Friday, July 5, 2013

Characters and Development

What follows is a hefty but BRILLIANT guide for creating the characters that will populate your story. This text is pulled from the second chapter of The Writer's Partner: 1001 Breakthrough Ideas to Stimulate Your Imagination by Martin Roth. I recommend downloading the PDF at the bottom of the post for further study and use.

Characters and Development 

LET'S TALK PEOPLE
  People!
  That's the name of the game.
  No matter how clever, exciting, funny or dramatic your plot may be, the characters that people it are not only indispensable elements of your story, but they are also the most important element in any story.
  They are crucial to the theme and the plot.
  People care about people, not just about things or happenings. The more interesting and fascinating the characters you draw, the better your story will become and the more the reader or viewer will care about what happens to them.
  A good writer will let his characters tell him where they will go, how they will behave, and what they will do to accomplish their aims and goals.
  A character with a college education will think and behave differently than a high school dropout. Someone who has always known wealth will think and behave differently than someone who has always been poor. A character who has grown up in a happy household will think and behave differently than someone who was abused as a child.
  The protagonist in a story should always be someone the reader or viewer likes and cares about. This is not to say that your protagonist must start off as a goody two-shoes. But the spark must be there to make the reader/viewer want to see change occur in that character along the way.
  No matter how harsh or seemingly uncaring your protagonist may appear at the beginning, there must be some redeeming feature that you will ignite at some point. Usually that point is the protagonist's "moment of truth," when he or she decides what the right thing to do is and then does it.
  In many stories, there is a second protagonist, usually the first protagonist's love interest or a character with another relationship to the primary protagonist.
  This character, like other major characters, should be fully drawn for change and growth to take place. At some point in the story, something important happens to further the relationship with the protagonist or conclude, it for better or for worse.
  The protagonist in your story is, naturally, the hero of your piece.
  That does not mean he or she is Superman or Superwoman. The protagonist(s) should have weaknesses and most important, an Achilles' heel. The protagonist must be vulnerable. He or she must be able to lose, be hurt, or even die, depending on the story.

GETTING THE PROTAGONIST UP AND DOWN THE TREE
  The three basic elements of storytelling are to get your protagonist up a tree, throw rocks at him or her, and then get your protagonist safely down the tree.
  In other words, get your protagonist into some kind of problem either directly or indirectly (see pages 59-61 on deliberate and nondeliberate involvement), putting him or her in conflict with an antagonist. Place obstacles in the way of the protagonist as he or she attempts to resolve the problem, and then get your protagonist to resolve the problem, achieving his or her original goal.
  Protagonists must have a purpose or goal to attain, whether they set out to accomplish it or it is thrust upon them.
  Examples of purposes might be to live, to love, to be happy, to prosper, to recover, to discover, to reach a goal, for the protagonist or another.
  In developing your protagonist, bear in mind your protagonist's purpose. Who that protagonist will be dictates how that protagonist will accept the challenge, deal with obstacles, and how he or she will manage to overcome those obstacles to reach a satisfactory conclusion. For example, a character with a college education or someone with some specific skill or knowledge would function differently than a character not possessing that education, skill, or knowledge.
  Suppose the protagonist is someone who loved the great outdoors and had camped, hunted, hiked, etc. Wouldn't that individual have a better chance of surviving in the wilderness than a character born and bred in the city, and whose closest encounter with a tree was in a local park?
  Now reverse the situation.
  Wouldn't an urban, street-wise individual survive the city jungle better than a character who was pretty much a country bumpkin?

WHO'S THROWING THE ROCKS?
  Now let's talk about the antagonist in your story.
  In order to create conflict (which every story must have), there must be someone or something working against your protagonist, and that antagonist should always be a worthy adversary.
  The competition and conflict should not be easy to overcome for the protagonist.
  Another thing... although we often refer to our protagonist as the one in the "white hat," and the antagonist as the one in the "black hat," the more human the antagonist is, the more real that antagonist becomes.
  But . . .

