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Dingo
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Let's talk about characterization

Mon Dec 12, 2016 10:15 pm

I've seen before that it's an age-old debate as to what is better, plot or characterization. The basic consensus is that a book is either one or the other (plot-driven or character-driven). So what makes a character pop? I'm sick of reading articles about stupid questionnaires you're supposed to give your characters, as if knowing what they like to eat for breakfast is going to magically make them not cardboard. I want the meat and potatoes. Dan, I know you have posted before elsewhere that you had been working on a course specifically for characterization. So what is different about your method than everyone else out there? 
 
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Re: Let's talk about characterization

Tue Dec 13, 2016 12:09 am

You're right, I was at one time working on a characterization course. Characterization is my favorite of the major elements. I actually devised a really intuitive system for creating unique, captivating characters every time. Only my system works big to little. Where most people start on the particulars (appearance, job, likes and dislikes, etc.), I prefer to start with other priorities -- purpose and personality. Because none of that other shit matters if your character doesn't have a purpose, a goal. What are they trying to do? Preventing them from getting to their goal is what creates conflict and tension (plot). And a great way to do this is to make their personality quirks and decisions backfire on them, so it's essentially their own fault. At any rate, I call it the P3 Method, and I'm thinking of writing a series of tutorials on it instead of offering the course.

P3 Method
The method works big to small. When creating your characters, I recommend starting with their purpose first, then doing their personalities, then doing the particulars last. Lots of other people only do the minute details. Those are superficial. Surface-level. Cosmetic. In doing the bigger items first, you can develop a multi-faceted character that stands out from everyone else. What is the purpose in the story? Number one priority. Figure out the goal. Then figure out the personality. Not what they like or what they do. These things don't define who we are as people. But what makes us interesting. Actions and mannerisms. I like to figure out some positive traits and some negative traits. For example, some people are really afraid of abandonment. Why might they be like that? Make something that happened. Determine a list of experiences and stimuli that contributed to who they are on an emotional level. What pisses them off? What makes them happy?

Lastly, I figure out the particulars. What do they look like? What are their skills? What other knowledge do they possess? What do they talk like? Other superficial details. Put these all together and you have a unique person. Do this for all your characters and because you'll know their personalities, you'll be in a better position to have them interact with each other and respond more in accordance with who they are. They won't be cardboard. They'll argue. They'll fight for what they believe in. They'll have conflicting views on things. They'll see the world differently, they'll act differently. Figure out the 3 Ps and the heavy lifting is done for you.
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Re: Let's talk about characterization

Tue Dec 13, 2016 12:40 pm

That's quite a lot of thought you put into that. I would love to see a series of tutorials if you want to get those going. I'm trying to think of some of my own favorite characters to see if they contain all the elements you mention. Darth Vader is definitely up there. In fact, I'd say the answer to "what made them like this" really applies to Vader because he went through quite a transformation to get to that point. Is that a good example of what you mean? Batman could also fit the bill. All comic origin stories have something in them that act as the catalyst. But if you started later on, you can use that catalyst as a sort of carrot on a stick. Hint at the back story and it will mean more when you reveal it. 
 
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Re: Let's talk about characterization

Tue Dec 13, 2016 1:54 pm

What he means is like...if you were creating Batman, you should approach it like "what is he doing and why is he doing this?" and the origin story creates the character. To do it poorly would be to do it how the character actually was created: an image and glossy details (Zorro ripoffs essentially).

What does Vader want? Why does he want it? That is what Lucas approached in the prequels and people lambasted him for it. Vader had no motive past "get the plans" until Empire Strikes Back. Originally he was the same sort of pisspoor creation, a character built on an image and an archetype.
 
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Re: Let's talk about characterization

Tue Dec 13, 2016 2:54 pm

Speaking on Vader, that is what I loved about the prequels. I love any kind of prequel that gives a peek into what caused events in the other works, and I thought Anakin's transformation was exceptionally well-done. It took place over all three movies. After that, though, he was Palpatine's bitch. He didn't have any other goals than to serve the emperor. 

Most comic origins are blatant orphan stories. In the Campbellian sense, in accordance with the hero's journey, the first stage is always represented by the orphan archetype (not necessary literal), but in comic books it's usually literal. Think about some of your favorite comic heroes. 
  • Tony Stark - orphan
  • The Punisher - orphan (literal death of his entire family leaves him alone)
  • Spiderman - orphan 
  • Superman - orphan
  • Wolverine - orphan (he doesn't know his past, which leaves him alone)
The issue with archetypes is to go beyond them. I think it's fine to have an archetypal character, but you have to incorporate elements that go against the cliche and the stereotypes in other characters that share that archetype. 
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Re: Let's talk about characterization

Wed Dec 14, 2016 9:48 am

The Punisher is a stretch for the "orphan" archetype, his motive was the death of an entirely different sort of family than parents.

Archetypes are the key to creating a story that really resonates (as Lucas has so keenly shown us) but their appeal is that they connect with base parts of ourselves that we still don't understand (as reaction to Lucas' prequels have so keenly shown us).

The prequels are actually a really good example of these differences, and how sometimes (depending on what material you're working with) the audience really doesn't want complication.

A lot of authors of amateur YA fiction tried to follow this route and fail. You can't rely solely on the archetypes to make something work. Lucas didn't do something brilliant - he did something at the right time.

As an aside, I thought the prequels were really good as well. Phantom Menace is my favorite Star Wars movie out of them all.
 
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Re: Let's talk about characterization

Wed Dec 14, 2016 12:08 pm

I see what you're saying about Frank Castle. Yes, not a literal orphan of the parental sense, but for the archetype you work, they must be alone or abandoned. As I was only talking literal, for larger scope of the discussion, most times it is metaphorical. I'm also glad we're talking about Star Wars because Lucas used the hero's journey and the archetypes extensively in that.
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Re: Let's talk about characterization

Wed Dec 14, 2016 6:21 pm

In any sense, a lot of protags and antags are designed with some kind of tortured past because no one wants to see a character who has a boring, nothing-happened-at-all, unremarkable past. Unless you are doing that on purpose (Lord of the Rings). Some hero stories require an every-man in order to have an audience relate and root more for the underdog. The tortured past thing simply gives you more shit to work with so that when you get to that part of the story where you reveal it the reader doesn't think you pulled it out of your ass. The characters will have acted in accordance with the past events, so it will make sense and be compatible. 
 
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Re: Let's talk about characterization

Wed Dec 14, 2016 6:22 pm

The characters will remain consistent with their backstories. 
 
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Re: Let's talk about characterization

Fri Dec 16, 2016 1:03 pm

How closely Lucas followed Campbell's theories is why Star Wars was so successful. It was not a good movie. It just tricked our subconscious.

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