Friday, October 24, 2008

Personality Accounting

Unpredictable. Tough. Inventive. Solitary. Determined. Thoughtful. Defiant. Funny. Tempered. Unstoppable.

These are ten words that define the aspects of a person's character -- what's in what I think of as their personality account. Like money in the bank, these aspects can't be seen from the outside, but they're the stuff that directly shapes an individual's personality, reasoning and lifestyle. They're easy to list, but a lot harder to illustrate. They're not obvious like hair color or body build. The character doesn't walk up to the reader and say, "Hi, I'm John Smith. I'm unpredictable, tough, inventive, solitary, determined and a couple other things, and I'd like you to remember that."

When you put together a character, you have to do more than deposit unpredictable in their personality account. You need to incorporate that factor in what they do. You can tell the reader that your hero is unpredictable all the live long day, but if in the story the reader knows exactly what the guy will do five pages before he does, he's not living off the personality account you've banked for him. When confronted with a choice, the unpredictable character doesn't take the well-travelled or less-travelled path. He walks off the path, builds a new path, or blows up all the paths.

Antagonists need the same sort of account, too, but often they're cast in direction opposition of the protag and even more prone to be walked up to the reader for a recitation, i.e. "Hi, I'm Jane Smith. I'm predictable, weak, unimaginative, social, ambivalent, thoughtless, obedient, dull, untried and subservient." I think it's more interesting to have an antagonist who has just as many admirable qualities as the protag in the bank, because that makes them just as real. My favorite books often have protags and antags who, if not for whatever is keeping them at odds, might have been good friends.

Today's assignment: in comments, list ten words that belong in your character's personality account.

18 comments:

  1. Renee9:11 AM

    Hey there,
    I read your blog off and on and always like to see the writing bits. This particular post hits on why I can never see to get past the setup in my writing.

    But I am unclear, were the ten things you listed, what you always vary to create a character or what you would use for one particular character? Do we then pick ten things to define character for one story or pick ten things we think she be illustrated for most or all our characters and then write variations of those ten things.

    Sorry this is so confusing. I couldn't think how to ask this.

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  2. Renee9:23 AM

    And I will add one more question:

    How do you stick to one plot idea or setting etc and not start adding extra puppies, kids, a trip to volcanoes in Hawaii and a very special meeting with Barack Obama? It can still advance the story but I can add stuff for days and never get the story done. I just want to settle on one thing.

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  3. Here's my antagonist: ambitious, diplomatic, smart, patient, discreet, insightful, organized, powerful, charming, and a leader.

    Hey, you're right, the protagonist and antagonist would be friends if it weren't for that pesky plot. Actually, the protagonist looks up to the antagonist sort of like a mentor at first. (At first.)

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  4. I've been playing with this idea (different names for it) for a while for my first mainstream novel to be written when I feel ready (which is not right now).

    Protagonist: Intelligent, Controlling, Proactive, Avoidant, Impatient, Observant, Introverted, Has/admires Integrity, Just, Proud.

    There is a story antagonist, but that is not the same as the story's villain. Two different plot-lines that converge.

    Villain: Lonely. Dramatic. Charismatic. Manipulating/Scheming. Familial. Vigilante. Dreamer. Leader. Compassionate. Poor self-image/self-deprecating.

    (Fagan is part of the inspiration for this character.)

    The neat thing is while I've been developing these characters/traits for a while, most of that description stems from actions I know happen in the plot, not the other way around, saying the characters are like that and then figuring out how to show it. I think it's good they're contradictory (or seeming so) because they're more real, certainly, that way.

    I'm excited to write the story but I want to do it justice and it's just not there yet... and neither am I. I hate when life interferes with my art. :D

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  5. Damaged, honorable, tough, determined, skilled, intelligent, isolated, helpful, courageous, sad

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  6. Protagonist: independent, borderline rude, proud, fierce, brutally honest, intelligent, mechanically inclined, introverted, strong, secretly sensitive.

    Antagonist: cunning, secretive, loyal only to self, strong, seductive, deceitful, terrified, ruthlessly intelligent, conflicted, arrogant.

    Strangely, these are both female characters. And that's the antagonist for the first book of the trilogy, only -- like a direct antagonist, while the main villain pulling all the strings is still behind the scenes until the third book. And he is:

    Antagonist: self-centered, power hungry, powerful, spoiled, beautiful, plotting, unstoppable, murderous, heartless, incredibly arrogant.

