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08:29 am: Wright’s Writing Corner: The Logic of Character Revisited

Mephisto Prospero

“Don’t you recognize me?”

 

I love this subject. So, I thought I would discuss it again.

The logic of character is the thing that makes it so that characters come alive, the thing that makes it so that quality A and quality B overlap to make Character C who not only seems vivid and 3-Dimensional but also begins to act on his own.

What do I mean by “act on his own”? Surely, characters do not write themselves without writers!

 

 

Well, no, they do not appear on the page without a writer to type, but they do dictate their own actions as the writer writes, so that the process of writing is almost like taking dictation. The character has so much integrity—qua character—that his reactions or next actions are obvious without the author having to decide what they will be.

Not all characters come alive. Two dimensional characters never come alive. The writer has to put them on the page through painstaking care, imitating what happens when characters are alive and hoping that the lack of depth will not be obvious to the reader.

This type of organic character generation is visible more to the writer than the reader. I think readers pick up on it when a character really comes together, but I have seen it faked…where the character never really came alive for the writer, but at least some readers read in to him whatever is missing.

It is much more obvious in roleplaying where, once a character comes alive, it tends to differ dramatically from the person portraying it…to the point that the character generator (moderator or player) can be as surprised as anyone else at what they say. Some characters even make the jump from one moderator to another and stay alive and vibrant.

(Actors probably could tell us even more about this process, but there are none here at the moment.)

What is interesting is that, while I have spoken in the past about how contrasting characteristics help characters spring into 3-D, it is body gestures that really seem to bring them alive to me. The characters I really get a grip on, I tend to have a particular way to stand, or hold my head, or some other thing that goes along with the character. Often I do not even notice it unless I think about it.

And it is not just me. There is a character that I particularly like. I like him in the book he comes from. I like him when John stuck him in a roleplaying game. I like him when I portray him in games. I like him when other people portray him. Recently, I noticed that I had picked him out a couple of times the moment he came onstage, even when he was being portrayed by a less skillful moderator and was using a code name. It was his body language and tone of voice that I recognized…and the character was vibrant enough that these qualities made the jump from the original book to those acting the part.

That strikes me as a bit odd. How can it be?

How can such a thing be? How does this character have such integrity across mediums that I can recognize him at a glance, even when the person portraying him is not a particularly good actor?

Years ago, John and I were in an accident. While John was recovering at the hospital, my girlfriend got him a brightly-colored, stuffed parrot from the hospital store. We picked it because it was colored a bit like a phoenix. John named it Ixion, after a phoenix we liked.

Ixion took on a life of his own. He talked with a kind of Bronx-like bird accent (a bit like Iago the parrot from Disney, though Iago came many years later) and often talked about “Flying!” his favorite activity (usually accompanied by someone throwing him across the room.) We jokingly called him our son and used to take him everywhere, even making him wear a seat belt in the car. (To this day, we tell the kids that Ixion is their elder brother. Orville bit a bit of his nose off when he was little, but other than that, he’s still “flying!”)

The funny thing about Ixion was: not only did he maintain his personality between John and me, but nearly everyone who visited also got in on the act. Guests and friends would do the funny bird voice and make comments as Ixion. Even my mom got in on the act. The uniformity of character between speakers always amused me.
What is most amazing to me is that this phenomena exists at all. We did not have to live in a universe where, if you correctly “caught” a character, it came to life and seemed to make its own decisions. In fact, the very idea is rather bizarre..

Personally, it makes me wonder about us human beings and how our personalities are put together.

I know people who are mentally ill who adopt strange ideas or behaviors, and I cannot help but wonder if they have been taken in by the logic of character. A person playing a character in a game can get really caught up in a good 3-D character. Is this what has happened to some of these folks, only they are not quite with it and think this alternate character is them? It certainly seems that way. If they understood the phenomena—that it was something writers, roleplayers, and actors can put on and take off—would they be less taken in?

If so, what does it say about the personality we think of as “us”? Is that a character, too? If so, what would happen to us if we stopped assuming it?

Inquiring minds want to know.

The real issue, though, is that: logic of character is fun. It is delightful to watch a character come to life, in your hands or in another’s, and bring clarity and charm to the page where he presides. It makes the process of writing as much fun for the author as the process of reading is for the reader. It makes it worth the effort to keep rewriting until you find the approach that does make your characters spring to life.

Okay, that was not really about how to write, so much as a commentary on the process of writing. Sorry about that. Still… a fun topic.

