(Image by an artist, who's now deleted their twitter unfortunately)
I am building a game project that includes a massive amount of characters and character writing. Writing is not one of my strong skills (as I'm sure you will see in this article) so I meet with skilled writers. I find their feedback invaluable.
These meetings have taken place on rushed streets, swigging pints in pubs, through emails and through arguments. I'm confident I have met with a range of people with different opinions, but out of it all there are a few very consistent points which seem to form the backbone of writing characters.
What follows are some notes on character writing that I have collected from these meetings. Complimented by the book Into The Woods by John Yorke (Notes supplemented by Into The Woods will be marked with [ITW]). Hopefully they can be of use of you.
Character Versus Characterization
The conflict between how we wish to be perceived and what we really feel is at the root of all character [ITW]. To see it another way:
The conflict between how we wish to be perceived (characterization, facade) and what we really feel (character) is at the root of all (drama).
Thus, for a character to be interesting and three dimensional, a character must be conflicted in some way. They will have a facade, built out of aspects that they think is beneficial (whether they are aware of it or not). But as time goes on, the facade will become detrimental instead. Until the character throws off the characterization, they will not win.
In keeping up their facade, characters will speak according to the way they want to be seen [ITW] unless their guard is down. Hence dialogue, which is important. It should, at some level, reveal intent and how they want to be seen.
Writing the Dialogue
When a character says something, and does something completely different, they are engaging, and drama comes alive. If dialogue is just explaining behavior, it is not engaging. Dialogue then, should show us character, not explain characterization. In other words, dialogue should not explain what a character is thinking, it should explain
Key to getting natural sounding dialogue is having a character you can mentally draw forth rather than having to think about each individual line. That part comes later. Countless are the writers that sit in front of a page, thinking of something for a character to say. Instead, we create the character and they speak for themselves.
For now, creating the character is first.
To create a character, you must consider it as much as possible, from as many angles as possible. Here are some questions to consider about a character. They're not exhaustive and they're not the even the best, but they are a starting point:
- In public, what are they like? Are they kind, short-tempered, rushed?
- As soon as they lock themselves in a toilet, away from the public, what are their first wandering thoughts?
- Where do they come from and where are they going? Are they from a poor place or a place of riches? A quiet place or a busy place? Do they bounce between places?
- What do they like? What don't they like? If they are on a date, and their food is ordered for them and they don't like it, how do they react?
- Can they drive? Do they like driving? How do they react to traffic?
- They find a picture of themselves from the past: depending on when the picture was taken, and with/by whom, how do they react?
And so on. The more questions about a character you consider, the deeper and more engaging they become. Eventually, the character becomes so concrete that the dialogue writes itself.
A woman, between 26 and 29. Through-out school, her social life was mediocre. With little to do, and not many people with things in common, she leaves town the instant she graduates. In a busier city, she plucks up the courage to go out for a drink. After all, there are thousands of people of in this city, the chances of meeting someone is pretty high. She enters a pub. She has to push her way in. Immediately she notices she is the least fashionable in the room. It takes her a minute to find a spot to sit, but she finally settles in. After two hours, she is approached by a man.
"How are you?" he asks.
After a beat, she replies "Allright. Thank you."
"I'm good, too" the man says.
"Oh. Of course." she says. The man clears his throat.
The man is obviously more experienced, and some what full of himself. He does not wait for her to ask him how he is, instead get its out of the way. "Oh. Of course" the girl replies, in surprise; partly because she considers this an oversight on her part, and partly because the man was slightly rude to her. She is not used to the short-handed, rushed city life that the man experiences. The man is expecting a conversation at the same pace as city-conversation. He realizes his mistake, clears his throat in embarrassment. The subtext here is that they both have much to learn about each other. Their lives run at different speeds and if they are to become good friends, they will have to learn from each other and grow.