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  7. Renee wrote: But I am unclear, were the ten things you listed, what you always vary to create a character or what you would use for one particular character?

    These were just ten random personality aspects. I didn't have any particular character in mind, although I'd say they are more suitable for the protagonist or a very strong secondary character.

    Do we then pick ten things to define character for one story or pick ten things we think she be illustrated for most or all our characters and then write variations of those ten things.

    I think it's a style choice (some writers have no problem writing the same character over and over) but I believe each character should be individual, not archetypal, so I would make a new personality account for every character you create.

    Also, you don't have to use ten traits for each character, either; you can put together as few or as many as you like. I'm just fond of the number 10. :)

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  8. Renee wrote: How do you stick to one plot idea or setting etc and not start adding extra puppies, kids, a trip to volcanoes in Hawaii and a very special meeting with Barack Obama? It can still advance the story but I can add stuff for days and never get the story done. I just want to settle on one thing.

    It helps to outline the plot or the main events of your story first, then review whatever section of that plan is applicable to what you're writing that day before you begin working. Also, try keeping a note pad on your desk. If you feel extras start popping into your head while you're writing and they won't go away, jot them down on the notepad then go back to working on what you have planned. After you're finished writing to plan for the day, review what's on your notepad and see if anything is worth adding to the story. Then during your editing phase, add in the extras.

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  9. Anonymous4:37 PM

    My antagonist: charming, artistic, addicted, scared, driven, talented, needy, conflicted, detail-oriented, pansexual

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  10. So far I rarely have a singular antagonist, more situations pitting the protagonist against the world.

    My main protagonist: determined, secretive, curious, smart, angry, protective, loyal, prudent, quick, observant.

    My ortho-protagonist: imaginative, hopeful, oblivious, patient, cooperative, immature, persistent, empathic, curious, nature-loving.

    Rather than being friends under other circumstances, these two would ignore each other if circumstances didn't require cooperation, and don't necessarily understand each other very well.

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  11. headstrong. fighter. angry. confident. generous. determined. inventive. stubborn. quick witted.
    intimidating.

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  12. This post came just when I needed it. :) Nano!

    Protagonist: Loner, Stubborn, Lonely, Adaptable, Humorous, Thoughtful, Shy, Ritualistic, Strong (though she wouldn't think so), Loyal

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  13. Heroine: strong, dominant, passionate, confused, hopeful, scared, anxious, cheated, loving, loved

    Hero: sarcastic, helpful, funny, fun, dominant, alpha, self-depricating, friend, fierce, sexy

    Villain: conflicted, tense, twisted, delusions of grandeur (yes, it's three words, but it fits), hopeless, helpless, lost, pissed,



    I suck at this, but it's the basic thoughts that matter. LOL!

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  14. Phew. For a moment there I thought you were enquiring into OUR characters!

    Hmm, Marcellus. Okay. Impulsive, passionate, reckless, brave, impatient, loyal, driven, secretive, pragmatic, grave.

    The antagonist probably does have good qualities, but he uses a weaselly guy to do his dirty work!

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  15. This is fun! Here is what I have:

    Protagonist: Smart, sly, witty, manipulative, stubborn, lonely, tough, brave, passionate, loner

    Antagonist: Strong, fierce, determined, angry, powerful, ruthless, cunning, hopeful, honorable, sad

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  16. Thank you!

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  17. I always found it interesting how people can determine what traits their characters are going to have before they start writing. I have always found my characters traits through writing and then defined them through story. I am trying to evolve though into planning ahead more.

    Antagonist: confident, preachy, self destructive, enigmatic, determined, conflicted, sarcastic, intelligent, curious, over indulgent.

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  18. I had actually started doing this for my book, subconciously really.

    So:

    Protagonist 1: shy, respectful, nervous, determined, hard working, "strong sense of what is right", bookworm, not physical, tender-hearted, an avenger

    Protagonist 2: artistic, dreamy, gentle, caring, knowledgeable, witty, friendly, happy-go-lucky, can talk his way out of anything, sensitive

    Protagonist 3: cheerful, outgoing, laid back, physical, enjoys testing his strength, defender, has to work to get good grades, learns by example, stubborn

    Antagonist: manic, needy, lacks purpose (except the key one), driven, insecure, low self-esteem, grief stricken, crazed, not uncaring (objects to hurting "children")

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