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FFC #52 - People, not sticks of wood

Posted May 25th, 2020 at 02:41 PM by The Grim Reaper's Friend
TGRF's Fan Fiction Chronicles - Entry #52

tl;dr: I've decided I need to further look into the backstories for the characters of my newest story, to enable me to write about them more intelligently.

Long version:

For those of you following my signature, you might be curious why it now says I am 're-developing' my current story, when before I had begun writing it.

It's because beneath the large and obvious problems of stakes and the second act, there are a few other, less obvious issues I've had with my writing.

One of these issues has to do with characters. I've always put off dealing with it, or else used methods which only covered up the issue without really fixing it. But since I intend for the main character of this next story to be the main character for a series, I wanted to get things right the first time.

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The issue is fairly straightforward: when I write characters, I don't feel like I know them. At least not enough to where I know what they're thinking at every moment, and how they would react to any situation (which any good author should definitely know, with a character intended to carry a story).

My character development usually consists of a list of traits I've inferred from the actions the character takes throughout the story, coupled with traits based on their backstory. I then determine how they see themselves, how they see others, and how they react and interact with others. Things cap off with determining their deepest fears and dreams. All that might help clue me in to who they are during certain crucial parts in the story, but the rest of the time, one of two things tends to happen:

1) The character becomes a blank slate other characters react against. The character just listens, or just replies, or just reacts as anyone would. Or, 2) when the character must act, but how they would act isn't defined by the development I've given them, I unconsciously just have them act as I would. They start to reflect myself in their actions and dialogue.

This is obviously no way to handle characters, and for this next story, I wanted to take a stab at fixing that.

There are two main ways people are told to develop characters: the stat sheet, or 'interviews'. The stat sheet asks a ton of questions about your character, designed to bring out how they live their life and the daily choices they make, the theory being that you slowly get a better understanding of your character as you reason out why they make the choices they do. I tried this method, and didn't really get much more development than I already had.

'Interviews' are for the writers who discover as they write, and I am not one of those. The idea is that you sit down and pretend you are interviewing your character, or perhaps pretend he's on a stage and talking about whatever he pleases. This can give you insights into who the character is, but is most useful for determining the voice and impression of your character. You can re-read the interview before writing a major scene with that character to get into their head.

I've never been able to successfully do interviews, primarily because they rely on you already knowing how the character acts, thinks, and speaks, which is exactly what I do NOT know.

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This issue has been fairly consistent throughout my writing, starting with Dilmir, continuing in Ragnak and Apocalpyse (especially Apocalypse), and through Horizon and Utgar. Notable times it has NOT been present (at least not to its normal extent is in Red and A Chance. In Red, the theme just blocked out everything else (further evidence how theme can fix any writing problem), and in A Chance, I paid especial attention to the character and what she was thinking at all times.

But there's one example where I knew enough about the characters, to accurately know how they would act and react at any given time. I also knew so much about their backstories that I was actually VERY tempted to make them separate fan fictions.

Those are the side characters for Horizon in Sight (with the exception of Francois and perhaps Gideon). (Dan should be included here, because he went through the same development, but once he got to Valhalla I didn't know how he would react, since there was no previous reference for him reacting to other people.) Why did I know those characters so extensively?

I believe the answer is backstory. The development for Horizon in Sight was at a crossroads of methods: I was not yet using character arcs or the 3-act-structure, but I had at that point amassed so much information and so many methods that I was starting to narrow them down. I did not yet know what to narrow them down TO, so I simply threw literally everything at Horizon to see what worked and what was superfluous.

And one of the things I really drilled down on was backstories for the side characters. I knew what their lives were like from the moment they were born, and their predominant traits and feelings. I think knowing those backstories really gave me a sense of who they were, and the simplistic predominant traits helped me keep an idea of how they acted in my head while I wrote them.

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So that's what I'm going to try and do with this newest character. After a conversation in which I tried to explain the character's backstory, I found I was unable to explain why he was the way he is. So I definitely need to dive further into the backstory, flesh it out, and also drill down on the traits and determine which ones are predominant, and govern the majority of how he acts.

Once I do that (and probably do it for the side characters as well), I will return to writing.

I'll keep you updated on where things are. As always, keep an eye on my signature for updates.

~TGRF.
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