O is Opinionated Characters

Sometimes, in order to get know a character, I pose issue questions to them and figure out where they stand.

This sounds bizarre, asking questions of people who do not exist outside of my head. You would think I already know where they stand. I mean, I made them up, didn’t I? But mostly I don’t.

By issue questions, I mean controversial issues, topics on religion and politics and whatever else causes arguments. They will differ by time and place and setting. Because characters need opinions, right? Things they will do and the lines they will not cross.

And today – today I was reading a post by John Scalzi about what he calls The Four Levels of Discrimination. He makes a good argument about ambient discrimination. (You should read it.) I used to think of this as unconscious biases. But ambient discrimination is a good way to describe it, too.

Anyway, the question I have never asked my characters and now I realize would a good question to ask: what ambient discrimination affects them? Against the character or against others, it hardly matter which.

It’s a kind of world building, too – figuring out what will cause the natives to turn into rioting mobs. That’s fun also. (Causing riots!)

The challenge here, I think, is to keep the opinions from turning them into willful characters, who insist on doing something, when I want the plot to go in another direction. (I sometimes fail at this challenge.)

That sounds mad, I know, because I came up with the characters and I damn well ought to be able to tell what to do. But sometimes that does a disservice to the character.

What do you think? How do you go finding out who your character is?

27 thoughts on “O is Opinionated Characters

  1. I have entire conversations and go places with my characters, so I see nothing bizarre about asking a few questions. Some consider me a bit crazy, though.

    Wow, question on ambient discrimination sounds tough. I can imagine some characters staring blankly, which is a fair response. 🙂

  2. That is an interesting technique. I’ve had conversations with my characters about where the story needs to go and what they want to do, but I’ve never asked them questions to get to know them more. I’m going to have to do that the next time I start a new story with new characters. 🙂

  3. Honestly, I don’t usually figure out who the character is until I’m halfway through writing the story and I see how they react to the situations I throw them in :). Your way has a lot more forethought into it.

  4. I’ve interviewed characters before, and even posted a few of the conversations on my blog. Sometimes there’s even a little banter, which is fun.

  5. My characters tell me who they are. I can never tell them anything. The ambient discrimination/unconscious bias sounds interesting. I’ll have to go read that post. Thanks!

  6. My best practice has been sticking a character who lacks enough traits into scenes with characters are defined and knocking them together until new edges stick out. Enough simulated interaction shows if they’ll need a bigotry, or a verbal tick, or to be the greatest blacksmith in the history of the archipelago.

  7. Hi Sonia, thanks for the link to the Scalzi post. Very interesting! As far as characters go, sometimes I enjoy pairing a character up with someone who appears at first to be very different and then finding where they truly differ and where they don’t. Roleplaying games would be great for this too, by grouping characters together and then seeing how they react to a conversation topic. (Of course, it might be a bit awkward to have your friends playing your own story characters!)

  8. I agree, it’s good to get the basics out of the way. I like the idea of asking questions

    Another good exercise is figuring out the characters childhood and the things they are interested in and why, and when they first became into it etc (this makes me understand the characters actions more)

    When I am building a character (which I will be working on for a while or on a deeper story), I often take them along with me in my daily life and ask myself ‘What would they do in this situation I am currently facing?’. It could be as simple as burning the toast, being stuck in traffic or shopping.

  9. When I am on a writing project, I live with the questions all day and I’m sure I do somekind of questionning during my sleep.

    It’s where I rely on what I know, heard of, read about in my everyday life that imprints itself into the subconcious. By asking questions I unveil the knowledge and am able to create characters and context that fits or would do things I wouldn’t do myself.

    With great respect! A.

  10. When designing my characters, when I need to really understand them, I try to think of them in a bar. How do they walk into the bar, where do they sit, and what drink do they order? This will speak volumes about what kind of character they are.

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