A better example of this in action is the opening scene of the film The Social Network (2010), where the characters talk past each other. There are a myriad of videos analyzing this scene from a writing perspective, so I wont go through that here. A quick search will enlighten you easily.
So, to create dialogue, we must create character. The better the character, the easier the dialogue is to write. In some ways writing character dialogue is acting out the character. Channeling what the character might say if they were here.
Gathering Character Reference
You need stuff to create stuff from. In all creative output, the input is just as important. People are characters. You are a character. You put a character out instead of yourself, as we have discussed further up. Therefore, you must talk to people to gather material. People hold a hundred stories about themselves and others. Nearly everyone relishes telling you about themselves, so just ask. Then listen carefully.
I had a talk with an alcoholic in a pub. He was, in his hay-day, a good property developer and property salesman. We talked for a long time. One of the interesting things he said was his theory about dwindling men. This claim was thus: In the 70s and 80s, men's clubs were shut down en-masse. Because of this there was largely nowhere for men to hang around with other men (that is: without wives and women). Except for betting shops. Therefore the demand for betting shops spiked and many, many, many of them opened. Lots of men dwindled away in betting shops. I asked him if the closing of the mines in the North (and the subsequent massive unemployment) also added to the demand of betting shops. He agreed, satisfied with addition to his theory. But then he tapped his temple with his finger and said "But people like, like us, don't end up- you know, people who are switched on. We don't end up dying slowly in betting shops. Mug's game..." With a triumphant nod he drank his way through what was probably his 25th pint that week. In a dark pub in the afternoon. Conflict personified.
Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club, has hours of talks along this line. Collecting and retelling stories from real people until they take on a life of their own. Looking up any of the talks of Chuck is a must.
Along with talking to real people, you must also read stories written by authors. And private blogs released by anonymous writers. And listen to confession podcasts. And character study documentaries. And so on.
There is a documentary on a handful of influential flat earth advocates called Behind The Curve. It is it not a very deep slice of the flat earth ideology or belief, but it is great character study of these characters.
One of the characters is a woman called Patricia Steere, who runs a Youtube channel centered around discussions and daily chats on flat earth theory, the flat earth community, flat earth news, and so on. She's stand-out in the conspiracy community, and she does not look like a conspiracist at all. She wasn't always a flat-earther either: she arrived there via a path of different conspiracies. Lizard people, global control, etc. As her channel gained in popularity, and more people from the conspiracy community noticed her, conspiracies about her started to circulate.
The problem with being in the conspiracy community is that your beliefs are ridiculed constantly, therefore the big, bad world is always against you. So it is natural to feel that if someone does not believe as you believe, they are the enemy. This can even go as far as to other members who's beliefs have changed. They've been compromised.
There is a short segment in the documentary where she says something along the lines of (and this is not verbatim, but the jist is there):
People where saying things like I was a lizard, or worked for the FBI, or I was a puppet of some organisation.
Then, there is a moment where she is just on the cusp of a realization. As she is speaking you can see the gears in her head clank to a halt as she thinks: What they are saying about me is silly and not true. I have said the same things in the past about other people. It was not true and silly then. And therefore, what if flat earth is not true? Have I been wrong all this time?
Then, just as there is about to be a logical explosion somewhere deep in her brain. She brushes it off with some comment and continues to believe what she believes. Instead of dealing with that sudden break in the pattern, she simple ignores it. The conflict within this character just flashed by in a monumental, internal battle and the illogical side won.
It's a compelling five seconds.
People can be a collection of compelling five second flashes.
Are you staring at a page, wondering what a character is going to say? You have not developed the character enough for them to speak yet. You will have to think through your character and build up aspects of them to dislodge dialogue. A quick search for character building questions is a good start.
Your character is made. But they are stiff and not very engaging. They will need conflict, a facade. They need friction and difficulty.
Characters make characters of themselves.
Keep a look out for characters in real life.
NOTE: This article is a condensed compilation of a lot of notes from meetings. It is also a mirror to the original article I wrote and posted on Minds