Saturday, July 4, 2009

Starting character individuation

I was talking to a friend about how you get different characters when you're kind of drawn to a particular type, or when the readers really like that type-- say a macho hero. So I got to thinking about how we can individuate characters who start out just as a "type".

I am a firm believer in getting to know your character-- in assuming that he's real and can be revealed to you through observation, analysis, "interviewing," whatever works. You can start with one little thing you know about this character, and find out more from that. That's not to say that everyone with one trait is alike (all baseball fans are not alike), or that you aren't shaping and selecting as you go. But let's just start with a quick exercise to see how much you can individuate by making choices and figuring out what they mean.

Here are two guys, and initially they seem a lot alike to me-- both macho cops, both tough and brave. From the outside, I see a major difference.
1) Tony loves baseball.

2) Jake loves football. (They both like all sports, but when it comes to buying season tickets, you just have to order your priorities. :)

That I can see from the outside. What does that mean?

It means that Jake is willing to withstand a lot in order to get what he wants. (Let's say he's a Cleveland fan-- they play outside, right, in the north? :) Doesn't matter if the wind is coming up off Lake Erie and the rain's coming down. The Browns are playing the Steelers! He's going to be there. It also means he can love hard and hate hard (football team rivalries are much more intense). The Browns are seldom much good, so he suffers loudly and miserably. And frequently. That to him is a measure of his loyalty. He'll be a Browns fan no matter where he lives. All a guy has to do is put on that brown uniform, and he's part of Jake's team. And all he has to be is be traded, and he's the enemy. The team is all in what's pretty much the ultimate team sport-- the whole team needs to move at the same moment and with the same overall plan for success to happen.

Tony, given the choice, will be a bit of a sybarite. Baseball is a summer sport. He loves to sit out in the sun on Sunday afternoons at a beautiful stadium and watch his team. Nice if they win, but you know, if they lose, he's still had an afternoon in the sun. The season is so long, and there are so many games, any one of them (esp in the first half of the season) doesn't count much, so no use mourning them. He gets into the characters of the players, easy to do because they're so visible in their moderate uniforms and little caps. They can really show their personalities because the game is so slow. And individual effort really matters, because at any given moment, only one player has any control of the ball. And so he gets attached to one fielder who always flips the ball up after catching it to end the inning-- just a fun gesture-- and when that player is traded, Tony keeps track of him and always pauses and watches his highlights on Sports Center, and smiles when he hits a home run.

Jake is probably a pessimist. (Well, you'd have to be. Cleveland, nuff said.) He thinks that only enormous effort can win the day, and that one stupid mistake on one player's account can ruin the dogged perfection of the whole team (quarterback throws interception.... end of drive).

Tony is probably an optimist. He think style is probably most important. You're never going to succeed always. The best hitter in history made outs 60% of the time. Assume it's not all going to go well, and celebrate openly the good moments.

They're both sports fans. They both like beer. They both hang out with their friends. They both have the sorts of brains that can remember years of team statistics. But one is going to go to games with a small group of close friends, and one is going to have a dozen not so tight friends that he goes to games with. Which? (Football has only 8 home games a season; baseball has 81. So Jake can meet the same buddies for each game, but Tony's going to have to recruit a lot of pals to take that extra seat with so many games.)

I don't mean all baseball fans are alike. But I do mean that you can choose one thing you know about him, and you don't have to know any significance at all, why he's that way, what caused that, anything about his past, and you can start building an individual. Just make that one thing something that the other hero isn't. It'll send you off in a different direction. Stay open, extrapolate, ask questions. What sort of person does this or values this?

What this means is that you can truly start a story knowing only a little about your protagonist-- as long as you extrapolate from that little you know so that you can learn more about this person.


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Poor Jake...

btw, this is pretty much how I build character. Except I wouldn't make ANYONE a Browns fan. Unless he was the guy who's going to get killed off in chapter 2. *grin*

Unknown said...

I have baseball season tix, so I know what it means. Note that I had season tix back when they played in a domed stadium, and also most games are played at night, so it's not about the sun (or the $$ beer) tho it's nice. Being a baseball fan is more like being a soap opera fan. You have to watch every day to know what's happening and what's important. When will Joe break out of his slump? Fred almost pitched a no-no, can he do it tonight?
One thing I love about baseball is that on any given night, there's a chance you can see something that no one has ever done before. 21 strikeouts in a game. 5 home runs in a game. 217 hits in a season (I actually saw 216). 11 runs in the 11th inning. This is what a baseball fan lives for. An ordinary night can turn into something extraordinary. The line between good and bad in baseball is so thin that any team can win on any night. In football, the worst team last year lost every single game. How fun is that? Something happens in baseball every single night. That's what keeps us coming back.
Heck, I like it when a rookie makes his first ever at-bat. People in the stands get up and give a standing ovation to guy for his very first hit. You don't see that in any other sport. Then they take the baseball out of the game as a keepsake for the player. He may never get another shot at the bigs. These are the precious moments that keep me coming back.

Edittorrent said...

iapetus, that's it-- baseball is all about the characters. :) And it does have a lot of characters!

Unknown said...

Football's more about the plot: how well will the play-fake work against cover-2? Can the O-line hold against their blitz package? What half-time adjustments can they make?

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Mmm, I don't agree. Football's about the characters -- in its own way. You can make that claim about anything people do, in fact. Will Hines catch the pass? Will he do it with a smile? Will he run someone over first? Will Big Ben get sacked before or after he gets the ball off? Will Hamstring get the kick off, and will it be longer than 20 yards????

There are always the little dramas going on inside the big one; that's where the real interest (for me) lies.

That's why I preferred doing stage crew and all the other backstage stuff to being in the spotlight.

Edittorrent said...

Susan, let's say you REALLY wanted to torture a hero? Making him a Browns fan would work!

Riley Murphy said...

Alicia: LOL!

But then when I thought about the probability of actually torturing my hero by making him a Browns fan, I realized something. I mean, I write fiction true, but even my fiction should be believable, right? Hero as a Browns fan? NOT! But, just for fun, let's say he was one - wouldn't it be the heroine who is ultimately tortured? Never mind having to watch them play during games when the hero tunes them in on the TV (she can always close her eyes for that) or possibly having to physically go to a game with him (here a few choice items such as a large hat, a pair of Jackie O sunglasses and long scarf comes in handy as disguise so no one will see her) but when she has to actually admit to her friends that the love of her life is a Browns Backer?!!! Now, that would be torture and grounds for her girlfriends to reevaluate the heroine’s skewed judgement in things. Maybe even organize an intervention.


Naw, now that I think about it, I’m with Susan. My, ‘Browns fan loving’ character would have die by chapter two. The way I see it? A villain is a villain, but a misguided fool can only be called a Browns Backer:D. Hey, the real fun would be trying to come up with the means for this character’s timely demise.

Edittorrent said...

You guys are so mean. How about it being the ultimate test of love, loving a Browns fan?

Unknown said...

No. The ultimate test would be being involved with a Red Sox fan.
JTFC, they're insufferable.

Riley Murphy said...

Ultimate test of love? I'm into normal and healthy relationships. And loving a Browns fan? Well, that wouldn't qualify as one, I'm afraid. I mean, how can you love someone you feel sorry for? That would be my writing dilemma.

em said...

I do like this post it gives me something to think about with layering a character's character. I agree with you though Alicia they are mean and I don't even like football;).

Riley Murphy said...

Hey, Em, what do you mean you don't like football? All this time and I never knew? I think I may feel differently about you.

...but in a good way;).