NOT ALL PROTAGONISTS AND ANTAGONISTS ARE HUMAN!
  Although most writers think of protagonists and antagonists as humans, protagonists in recent stories included Flipper, Lassie, Gentle Ben, Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion, Judy the Chimp, Rin Tin Tin, and most recently, The Lion King.
  Although many times the elements are considered obstacles in the path of the protagonist, there are stories where such obstacles are the antagonists.
  Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea is an example. The old fisherman's duel was with the sea and not with a human being.
  In Hitchcock's The Birds, the antagonist was the birds, as was the shark in Jaws and the bees In The Swarm.
  Still another consideration is the will to overcome a handicap which again is not the typical human antagonist. Although a handicap could be considered an obstacle, it might be the antagonist of the piece. Some of the following nonhumans or elements might be considered as protagonists or antagonists:

A curse
A domestic pet
Acid rain
Air pollution
Aliens from outer space
An intellectual handicap
Birds
Blazing light
Contagious disease
Darkness
Drought
Dust storm
Earthquake
Famine
Farm animal
Fears and phobias
Fire
Flood
Hurricane
Insect
Killing coldwave
Killing heatwave
Monster
Physical handicap
Race or ethnicity
Radioactivity
Reptile
Robot
Rodent
Sand storm
Sea creature
Spirit from another world
Storm
The sea
Tidal wave
Tornado
Typhoon
Volcanic eruption
Wild animal
Wild but caring animal
  Excluding the elements, of course, you should develop a character bio for nonhuman protagonists and antagonists to have better insight into their behavior and motivation.

DOES THE SITUATION DECIDE THE CHARACTERS OR DO THE CHARACTERS INITIATE THE SITUATION? WHICH COMES FIRST, THE CHICKEN OR THE EGG?
  That depends on you.
  Sometimes the writer comes up with a great, fully-developed character and then goes searching for a situation or a plot in which to place that character.
  Then again, and more often than not, the writer comes up with a situation and then seeks to "people" it. The type of character you choose to put into that situation will determine how the plot must be structured and how that character will handle the situation.
  For example, if your protagonist is a police officer assigned to a murder case, that character will face the problem as a police officer, though he or she may take certain liberties that real-life police officers would not take.
  However, if the protagonist you choose to involve in the murder case happens to be a used-car salesman with no investigative experience, naturally the approach that character will take will be worlds apart from the way the law enforcement protagonist would take.
  The choice is yours as to what you start with, the plot or the character.
  Whichever the case, the character you eventually choose must be fully developed. The following list can aid you in developing the characters in your story.
Where was the character born and raised?
Who were the parents?
What was the character's childhood like?
What members of a family does the character have?
What education did the character have?
What kind of student was the character?
What special skills or knowledge does the character possess?
What hobbies did or does the character have?
What are the bad habits of the character?
What are some of the traits of the character-emotional, mental, and physical?
With what kind of job or profession is the character occupied, past and present?
And finally, what are some of the character's past and present relationships?

