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My Thoughts on Characters

I've been meaning to do one of these journals for a while and gather my thoughts together in a more coherent form.  No news (though I got a little bit of good news for later), just an organization of my thoughts. Maybe you'll find it interesting, maybe boring, maybe stupid, or just meh. You might even become offended and/or confused...somehow. I've had so many thoughts going on in my head on a variety of story/character-related subjects that it's about time I finally jot them down in one form or another. I need to get these thoughts out of my head an organized so here I go. For this week, I'm going to focus primarily on Characters and Character Development.

Characters are wonderful things, I bet most people have come up with at least one at some point in there lives. Maybe it was more of someone that reflected who they desired to be, their opposite, someone unique and interesting, or a close friend they had a lot in common like an imaginary friend. I've had a bunch of different characters throughout my life and that number just keeps growing as I get older. I've lost track of how many characters I've come up with but that number is well over a hundred. Whether you have one or a hundred, they can be fun to create and even more fun to expand on, from back stories to likes and dislikes to even pairing them up romantically.

After I spent some time on the internet, I became aware that there was a special classification of characters, a term called a "Mary Sue" (or Gary Stu sometimes). A Mary Sue is a term for a character that is simply unrealistically perfect in everyday, can do no wrong and rarely fails or has difficulty with anything. It really doesn't matter how your own personal characters are as long as you like them in the end but when you start going public with them, especially in stories, comics, and even artwork in general. As a kid, I created a fair handful of them though there was one I always favored more, put above the rest (kudos if you know who). I thought they were really cool and badass because of how powerful they were and had a lot of stories in my mind about them, some of them stories I worked with Professor Awesome with.

An example of a Mary Sue is say...a 24,000 year old werewolf with super strength, agility, endurance, and physical resilience. He also regenerates easily so he doesn't have to worry about getting hurt much. Due to his increased stamina, he can run for 600 miles without getting tired, has an super sense of smell and has super tracking skills. In addition, he knows a whole bunch of ninjitsu arts and styles, has a bunch of different shuriken weapons, and not to mention a sacred sword that has a dragon spirit in it. He can also use fire and shadows ninja/magic stuff because he was possessed by a demon. He is cool and calculating but can go raging and reckless too. His name is also taken exactly, first and last, from a Magic: The Gathering character to which the creator does admit when called out on it. And he also fights for his friends.

(the example above is a REAL example of a character I saw on deviantART one day, more kudos if you actually know this one)

Eventually, as I grew up, so did my thoughts on what makes a good character.

Now me and Professor Awesome have been working together and making up stories with plenty of characters since we were 9 and 10 years old and still do now that we are 21 and 22. Looking back on what we can remember, we had A LOT of Mary Sue characters. When you're young, you just don't notice, the things that fascinate you about a character are usually much different and a much shorter list when you're a kid compared to an adult. As we grew up, so did our preferences on just what makes a good character.

The first thing that most people do, myself included in the past, to "fix" a Mary Sue is to give them flaws to balance out their strengths. A super strong character may have their intelligence dropped to balance it out, games do this all the time. Instead of just super one character type, there are suddenly more each with their own pros and cons. This isn't limited just to physical attributes that often separate classes in Dungeons & Dragons and other games, even Halo Reach, but to personality traits as well.

An example would be a kind-hearted, priest that stands strong against destructive unholy forces BUT is distracted and easily tempted by women and isn't physically strong. He has his strengths but also has his weaknesses making him more realistic as a character. He isn't perfect.

I'm afraid that this is where most people stop with developing their characters. I used to do the same thing but I proceeded past this step years ago. What most characters tend to lack, and a lot of mine in the past suffered from this as well, is that unlike real people, they never change. They are always frozen in time. Having a character play a roll in a story makes them animate, makes them alive but not to the extent most may think (I'll get into that later). Real people change over time, events in their lives change them, gives them different memories which affects their future selves.

Using the priest example from above and throwing him in a story, say the priest is clearing out cobwebs in his church and finds a hornet nest and smacks recklessly at it with a broom. When the hornets come out and horribly sting him, he gets a painful memory of that event. It changes him and his future self. The next time he encounters a hornets nest, he doesn't just smack it with a broom. He also develops a great dislike for winged insects, possibly to the point of fear. His personality changed, his fearlessness (a pro) against insects turned into cowardice (a con).

When I started to grasp this, the events in a character's life having effects on them both physically and mentally, long and short term, my characters evolved again. I understood the basics of what made a good character and I was satisfied once again. My characters caught up with me and new ones were made to my new standards. But that didn't last long.

