Tag Archives: character development

Researching Characters- An Example of Diving into the Rabbit Hole

In 2011, I was in a writing program called the Athenaeum through The Attic, a writing school in Portland, Oregon. I focused on my novel Zizkov as my “opus” of the writing mastery program. (If you want to check it out you can go to the category labeled The Novel- Hello from Zizkov, and that will I give you a general idea of the style.) I remember one of my teachers telling me that he never published his first novel. He wrote it. Put it in a drawer, and basically never looked at it again. I had thought at the time, “oh no, that will not be me. This baby’s gonna see the world.” Yet, it turned out to be me, but I think today I understand his point. It’s the lesson of writing. So, why am I writing this now? Well, I have been going through many old blog postings and cleaning house. I came across a post on researching characters for my novel. Since, I have been spending tie here breaking down processes and techniques and methods for writing (particularly creative writing) it seemed that this was a perfect platform for that old post.

It follows many of the points I had made on my blog posts about character development. It’s very detailed, and if I may say, rather impressive. I was surprised with the research I had put into building backstory and characterizations. Admittedly, I do enjoy research, and as some writers have pointed out research can be a distraction or form of resistance to writing your story. So be aware. That said if you read Game of Thrones you know that George R. Martin puts some serious time and research into his characters. Epic amounts of time equals epic stories.

Asking the questions

In the first part of this old post I reflected on some questions I needed to answer about the time and place of the setting (Prague) and what it would have been like to be a young person during that period.

I know a lot about Americans living in Prague since I was one of them, but I have some Czech characters to write, and where do I get the perspective on them? This has posed a challenge in the sense that, sure it has been easy to find a lot of books on Prague, and the Czech Republic which gives one a basic understanding of what it was like to be there between the year’s of 1939 to 1989, but what if you were too young to really know what it was like to live under an oppressive regime? Your parents did; your grandparents did; you know your history; but by the time you became a young adult it had already been 10 years of a new democracy.  The main Czech character is 24, and would have been 13 when the Velvet Revolution took place. My huge question is: what was it like to be a teenager growing up in a new democracy with opportunities? Opportunities your parents and grandparents never had, yet at the same time, experiencing an overwhelming flood of consumerism, and influx of foreigners, and a struggling economy. What would that have been like? (2008)

The Character and the Research

Next I wrote about one of the characters for my book. A character based on a real person I had met the first time I had lived in Prague. This real person’s history gave me a starting place for my first round of research.

My story is fiction, as I mentioned before, but the characters are based on real people. I remembered a conversation with the woman that Zuzana is based on; she had told me that her father was a member of the Czech Philharmonic– this is a very different upbringing from someone whose father worked in an industrial plant (which is where many people worked). So I started with music. I went back through Czech History dating all the way back to the 5th century when Bohemia and Moravia were first formed through separate tribes. No, I do not expect my characters to know this far back into their own history, but I felt that if I wanted to avoid making stock characters of Czech people why not know the birth of those people? I skimmed of course until I got into the 20th century, and along my journey through Czech/Czechoslovakian history I found what I wanted to latch onto- it was called Charter 77 and then something called the Jazz Section. (2008)

Imagining the Characters

At this point I imagined a scene with this character and the history of her life. I even included a little quote from the book that I had written at the time.

As I would go for a walk, I would imagine the main character’s, Annabelle, conversation with Zuzana as they visited a small town outside of Prague. On these walks Zuzana would to speak in my head, and she would tell me the story of her family. As soon as I’d return home I’d sit down and hand write out Zuzana’s family history dating back to her grandparents on both sides: When they were born, how they met and married and the years Zuzana’s parents were born. From there I moved onto her siblings and so on. It was a lush history that took me through 6 decades of Czech History. Will I write any of this history down in my novel? Hardly, but without a doubt I know who Zuzana is and why she is the way she is, and although a small character in the book she is a rich and beautiful character. (2008)

When the women get off the train in the small neighboring town, Zuzana tells Annabelle that when she was a girl her mother moved her and her two brothers to live here.  It was after her father was arrested. She says: My family is of a long line of teachers and musicians. It is almost expected that myself and my brothers will also be teachers or musicians but now that Czech is open, my brothers do not agree. They both have left  the Czech Republic. Which no one has done since before 1930. Even before the war I don’t think anyone had wanted to leave. Not from my family. It is good in Czech to be a teacher or a musician, at least it was.” (2008)

The Music, The Books, and The Research Links

I ended with sharing what music I was listening to at the time to help influence my writing. I also wrote about who I was reading at the time, again to help influence and inspire my writing. Then I added many links to the research on the history of Czech jazz and music subversion during the communist era. If you have the time allow yourself to fall down the rabbit hole. There’s some fascinating stuff there. Maybe you’ll find yourself inspired to write your own story.

Since I was basing a lot of Zuzana’s family history around the music of Jazz, that was what I decided to listen to while I wrote- so once a again thanks to pandora.com, along with this line of incredible musicians; Charlie Parker, John Hendricks, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Charlie Mingus, Miles Davis, Lester Young, Shorty Rogers, Clifford Brown, Art Blakey, Al McKibbon, Thelonius Monk, Sonny Stitt, Kai Winding, Gerry Mulligan, Lucky Thompson, and  Joshua Redman.

