believe creates the world we see around us truly.
 

Dragonlady

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@sknox interesting, any research tips? Most of what I read is either stuff I've known since secondary school, or so detailed it doesn't really sink into my poor tired brain. I think the key with characters is to nail down the bigger stuff - social organisation, values, etc, better.
 

sknox

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Unfortunately, Susan Reynold's book is a tough slog. Basically, if you describe relationships and just stay away from that word, you'll make most of us happy.

I'm not sure what other research you're speaking of. Daily life? That's actually a standard phrase, so if you go looking for "daily life in medieval germany" or some such, you'll get hits. But some of the stuff I like won't necessarily turn up in general searches. The way you do academic research is to live in the bibliography. Find the most recent book on Topic X. Don't even read it. Just turn to the bibliography and write down whatever looks promising. Get all those books (and articles) and check *their* bibliographies. At some point you start finding the stuff you can use. Even then, you may not actually read the whole work, just plunder it for the "good bits" - defined as "stuff I figure I can use in my WIP."
 
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