I grew up some more and became unsatisfied with my characters again. While they had strengths and weaknesses, they even changed due to events in their life, they still felt...flat. There was something I felt I must be doing wrong, I did what the "experts" said to do but it still didn't seem enough. The answer had been in front of me all along, it's in the <i>how</i> you let the characters live their lives in their stories. Most people end up with not characters at this point but puppets.

The literary term for this I believe is called "Writer On Board".

Though one may have balanced characters at this point that change, they are puppeteered by the creator in the character's story for the sake the story must happen a particular way. This is the point where story starts to coalesce and become bigger than a single character, it connects characters and connects their stories, weaving into something more grandiose. This is also the point where it gets more difficult to explain.

I figure most people wouldn't like the idea that their characters are puppets and not characters but I think in the end there is a difference and it is <i>how</i> you let the characters live their lives in their stories. More specifically, who makes the decisions in a character's life? The creator, or the character? If the creator, the character is a puppet. If character, then the character is a character.

I've used the technique of letting characters have free will for a while now and it is a lot different than simply determine what the character does and does not do. It involves putting yourself in the character's position to a much more extreme point than simply knowing them. You start to develop compartmentalized personalities that you can and <i>must</i> be able to call out at will for characters to have free will. You must become their doppelganger for a while and make decisions as best as they would make, not as YOU would make.

A great movie director will be able to act out EVERY role in the movie. He probably isn't a good "fit" for every role but he has intimate knowledge on the characters and can shift himself into the mindsets of the characters.

If you're reading this, you probably know a few of my characters. One of them is Dalken. We share quite a few things in common but differ widely on others, especially how we may handle situations. I can really relate to him but there are times when I find him absolutely retarded, making huge mistakes in events where a little common sense was all that was needed. Through his ordeals he becomes wiser and will carry the scars of his mistakes as a constant reminder of what not to do. He is one character who's personality I can call out easily.

It's even more difficult when calling out character personalities at different stages of their lives. The Dalken you who are reading this might be familiar with is the one portrayed in the comic Demordicai Diamonds. The one who I'm most familiar with is the Dalken about two years older, has been through a lot of tough times, made friends, lost friends, lived, laughed, loved, and even killed. He's the same character but he's very different but I must know both and all the Dalkens in between since the comic and the full story are at vastly different levels of development.

Another character of mine, Juna, can be more challenging to bring forth (though I can do it easy as cake now and at light speed). Calling up Juna's personality is a lot different from Dalken's and, a heck of a lot different than my own but I must be able to call her personality up regardless if I want her to make her own decisions. Her changes are even more dramatic than Dalken's and affect her much more deeply, especially on the emotional level. I mention Juna not only for the sheer difference between her, Dalken, and myself, but also because of the impact <i>her</i> choices have had on her life, the lives of others, and completely changed how the story Demordicai Diamonds could have gone.

While I don't think I should go into the exact details (for spoiler's sake) on just what choices she made, they were actually choices that I, as her creator, was not expecting but they still fit into something that she would do (they definitely weren't something I'd do or maybe even have the courage for if I was her). They really threw a curve ball into the story of Demordicai Diamonds but I kept her decisions as part of the tale and the story was better for it.

In making the story, events, and the world that the characters of Demordicai Diamonds (and previous tales), I often play the role of the "bad guy", throwing challenges, and problems of all sorts at the characters. It's a lot like being a DM (Dungeon Master) in a game of Dungeon's & Dragons. A rule of thumb that I have is that I can't <i>directly</i> kill a character, their actions must be cause of their own deaths. I can't just have a character hear a disembodied voice that says "Watch out, here comes Tom!" and the character is killed by a sudden boulder that fell from the sky.

Letting characters have ultimately a pseudo "free will" though emulating their personality is essentially role playing if you boil it down but at a much more serious, full, and deep level. You know you're on the right track when you start to feel the same emotions as your characters feel, even when you normally would not feel that way. This can become a little dangerous when giving certain characters free will and their lives take a much more grim, depressing, traumatic, lost, or otherwise seriously "negative" turn. This applies doubly so for very emotional characters. You HAVE to feel and act how they would and when you have their personality copied into your head, their pain and woes are essentially yours too. It must be done if you want to let them be characters and lead their own lives instead of making all their decisions for them.

In using this technique, my characters suddenly burst out, like from going from 2D to 3D. They were at their pinnacle and I became really pleased with what I had going. I didn't really notice this state of evolution until the previous story me and Professor Awesome worked on before Demordicai Diamonds (even more kudos if you know any characters from the previous story).

But as good as I thought things were going I ran into another road block of sorts. I found myself running at ideas, situations, events, and other things to throw at the characters and let them sort things out and right what they thought was wrong. Eventually the previous story ended after a full year of working on it, the longest me and Professor Awesome had worked on a tale at the time. We did a miniature sequel that lasted a few more months but it puttered out after a few months. We left it off saying we would return to it but we never did, well, not directly anyway but that's a tale for another time.