One semi-related comment before I close. Two people have now claimed that Mephisto in the Prospero Daughter’s series was based on them. This amuses me because I wrote Mephisto exactly the way John portrayed him in the roleplaying game where I first encountered him. I did not change him one wit. (I did alter some of the Prosperos a bit, fitting them better into my story. The original Theo was not an old man, for instance. But not Mephisto.) I did not have to. He was so 3-Dimensional that he sprang to life without any effort on my part, so much so, apparently, that some people out there think he is them.

Not sure what to make of that.

 

 



Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon.

Comments

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From:notawinecritic
Date:November 10th, 2010 03:30 pm (UTC)

Dorothy Sayers said this, too, ...

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... in The Mind of the Maker. Characters who are properly developed take on their own lives; she uses the example of one of her popular detective-fiction characters. People occasionally told her that she should make him turn Christian, to which she replied that if he did, he wouldn't be the same person.

I'm an amateur actor, and can vouch that one begins by imitating responses based on your reading of the lines. Eventually one reacts as the character, in character, when on stage, and the lines say themselves. Psychotic actors (by which I mean "method actors") stay in character off-stage (and not as a joke). There's a short story about such an actor that I recall vividly, but can't place the author -- Robert Bloch, perhaps?
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From:arhyalon
Date:November 10th, 2010 05:15 pm (UTC)

Re: Dorothy Sayers said this, too, ...

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I think Sayer is right! Or rather, the character could not convert unless something happened in the Character's life that warrented conversion...as happens with real people. Otherwise, it would feel like a fake effort on the writer's part.

The reason I wondered if a better understanding of this would help some mentally ill people is that most of those I know who believe really far-fetched things do it based on coincidences. Once you see how the logic of character routinely causes ideas to come together that seem like wild coincidences, you stop being so impressed with coincicence as a form of knowledge.
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From:saintjoi
Date:November 10th, 2010 03:49 pm (UTC)
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Kind of a funny thing...I've participated in National Novel Writing Month for the last few years, and my parents would always laugh when I'd start ranting about characters who wouldn't do what they were told. But then my dad tried writing a novel. He called me a few days into it, and said, "I used to think you were crazy, but my main character just suddenly decided this, and now I have to change everything!" :)
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From:arhyalon
Date:November 10th, 2010 05:16 pm (UTC)
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LOL! Exactly!
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From:jordan179
Date:November 14th, 2010 08:16 pm (UTC)
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It's when your original plot outline required the character to do something that -- as you come to grasp and define the character better -- you realize that the character just wouldn't want to do. Then you need to either change the plot, or come up with a good plot reason why the character will do something he doesn't really want to do. Both are acceptable solutions, but the latter if handled poorly will look very contrived.
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From:annafirtree
Date:November 10th, 2010 05:42 pm (UTC)
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"If so, what does it say about the personality we think of as “us”? Is that a character, too? If so, what would happen to us if we stopped assuming it?"

God makes each of us with our own unique glory, our own particular way of being and our own particular calling. We often try to add to this, though; especially when we start thinking that who-God-made-us-to-be is too good to be true. We fear we are insufficient, so we try to make ourselves more interesting, or more something. We look for things to define ourselves, to make us stand out from others. Some of the things we try to attach to our identity may be fairly neutral; but often we decide that our sinful tendencies are essential to who we are, a part of our personality without which we would not be ourselves. This is life-killing. Only in letting go of what we think we need and learning to hear God tell us who we truly are, will we find peace and freedom, joy and life.
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From:arhyalon
Date:November 10th, 2010 07:34 pm (UTC)
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What a lovely thought!
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From:marycatelli
Date:November 10th, 2010 11:58 pm (UTC)
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Hmm. I'm gonna quibble about words here. . .

You don't need a three-dimensional character to come to life, at least according to most usages of the term I've seen. A three-dimensional character is complexly characterized. A two-dimensional character who has only a trait or two can come to vivid life as long as it's strikingly characterized. Indeed, they can be even more insistent on their characterization. An insatiably curious character will always insist on being curious. An insatiably curious character who also is ashamed of it because he pries where not wanted could go either way.

