Saturday, January 8, 2011

What's Your Problem?

We all have "something wrong" with us. He's too full of himself, she is too judgmental. He's too lazy, she can't stop working long enough to make friends. He's too trusting, she can't trust anyone.

These issues, I like to call them 'shoes,' effect our everyday life. He's overly reckless and it's evident in his many traffic tickets. She's overly cautious, and it drives others crazy that she drives below or just at the speed limit.

A lot of this is attributed to our personality, upbringing, and experiences. Look at yourself, there has to be something you know you "need to work on." or you're at least aware of how it shapes your perceptions. This is true of everyone, including your characters.

Something I always ask my characters while getting to know them is "what's wrong with you?" inevitably something will be. And if there's nothing wrong with them, something is going to go wrong in your story. If your character only makes good decisions, is great with people, and has the uncanny ability to do any task set before him... Well... What are we reading his story for? People like to identify with character, recognize their flaws and how they impact their life (or how they rise above their flaws). Flawless characters are boring. When flawless characters get into trouble, they get right out. There are no detours, no suspense, no character growth.

Pick a character, any character. Now think what's wrong with them. Me first! Aidin (probably going to change his name, but I haven't gotten that far) has given up on his career, and is doing the minimum to get by. His relationship with his girlfriend is falling apart and he's doing nothing to stop it. Okay so that's a current condition. This is what you can easily see. Do you have one it mind?

Now we get to play four year old... Why? What has caused this problem in your character's life. Well, Aidin has given up because he was an over achiever, yet (despite graduating top of his class from Stanford) he still cannot seem to gain the approval of his parents. So he gave up.

Again, why? There is always a why, and until you get to a point where you're at the very root of the problem and there's nowhere else to go from there, then you've found your problem.

Now take that root problem that you've broken down to and build back up. What other "side effects" would someone with that root issue have. Say you took a character with a lack of trust and broke it down to her mother abandoned the family and her father treated her poorly because of it. Okay, how might a lack of trust manifest itself? Does she hate to be touched? Is she guarded? If yes, does she hide behind a fake identity or does she just hide in the background? How have her relationships suffered? Is she constantly seeking approval, or does she just think everyone is out to get her? Does she self-sabotage romantic relationships or does she just keep away from any potential love interests? Does she want to find her mother? Does she speak to her father? These are just some of the questions one might ask of this character. Whether these answers shape what personality you give them, or the other way around is up to you. I kind of went backwards, then forwards again just because it's easiest for me.

With all this background information, now you can put your poor distressed character (whether said character knows they are distressed is another question entirely) into a story. Throw them into a situation (good or bad), based on their background, how will they respond? Take their personality into account as well. A low self-esteemed extrovert responds very differently than an introvert with the same root issue.

Maybe your character has more than one root issue. Maybe they are angry at their parents, and have a low self-esteem. How do these work together to create other, surface issues? Forming characters is all about asking questions. Just like people aren't angry at the world for no reason, your characters can't be either. Unless of course you want shallow characters... ;-)

Whenever you discover something about a character (good or bad) always, always, ALWAYS ask why!

Do not be deceived by impostors, this is NOT Pete the Lion

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