I suppose that despite my personal triumphs in characters, I was facing the dreaded writer's block that not I nor my top-tier characters at the time could break. It crushed them in the end (though not as completely as I originally thought at the time).

The answer to my problems didn't come from something I figured out on my own, didn't come from something I read on the internet, it came from three special characters in the next tale me and Professor Awesome worked on: Dalken, Rune, and Juna.

Demordicai Diamonds was originally supposed to be a tale where the protagonists were actually villains. Dalken was supposed to end up as the bandit warlord and Rune, well, ummm, she was supposed to be as intimidating as she could possibly be. Obviously, that didn't work out. In fact, the characters thought it was stupid so they did their own thing. They lived their lives as best as they could and as best as they thought how.

They taught me that heroes don't have to be heroic, that heroes are often ordinary people who do extraordinary things (even if they are a little unique). They taught me most importantly that heroes, characters, can be VERY ordinary and live ordinary lives despite how much of a "hero" they might be. Even the most heroic of characters can have a very ordinary life. Even heroes have to sit on the toilet and take a dump from time to time.

At first I was perplexed and a very unsure. Instead of attempting to save a land from all sorts of undead-related problems like the characters in the previous tale, Rune and Dalken were doing...nothing. They lived fairly ordinary lives for a while, their problems were fairly trivial compared to the saving-the-world type problems. In their lives it was important, get money, buy food, live another day but not so important in the history of the world. When Juna takes them in in return for labor they live fairly average for the time with new problems important to them but not to many others. Someone started poking their nose in something they probably shouldn't have and next thing they know is a chain of extremely important and life changing events is set into motion that may affect a lot more than this them. But even so, as fantastic (and not necessarily in the good happy fantasy sort of way) a turn as their lives take, they are still very ordinary and do a lot of things ordinary people do with a little dash of some extraordinary things.

When this whole idea of ordinary heroes fused with the idea of characters having free will, I got  the final lesson in balancing a character (giving them strengths and weaknesses) and through the first.

I found out that the balancing of characters, giving them strengths and weaknesses, wasn't as clear cut as I had believed in earlier years. What I learned next about it is something I still go by today. I learned, thanks to my characters getting themselves into all sorts of situations, that a strength isn't always a strength and a weakness isn't always a weakness. It all depends on the situation they are in. It was weird, it was like an undoing of what most people I believe come to learn about how to avoid Mary Sue characters but at the same time a much better way than just slapping on weaknesses to balance strengths.  It changed my perception on just what was a strength and what was a weakness. Every individual aspect of a character could turn out to be "good" or "bad" or even varying degrees of "neutral" depending on the situation. It wasn't as simple as I originally thought but at the same time it was still simple, it just required a bit of a different perspective. Perspective can change a lot of things. After all, I doubt everyone has the exact same opinions on just what is good and bad and on top of that, opinions can change.

After putting everything I've covered so far together, I got something strange, magical, and still very normal (in a weird way). I found my characters living lives as if they were alive, they could make their own decisions in a story and were not limited to a list of likes and dislikes. They changed and remembered the events in their lives and the decisions that they made to get to where they are today. They live their lives as best they can, they eat and sleep, laugh and love, quarrel and fight, they may kill and go to great lengths to protect others from being killed, they may have affairs, get married, have children (some even as accidents), they have goals and ambitions or are trying to figure out just what they want out of life, they cry, they can competently do just what makes something alive.

I think that is the pinnacle of characters and their development, when they behave as if they are alive. In the end, they are just in your head. Maybe on paper, in a computer file, but depicting them is a whole other topic in itself. In a weird way, in learning to understanding characters I think I've learned to understand myself and other people better. You get a little more appreciation for life, your troubles feel lighter and more bearable. You learn to enjoy things just as some characters do even when the fate of their lives is hanging by a thread. Things might not be that bad for yourself but like characters, you learn to enjoy the little things in life and suddenly the ordinary becomes extraordinary like how things are in the eyes of a child. Everyday is an adventure and life can be fun if you let it.

And those are my thoughts on characters and character development. Looks like it turned out as more of a telling of my experiences and learnings of it over the past ten or so years. I really needed to get this all out of my head, I've been thinking and reminiscing on things like this and I've just been needing to compile my thoughts and experiences together so I can move on further up the mountain so to speak.

If you actually read through all this, you must got a lot of time and patience on your hands. Hopefully it wasn't too confusing or mind-boggling. I'll probably being doing more of these in the future mainly for my own benefit but if you enjoy them for some reason and want be to go into a certain topic, feel free to suggest something. I feel better already after taking the time to organize my thoughts on this.

And before I forget, kudos might mean Mace Points.
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