And of course,  always following with Mr. Stephen King’s advice, I’ve been reading. My reading material has been of course from Czech writers. I just finished Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal- it is a perfect book for a lover of books. The main character/narrator compacts trash and has spent his 35 years saving books from the hydrolic press, he has been unwittingly educated. It is a beautifully written book and at some parts disturbing, I’ll leave you with this quote from the book:

“I can be by myself because I am never lonely, I’m simply alone, living in my heavily populated solitude, a harum-scarum of infinity and eternity, and Infinity and Eternity seem to take a liking to the likes of me.” Too Loud a Solitude, Bohumil Hrabal

Here is a link from the NYTimes about the Jazz Section.

Here is a link from the NYTimes about the Jazz Section.

Here is a link about the 1986 trial when seven people of the Jazz section were arrested.

An article on the Prague Spring of 1968

A blog with music info (among other things) in Prague specifically and the Provakator a webzine that the blog spot mentions in a post. And lastly an article about the The Plastic People of the Universe another dissident musical group out of the Czech Republic/Czechoslovakia

How ever you go about your writing, taking the time to do some serious development on your characters will make your characters more believable. The degree of that development is up to you, and as you can guess you can get lost in it, but don’t skip it.

Keep writing those stories.

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A Final (but not truly final) Note on Characters

Many years’ ago I took a screenwriting class. Amazingly enough I still have some of the notes. These notes focus on asking yourself development questions. It was a screenwriting class, but the genre doesn’t matter. These notes can still apply to any other writing format.

  • Whose the main Character? Why? What so great about them that they get to be main character?
  • What’s the character look like? Who are they what are they like to the other characters in the story what are they like to the readers? To the narrator? What’s their history?
  • What do they want and and what’s in their way? What do they need to do to get what they want? I was watching the Last Lecture by Randy Pausch which he gave at Carnegie Mellon and he talked about things that we dream about. Things that we want out of our life. He described obstacles as the brick wall- Randy said, the brick walls are there for a reason- they are there to see if you want it enough- they separate those who do from those who don’t. You can break down, climb over, do whatever as long as you get over that wall. What is your character’s brick wall, and do they want it enough? My teacher expressed this idea as the “spine” in a film story. Actors use this too- it’s the ultimate goal, what drives the character.
  • What are the conflicts? They have a problem but they can’t just solve it easily, there are all these tiny obstacles that lead up to the main obstacle- the devils in the details, right? Try to think of it from every angle, think of the idea prompt- the most unlikely thing to happen. Make a list-a list can turn to a scene in a film a scene in a book and scene on a stage.
  • How do the characters change? How do they grow? This is something I’ve asked myself and oddly struggled with, I’d write something and then ask myself, but did they change? How? This is where you can build structure. What happens along the way to move the character towards change? Again my teacher had described the structuring of events as what builds the plot- and yes there are stories without plots or where the plot isn’t the main driving point, but most stories have plots. What’s it all about?
  • What is the dramatic situation that sits at the center of the story, around which your plot will form? So I took that one word for word from my notes. Those are my teacher’s words. The dramatic situation is the set of circumstances around the plot that are the events that affect the character as they try to achieve their goal- like what are the circumstances involved in the characters life at the moment that something happens? What does he/she want and what brought him/her to the place where they are now?
  • How does the character affect the dramatic situation- if the character wasn’t the way he/she is then how could things be different? What is so unique to this character to this circumstance that this story is being told?

Why tell your story? Because you must.

What drives us? What’s our obstacles? – And of course there is the eternal why? WHY? Why is it this way or that? Why am I living? Why are any of us living? Most of the time there isn’t even an answer in our own lives, but this is your story, your character, your world. You can see the purpose and the outcome and it’s up to you to let us know if we should see it or not. Isn’t that exciting?
Go be exciting.

Character Development 2

We are returning to some ways to build a great character, a believable character. In the last post I wrote about some ways to brainstorm for your characters. Questions to ask about your characters, and of course the always important, researching your characters.

Now what about the deep inner life of your characters? Do you really need that? Sure, you’re building human beings (and other creatures) out of words. You want your readers to be lost in a world that you created. You want them to put down your book, and forget where they are for a few seconds as they adjust back to their own reality. You want them to believe your characters. One way to do that is to give your characters inner life, dreams, a backstory, and supporting characters that are just as real.

The inner workings, relationships, supporting characters and backstory

The inner workings of your character

  1. Were there any traumatic incidents in your characters past that may affect their present behavior? Are there good influences from the past that may affect their present behavior?
  2. What are the unconscious forces that are driving your character? How do those forces affect their motivations, actions and goals?
  3. Is your character too nice, too bland, too normal, too bad? Is there anything abnormal about them? How do their abnormalities cause conflict with other characters?

Character Relations

  1. Is there conflict between the characters? Is the conflict shown through the action, attitudes or values?
  2. Is there contrasts between the characters? What is different between them?
  3. Do they have the potential to transform each other?
  4. Will the reader understand why they would be together? Is the attraction clear? Is the impact they have on each other clear?

