Sunday, May 3, 2009

Inductive v. deductive characterization

I was just brainstorming a story with a friend, and learned something about myself! (I know, I was supposed to be learning something about the story, but heck, self-knowledge arrives in mysterious ways.)

See, we'd worked out the very basics of the situation and the main characters, and then my friend began speculating about the past of the protagonist, what conflict was plaguing him-- fear of abandonment? Loss of faith?

I was surprised to feel something akin to panic. No, no, I cried. Let's not decide on what his secret is, what his conflict is!

Instead, I wanted just to start writing without knowing much. And then we could look at what the characters were doing and saying and what they WEREN'T doing and saying, and from that, we could figure out what caused what. For example, if it developed that he always diverted questions with a joke, we could then think about what he was hiding. That is, I realized that what I like to DO (rather than what I teach :) is to let my subconscious create the character, and then my conscious can see the actions and reactions and "discover" the secrets and conflicts and internal motivations and all that.

Now this isn't the RIGHT way. There is no right way. What is right depends on the writer. But I'm thinking that maybe it's the way that's the most fun for me. I think it replicates the experience of reading, actually, to observe the character and notice the oddities and use those as a clue to the inner life. Of course, I think what's really going on is that my subconscious has created a character with an inner life already-- there's no conscious invention going on, but that sounds sort of crazy. But maybe not. Just the subconscious can create a dream and finish it in less than a minute, perhaps it can in a burst of inspiration create a whole character. (Or, well, maybe the character exists already... nah. Too weird.)

Contemplating these two different approaches to characterization, I realized they connect with two modes of reasoning. My idea of watching the character and using the "what" (she has panic attacks, she has a Boston accent) to find the "why" (her elderly parents spent their retirement funds to send her to Harvard, and she's never gotten over the stress and fear of failure)-- that's like inductive reasoning-- looking at the particulars and from there deriving a more general principle.

But others start with some sort of premise, idea, or conflict-- say, "I want to write a modern Iphigenia story to explore what it's like being a young woman sacrificed for the general good." What sort of woman would face that conflict? What would her family be like? If her father would sacrifice her, how would she feel about him?

That's more like deductive reasoning-- starting with an idea and from that deriving the way the a character would behave.

No great insight here, but I realize that the inductive is really what works for me, what makes writing fun for me. That process of discovery is what I enjoy. And yet, my analytical side is forever driving me to plot everything out, to invent rather than discover the characters, to control events rather than letting them develop. Neither way is right or wrong, but I think the inductive is right for me.

But that doesn't mean I won't get a chance to analyze, to speculate, to invent... it just isn't at the beginning. In fact, I'm going to try to write until I get stuck-- discover the characters through what I write, and then, when I can't figure out any more, or write any more, I can start analyzing.

So... how do you think you create best? Do you start with the outside-- the behavior, etc-- and move in to the psychology or theme? Or do you start with a more general idea and create the character? Or something else?



Julie Harrington said...

Ooh this is such a fun question. My answer is: it depends. Sometimes I have a story idea and no idea about character elements until I really start digging in to it. But more often? I'm a planner. I look at the story on the outside and the characters I've chosen and sit there and turn the pieces as to why this person is this way, how they ended up in *this* story, why they have their fears and their goals and when all the pieces click into place? GOLD! That's not to say I don't discover things along the way as I'm writing. I totally do. And often I'll realize that I've subconsciously understood something in the character that I made no rational decision about going into the story.


Anonymous said...

Doing what you describe makes the characters seem like real people rather than constructs we've invented. Since invented or not they have a tendency to start doing things while we watch that we can't control, it's a lot less disturbing to treat them as if they were real when they come alive like that rather than admit we are actively hallucinating.

Even though, as the author, I get to change the story in any way I want, I'm still not convinced that somewhere, somehow, the characters aren't real. Especially since when I do finally figure something tricky out about their story things snap into place in a way that doesn't make me feel at all as if I were in control--only that I've gotten at the truth of the character.

I have had the experience of getting very deep in a creative state watching a scene and listening to the characters and becoming frightened by how real it seemed. Maybe people who are better grounded than I am are more comfortable with this. But at times I've worried about getting in so deep I could not come back. Learning that I am at the controls is an ongoing process for me.

MitMoi said...

I think I'm at your end of deductive. Although I don't necessarily think it's because it's more fun for me.

I don't know what my characters fallacies are when I first start working with them. But sooner of later they'll show up. Because I am an imperfect human I create imperfect characters.

I don't understand the motivation of my characters - but when I ask them open ended questions about their behavior I get solid and consistent answers.

I worried about this for a long time, but have decided that's counter productive. My job is just to make sure they remain true to themselves and don't wander off into inconsistent-land.

People who write deductively amaze me. (because I can't)

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Mitchell and Kerri were purely deductive. I think. I started with the idea of "what if these two creative people are each other's muses?" and went from there.

Trevor, however, was totally inductive. He sprang to life as he was, and shared his secrets with me as he went.

Maybe this is why I consider Mitchell and Kerri open books. I know their secrets; they can't hide anything from me.

But Trevor? He continues to surprise. Not just me but his fans, too.

em said...

I start with general ideas and as these get flushed out all kinds of surprising things come up.:)

Jeanne Ryan said...

All my writing starts with an image. If I can't figure out that image for the beginning of each chapter, I can't start the chapter. That's why I've had so much trouble figuring out where to start the book. No image has struck me that far back.

Typically, I'm an inductive writer. I'm even taking a workshop this Friday applying Jungian theory to writing.

Something happened Friday. As I was walking up the stairs, an easy way to describe what sets my book apart from the million and one vampire books came to me. It was high concept and I fell in love with it. Now I am rewriting the book with this idea in mind. I already have the characters, so now I am figuring out the best plot to fit the high concept. What was once The Fallen or Fallen Hope is now The Mark of Abel.

My unconscious has to get the generalities down and then my perfectionist side takes over and things are done much more consciously.

Anonymous said...

I use a combination.

My starting set of characters come in both flavors - ones I've planned out completely (and who I then notice things about), and ones who show up and act peculiar (who I then sit down and plot out bits and pieces of relavant back story for the overall plot).

Secondary characters who I don't know about initially either show up on their own or my story creates a character-shaped hole that I need to create someone to fit.

I really enjoy both methods....

Edittorrent said...

I wonder if it's the book, not the writer, that starts out one or the other?

Robin Lemke said...

I love the *idea* of planning out characters. It seems so fun, so smart. But when it comes to *my* characters, I start to quiver a little bit. No! That's not them!!

So, I think I'm the same way you are - I need to discover things about them. Which sounds kind of esoteric and mysterious but it's true in this case. ;)

Liane Gentry Skye said...

Usually the "who" of character comes first for me, but it's not an active process. I don't sit down and decide backstory, history, character arc, etc.

The POV of the piece comes to me first, and with that comes the voice of my POV character, all the way down to regionalisms inherent in their "voice". From that, the character's story emerges in bits, fits, and starts.

So far, it works. Or, could just be that I need stronger meds. ;)

Lisette Kristensen said...

This is a good one. I think I use both to a degree. I plan the story using screenwriting methodology, but the characters come to life as the story goes deeper. So conflict changes or expands, and then I just let it take its natural course.

That said, it still has to fit the framework of the story, and make sense.