Which is why, when I've found a character being background and decided to enliven him, assigning him a character trait often has him off and running and insisting on appearing again.
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From:arhyalon
Date:November 11th, 2010 03:50 am (UTC)
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Ah! What an interesting point. I think you are right. There are really wonderful 2-D characters. They do seem to lack something if complared to 3-D characters...but sometimes a great 2-D character is what you want in your entertainment.
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From:boc_imaginos
Date:November 11th, 2010 03:46 am (UTC)
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I'm just coming home from choir rehearsal, and parts of this are resonating with one of the things our director constantly emphasizes. A song isn't just words and notes. There's a message, and emotion. We have to feel the emotion when we're singing, or the audience won't believe us. If I sing "take up the quarrel with the foe" in the same tone that I'd say "it was rather warm today", nobody's going to want to take up that quarrel. If I don't know in my heart that "every child brings one more redeemer to this world", nobody's going to get a warm feeling about children.

On the subject of characters taking on lives of their own, it's really interesting when it's an RPG character. It's more likely to happen for me in text-based games (pretty much a given, really), but there are moments in face-to-face games when it's clear to me that the character is the one doing the talking, not me.

Regarding the masks we wear every day, I'm not sure how much of it is being a gamer and how much is being somewhat overly introspective, but I'm generally very aware of how my behavior changes in different social settings. (Note that being aware of and doing something about it are two different things.) [Disclaimer: not a social scientist.] This generally isn't a bad thing. You usually don't want to act in church the same way you would at an office meeting or at a dinner with friends (or at dinner with a different group of friends) or at an art gallery or at a rock concert. At least, not if you want to fit in within each environment.

Are you not being your real self if you modify your behavior to fit a specific setting? For that matter, what does "your real self" even mean? How would I know what is the Real Me and what is the Character of Me? Given that we've already established that these "3D Characters" (and I sure hope I don't act like a cardboard cutout) are capable of independent thought, how do I even know if it's Real Me or Character Me who's thinking these thoughts?
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I don't know if there's a point to any of that. But it's how I (for certain values of I) responded to your post. :)
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From:arhyalon
Date:November 11th, 2010 01:26 pm (UTC)
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>Note that being aware of and doing something about it are two different things.

I hear ya, Man! I hear ya!

For what my humble opinion is worth, I think if you change your behavior when you are in a different setting, not out of a desire to deceive, but because a different aspect of your personality comes to the fore, that is still part of you. Church is a good example. We're not really 'someone else' if we show respect in church.

And yet, I do think that the phenomenon of changing behavior in different settings is tied to the logic of character in some fashion. (A 3-D character can do this and the reader knows it's still him. A 2-D character always acts the same way.)

Interestingly, in dealing with my autistic children, I note that the concept of acting differently in different settings is often really hard for them.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:November 11th, 2010 12:21 pm (UTC)

characters

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Love the story about Ixion. How fun. We have a white boxer named Lily, and we sometimes talk for her. We have a stupid accent we use and have created this entire personality for this dog that accentuates how she behaves. It's amazing how much fun we have with it, and it even can really break the ice and be a buffer when "Lily" says something. For instance if someone is in a bad mood.

Characters are so much fun, creating them, breathing life into them, but it's not easy to make them 3D.

I can't believe you have two people who think your story is based on them. That's just bizarre. I guess that's a compliment. Go figure!
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From:arhyalon
Date:November 11th, 2010 01:29 pm (UTC)

Re: characters

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What is funny is that they are both people who should know better. One of them played in the game John ran where Mephisto was a character.
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From:arhyalon
Date:November 11th, 2010 11:24 pm (UTC)

Re: community roles

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If I understand you correctly, I agree.
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From:kokorognosis
Date:November 13th, 2010 03:40 pm (UTC)
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Role playing games-- MUDs, in particular-- taught me a lot about characters. To sit there and watch this character that you are ostensibly playing consistently doing things you'd never do-- I played a womanizing assassin at one point-- is remarkably instructive.

Other times, I played a man who was pretty much just me in a fantasy setting initially, albeit with better combat skills-- but as he had to face events I will likely never have to, he grew and changed into someone else.

These days, because I spent my teenaged years MUDing, I am less freaked out when characters do their own things, and more easily able to recognize when things are starting to suck because I'm trying to force them to do what I want instead of what they would do.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:November 15th, 2010 08:02 pm (UTC)

Developing Characters

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I agree entirely. And then there are the characters who stand up, take off on their own and leave the author scratching her head going, "wait a minute, who told you you could take over?" A minor character in one story suddenly becomes as fascinating and frustrating as the protagonist and "poof" the story arc takes a turn I'd never intended.
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From:arhyalon
Date:November 15th, 2010 10:35 pm (UTC)

Re: Developing Characters

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Exactly!

John speaks of the day I sent him an email that said: "Help! The cat took over the scene!" (referring to a scene from Prospero Lost with Tybalt the Cat.)
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