The Supporting Characters

  1. Do the characters have a function in the story? What is the function? What is the theme of the story? How do the supporting characters help the theme?
  2. How did I create my minor characters did I give them enough attention? If I used types did I avoid the stereotypes?
  3. Do I have contrasting characters? Do they add texture to the story?
  4. How have I defined the supporting characters and the minor characters?
  5. Do I have villains? What are their backstories? What drives them? Is there a good that they pursue but use evil actions to get that good?

Backstory

  1. Is my work with backstory a process of discovery?
  2. Does the backstory unfold in the story?
  3. When giving backstory am I only giving information that is relevant to the story?
  4. Am I writing the backstory in short sentences that can reveal within the action of the story or am I heading off into tangents?

 

That should give you enough to work with.

Character Development 1

This post was originally a page, but I’ve decided to turn it into a post as I think that is a more effective and appropriate placement for the post.

Anyone who has ever crossed over this blog knows that I am a bad writer. I don’t mean as in bad quality. I write some decent stuff, I have a good imagination, and on a spectacular day I can even wow my self critic with some of my writing. I have potential. The same as anyone. Writing is a skill. I know this. You know this. We got this knowledge.  I’m not a bad writer, I’m a misbehaved writer. I don’t do the work. I know how to do the work, and I know I could do the work, but I don’t do the work. So there you go. I’ve admitted it. As I’ve admitted it many times before. Supposedly its the first step to recovery. No one tells you that it’s the second step that’s more difficult.

Although, I am an undisciplined, somewhat self destructive, and self sabotaging, but filled with potential (no matter my age) writer, I still know a thing or two about writing. Like I said, I have the knowledge, I just lack the will power. I feel like I’m a whiskey bottle or two shy of being an aging, pathetic, failed artist. Don’t feel bad about reading this because, there is humor in my words. You may not get the humor, but I’m smiling. I enjoy the verbiage. So picture me, sitting in my sweat shirt and leggings sunk into a chair, holding my whiskey glass, and slightly tipsy, yet working on wasted, as I extol the wisdom from my student debt inducing English degree with the writing minor.

Let’s develop a character. Part 1.

Development or Who is this being that you are about to create?

This should take you a lot of work. That’s why I don’t do it, but I’m not telling you to do as I do, but to do as I don’t do. As I said, if you want to make a believable character you need to do a lot of work. Make them real to you and they will be real to me. I watch Game of Thrones and I’ve read about four of the books and one thought that keeps coming to my mind is this: My god, the world he has created! Really, it’s incredible. We won’t even talk about the settings, and the storylines, but just the characters alone. The thing about the characters is that they have history, a long rich deep, deep history. Your characters should too. You are building a world, and even if you are writing about a real person you still need to give that character a life with a history, and life events, and likes and dislikes, you are basically building a replica and you want it to pass the Voight-Kampff test.

So where do you find this person, this being or this talking animals/object? You have two choices internally or externally. You decide.

  1. Your ideas; observations or experience or both.
  2. Inspiration from outside sources.

Okay, now what? Brainstorm and or create an out line. I used to describe this as the vomiting out words. Literally, I would just blahhhhh all over the page. No stoping just writing out all the ideas in a great big mess to clean up later. Here’s some basic questions to ask yourself about you character.

  1. what is the character’s core, what makes the character consistent?
  2. what are your character’s paradoxes? what makes them complex?
  3. emotions, attitudes, values to round the character out.
  4. add details that make them unique and specific.

You have your idea and or inspiration now what? Research the Character. If it’s a real person then by god, you need to do your research, but if it’s an imaginary person then…by god you need to do some research. Below is a list of some questions to think about as you do your research.

  1. What do you need to know about the context of the character(s)?
  2. Do you understand their culture? What is their culture?
  3. Rhythms, beliefs, attitudes that are a part of their culture.
  4. Do you know or have you met or spent time with anyone from their culture?
  5. How is the character different or similar to you?
  6. Do you feel you know enough about people from a culture and have spent time with them so that you don’t create a stereotype based on a few encounters or others outside opinions?
  7. Do you know your character(s) occupation?
  8. Do you have a feel for the occupation, an observation of what the work entails and how people feel about their work?
  9. Do you know the vocabulary enough that it comes out naturally and comfortable?
  10. Do you know where they (characters live) live? Do you know the lay of the land, what it is like to walk the streets of their neighborhood (city, country, seaside et.) ?
  11. What is the climate, what are the leisure activities, what are the smells and tastes of the place where they live, their setting?
  12. How is their location different and similar to your own?
  13. If your story is set in another time period, do you know the historical details, in regard to language, living conditions, what they wore, how they behaved in relationships, their attitudes and influences?
  14. Have you read literature or any other sources from the time period that might help you understand how they spoke and what words and terms they used?
  15. In your research have you reached out and been willing to reach out to ask for help with resources from knowledgeable people from a specific area?

Whooo. Are you done yet? Nah you’re just getting started.

Next post.