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Fixing characters' values, worldview etc in your head

Dragonlady

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Joined
May 4, 2007
Messages
106
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

I have my very own plant pot!
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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

Member and remember
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Mar 25, 2013
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947
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Idaho
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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Nov 15, 2015
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432
Location
USA
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

Writer of wrongs
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Apr 1, 2017
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UK
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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Joined
Aug 15, 2019
Messages
9
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).
 
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