  If you use the next lists, your characters can easily become people that you and the reader or viewer can come to know and understand.
  Armed with the knowledge of who a character is, let the character help you decide the course he or she will take in your story and what changes in that character will be brought about as the plot develops.
  For example, let us say our protagonist is a young man by the name of Joe Smith.
  Who is Joe Smith?
  Select one or more items from the list titled PLACE OF ORIGIN. For example, Joe was born in a factory town in the northern U.S. From PARENTS, select one or more items. For example, his parents were poor, working, religious, strict, but loving parents.
  From CHILDHOOD, select one or more items. Joe was an only child but came from a close, very happy family.
  From FAMILY MEMBERS, select one or more items. Joe's family consisted of his mother, father, paternal grandfather, and his uncle.
  From EDUCATION, select one or more items. Joe attended public elementary school, public high school, a state college. He also served in the army and received MILITARY TRAINING.
  From EDUCATION BEHAVIOR, select one or more items. Joe was a classroom cut-up but also a good student.
  From SPECIAL SKILLS select one or more items. Over the years, Joe has taken up sky diving, become a sports enthusiast, become a good hunter, learned how to fly in the service, has handled weapons (service), become expert in survival (service), is mechanically inclined, is a good pool player. . .
  From HOBBIES, select one or more items. Joe began collecting baseball cards when he was a kid and still collects them. He's into camping, fishing, sports, and weekly card playing with some close friends.
  From BAD HABITS, select one or more items. Joe doesn't have many bad habits, but he is impatient or short tempered, and he is not the neatest person in his housekeeping.
  From GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS, select one 'or more items. Joe is honest, a romanticist, humorous, a sometimes drinker, happy-go-lucky, nonsmoker, at times impractical, a sensitive man, often curious, and usually optimistic. He's a loyal friend, is danger-loving, can be charming his own way, is not a quitter.
  From MENTAL AND PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS, select one or more items. He is mature, tall and gangly, wears contact lenses in preference eyeglasses, has prematurely graying hair, suffers from a fear of heights, is his own man, strong-willed and downright stubborn at times.
  From PROFESSIONS and JOBS, select one or more items. He worked way through school as a short-order cook and as a part-time security guard. He played pro football but was injured early in his career. He then worked as a salesman but decided to get into law enforcement.
  From RELATIONSHIPS and MARITAL STATUS, select one or more items. Joe is divorced after one marriage. He has one small child he sees often as .he can. He has a number of friends through professional and social contacts. He has no steady girlfriend at present.
  From CURRENT LIFESTYLE, select one or more items. Joe is a bachelor and enjoys doing his own thing, shies away from commitment to another marriage, dates attractive single women, lives a fairly low-key lifestyle.
  From HOME, or DWELLING and VEHICLES, select one or more items. Joe lives in a small, inexpensive, one bedroom rented apartment in a middle class section of the city. He drives an expensive sports car, the one luxury he affords himself.
  We have now developed the skeletal outline of Joe Smith and put some meat on the bones.
  The creativity of the writer should now come into play to further embellish the character of Joe Smith by additional suggestions from the lists or any other ideas the writer can come up with.
  A quick suggestion: to get a good physical description of a character, you might refer to photographs of friends or from magazines.

CHARACTER BACKGROUND
Place of Origin
At sea
Big city
Desert
Eastern U.S
Factory town
Farm
Foreign country
Foster home
Great Plains
Island
Lower-class neighborhood
Middle-class neighborhood
Midwest
Military post
Mountains
Northern U.S.
On the road (migrant)
Orphanage
Prison
Ranch
Reservation
Resort
River or lake front
Seacoast
Slums
Small town
Southern U.S.
Swamps
Wealthy neighborhood
Western U.S

Parents
Abusive
Bigoted
Conservative
Deceased
Divorced
Easy-going
Educated
Famous
Foreign-born
Handicapped
Liberal
Loving
Middle class
Neurotic
One-parent household
Poor
Professional
Religious
Retired
Rich
Separated
Sick
Strict
Talented
U.S.-born
Uneducated
Unknown
Unskilled

Childhood
Abused
Broken home
Close family
Juvenile delinquent
Large family
Loner
Normal
Only child
Raised by relative
Religious upbringing
Sickly
Spoiled
Two sets of parents
Unhappy
Very happy
Withdrawn

Family Members
Aunt
Brother
Brother-in-law
Cousin
Daughter
Daughter-in-law
Father
Father-in-law
Former husband
Former wife
Foster parent
Godparents
Husband
Maternal grandfather
Maternal grandmother
Mother
Mother-in-law
Nephew
Niece
Paternal grandfather
Paternal grandmother
Paternal son, daughter
Sister
Sister-in-law
Son
Son-in-law
Stepbrother
Stepfather
Stepmother
Stepsister
Uncle
Wife

Education
Art school
Boarding school
Business college
Dance school
Educated at home
Junior college
Language school
Law school
Medical school
Military school
Military training
No schooling
Parochial or religious school
Post graduate
Prep school
Preschool
Private elementary
Public high school
Reform school
School dropout
School for the handicapped
Self-educated
Special school
Trade school
University
War college

Roth, Martin. The Writer's Partner: 1001 Breakthrough Ideas to Stimulate Your Imagination. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 2001.

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