Most of of my characters are pure [sometimes impure] figments. Others are cobbled together from traits of ‘real people’ – living or historical – that caught my attention for whatever reason.
Usually I have a basic idea for a character and jot down specs and stats, then reverse engineer until I understand why a character behaves in a particular manner, and how they got from ‘there’ to ‘here’. And some of them really surprise me at times.
Everyone has personal definitions of ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly’, and ideals are so very subjective. As a reader I’d prefer some of that to be left to the imagination, so I tend to write the same way. But I do ‘dream-cast’ my characters in order to have stronger visuals in my head whilst I’m translating facial expressions, body language, et cetera, into words.
Like Radish, I tend to dream-cast my characters. But then I often spend an hour or two in the park, or at the shopping mall – some place where I can observe lots of people without being obvious or intrusive or arrested. Many times I can find the type of the character I’m working on. And I can watch, for a few moments at least, how that person walks, carries her/himself, reacts to everyday events. And – this part only works with minor characters – sometimes the real person I’m observing prods me to make changes in the character I’m creating.
When I start to develop a character (main character specifically) for a story, I usually begin with a vague framework. I try not to model characters after anybody or anything in particular. Instead I keep them as open as possible to my imagination thus not limiting myself as the character develops from chapter to chapter. By doing so, I usually grow to love or hate the character (as a real person) as I write. It is as if you build a relationship with the character as the story progresses. Keeping an open but basic framework helps me to remain creative yet not get too far off on an undesired tangent.
Regarding description, I like to leave this up the reader’s imagination as much as possible. However, a little guidance can nudge them in the right direction. I use description to help develop the character rather than merely provide a mental picture.
My characters are wholely created from my imagination, the few exceptions being fictionalized versions of historical figures.
I’ll put in a few descriptive touches if I feel it’s warranted, especially if I plan to use such features to distinguish various characters in the text, or if I feel that I want a particular character to be recreated in the reader’s mind in a specific way. (Stephen King’s rabbit* comes to mind here.)
It depends on the kind of book, too, since some novels are more visual than others. I like being able to ‘see’ the story like a movie in my head, so I tend to prefer more visual stories.
Most of the characters I create are purely from my imagination, but they are all shaped and influenced by my experiences - and as such they probably contain a good mixture of characteristics from people I’ve met, read about, seen in movies / tv, etc… as well as a large slice or two of me (or, perhaps the idealised / demonised versions of me).
I do try to visualise them clearly for myself, though I don’t like to go into too much detail in the stories, so as to leave them open to interpretation. At times I have “dream-cast” them, but more normally I try to think of them along the lines of how certain actors would portray them… for example, if I’m writing about a slightly dark, but quirky lead character then I might think about how, say, Johnny Depp would play it, or perhaps how Cate Blanchett would tackle the smart, empowered female villain - just to help with characteristics - plus, you never know one day someone might buy the film rights )
I think that on the written page (much more so than on the silver screen), characters are more clearly defined by their actions (and their dialogue) than by their appearances - although in some cases, just describing their appearance can impart an awful lot about a character, without them having to move a muscle. I guess it’s one of those things where there is no hard and fast rule.
Then of course there are those characters that just seem to nudge their way into your story, whether you want them or not. Pesky little so-and-so’s.
I believe David Weber does this exceptionally well in his Honor Harrington novels. Some of his “bad” guys are truly noble characters, and some of his “good” guys are despicable human beings. I’m working my way through the Honorverse for the second time.
Not so much in books as in movies. Most of the time, it’s because the actor playing the “baddie” is a much superior actor than the person playing the “good guy” (or is at least having far more fun playing the role) or because the villain’s part is better written.
I’ll have to check out the Honor Harrington and Thrawn series now! They sound interesting!
One character I found myself rooting for, rather than for the main protagonist, was Melanie Wilkes in “Gone With the Wind.” She was a well-grounded, sensible character, who had grace, intelligence and integrity, and if I had to choose between her and Scarlett for a friend, I’d pick Melanie.
Trust me - the male mind is just as inexplicable! Still, I don’t think either sex has a monopoly on inscrutability. I’m sure we can all think of times when we’ve reacted to decisions made by people of either sex with the classic phrase, “What the were you thinking?!” I’m sure that we also can all think of times when we would have liked to knock some sense into a member of our own sex for moronic behavior - the aforementioned Melanie and Scarlett being good examples for those of us with two X chromasomes.
Come to think of it, some of these instances are like little veins of gold that we can all mine for our character development.
Whoa, whoa, whoa there. I figured the “female imponderability” comment was an invitation to a gender battle, but I tried to lower the DEFCON level by making a joke and pointing out that we’re all quite imponderable. Rhetorical gender battles are unwinnable, as they are grounded in opinion, so I’m not getting in this one.
Physiologically female and of the het orthodoxy, but a tomboy my whole life with a mind that’s right down the middle betwixt the sexes regarding all mental functions – yep, I’ve been ‘tested’ – I’ve got this much to say:
I don’t understand men OR women,… everybody confuses the hell outta me.
I’ve been moving furthur and furthur away from character-based acting and into a more chereographic way of performing but here’s some useful things I learned from Stanislavskian acting about developing a character (obviously a lot of this won’t translate into writing, but hopefully some of it will):
Ask lots of questions
Where does he lead from?
Where does he protect?
What’s his tempo rhythm?
What’s his objective?
What is his most happy memory?
What’ is his most sad memory?
If I could sum him up in one gesture what would it be?
What does he like to eat?
What are his vices?
Where does he hold tension in his body?
Where does he hold tension in his soul?
Does he follow the rules when playing a game?
How does he percieve himself in relation to others?
How does he use his voice (does he speak from his head, his chest, his gut, etc - how does he inflect, how dynamic is it)
Who has most power over him?
Who does he have most power over?
In order to get a really good grasp on my characters, I’ll toss the poor, unsuspecting critters into a dire situation to learn how they’ll respond/react – these bits rarely make it into the story, but I need them, if I’m write these figments of mine with any kind of authenticity or conviction.
There’s plenty that actors can teach fiction writers, and I’m happy to learn what I can! If there are any exercises that you feel would be helpful, please do suggest them!