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A story I’m trying to write have several characters who have been raised in foster families. None of them have been physically or emotionally abused, but I still felt like their childhood sould have some sort of impact on who they are, even as adults.

So I’ve started reading real world studies focusing on orphans and people raised in foster famillies. It helped me build my main character and make her reactions and choices more consistent.

But I think I overdone it and now too much of my characters' personalities, quirks and motivations are inspired from these studies, and I’m afraid they’re becoming stereotypes.


Is it a good idea to use sociological studies and such for character building?

In what cases can/should it be done?

How to do it right?

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Doing research for characters can only be good, as it will make sure that they do not break the suspension of disbelief. If you make characters that do not fit with their upbringing, they will seem too fake to be able to relate to.

The difficulty with character building is finding a good balance in each character between interesting and believable.

A character who is a charming genius, who backflips everywhere and earns their living through juggling street performances but also moonlights as a ninja-for-hire is an incredibly interesting character, but hardly believable.

On the other hand, a story about a middle manager in an accounting firm who has a cat is a believable character, but not very interesting.

Possibly with doing so much research into what makes your characters believable, you have stripped away any semblance of a personality or uniqueness that they may possess, making them formulaic. That's not to say that they can't be interesting, but you will need to add layers to their personality so that they're not one-dimensional.

Having a character be defined as an orphan isn't really a character. What makes them a person? Being an orphan would be just one facet of their personality. They may well possess all of the personality traits that you have mentioned, but if that's all that they are then they will not be someone to write a story about.

In the same way that children from poorer backgrounds generally do worse than those from rich backgrounds, that doesn't mean an individual child from a poor family can't go on to become a Nobel laureate, or someone from a rich background can't go on to be homeless and destitute. They will be the exceptional statistic, but those are the ones who get stories written about them.

So your characters can have some, or all of, the traits associated with children growing up in foster care, as that will make them believable. But siblings, even twins, who grow up in the exact same conditions can still be polar opposites. So even if they all have attachment issues, one might be sullen all of the time, whilst another is jealous and quick to anger, and a third may be laid back but vindictive.

So whilst your research is not useless, and will make a very good background for your characters, make sure to add more to each of them in order to distinguish who they are, what their motivations are, their goals and dreams, and also make them interesting enough so that they are worthy of being characters in a story.

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I had a similar problem with my current novel project. The first draft was quite horrible, exactly due to the fact that my characters felt like stereotypes cut and pasted from my literature research. I had several episodes in mind that I read about and wanted to include in the novel - say, for example, the story of a couple in the 60s: The husband is at sea living an extravagant life in the flourishing homosexual sub-culture of the British merchant navy. His wife stays at home; she know about his lifestyle and supports it, welcoming his partners at her home, even including them in her family as "uncles" and "cousins" of her kids. - That was a cute episode and I wanted it told. So I took a minor character and plastered the episode on to him. Result: The episode stuck out. The character did not. I was left feeling that I was dealing with a rainbow-colored mannequin -- smartly dressed, but otherwise utterly forgettable.

The problem, I found, was that I had put too much emphasis on the research and neglected actual character development. My characters were placeholders for roles.

What I did is: Character development. I took the piece of information that I wanted to include in the novel and formed a character around it. I usually do this by just writing the character. There is many ways to do this: Sketch a biography, do an imaginary interview with your character, write scenes from his or her perspective. All of these techniques help you to get a better feel for your character. Personally, I prefer to write more or less elaborate characters biographies and tell the novel plot from their point of view. None of this goes into the novel itself, but it gives me the great opportunity to listen to anything that my character wants to tell me. Where does s/he come from? What does s/he do for pleasure and fun? Which relatives are his/her favourites? Is s/he a good cook, painter, watchmaker, ruthless manager? Has s/he a soft spot for kittens or turtles, does s/he collect shells, coins, or spontaneous laughter (guess the movie here)? Which party does s/he vote for? And so on. By writing the character for a few pages, I get to know all of these details. I usually deliberately include a few character traits that seem to be at odds with a major characteristic of the character. Let a body builder foster adoration for chihuahuas (here: guess the actor), give a caring mother a talent for electronics and so on. In the end, all of these small traits have to add up to a character that feels rounded to you. If you feel that s/he is still nothing more than a collection of clichés -- keep digging. At some point, at least for me, the pieces start to fall into place and form a personality that is more than just a placeholder for a role.

In the case of my novel project, I started out by envisioning a character that is flippant, well-dressed and sharp-tongued. These were traits that came up again and again in my literature research, and they do make sense in the setting I am describing. However, they are also clichés. I felt that my main character was too shallow. So I wrote him -- gave him a family background, a flat for rent in Liverpool, an independent-minded wife, hobbies, past affairs, friends, an adorable boss, passion for theatre, no talent for cooking whatsoever, a precarious affair with alcohol, latent weariness of short-term flings, and a pretty divided relationship with the sea. I could go on for paragraphs trying to put him into a handful of sentences. That, however, would not work. I feel that he outgrew the stage in which it was sufficient to label him with "This is XYZ. He's part of the homosexual subculture of the British merchant navy in the 60s and has a cool wife."

tl;dr: Researching the psychological background of your characters is essential and an excellent point to start your character development. Once you have a good feel of what the average human being would act like in your character's situation, do the specific character development. Write about him or her. However, avoid to give your character all traits that are associated with his/her general situation. That's how averages work: They are representative of a large collection of subjects, but hardly of the individual. Throw in traits that have nothing to do with his/her situation at all and even seem to be at odds with it. Physicists -- even the theoretical ones -- can be well-spoken womanizers. (I've witnessed this.) Players of the national soccer team can study for their degree in philology. And yes, please: Any woman can aspire to be more than a mother -- in the same way that any husband can aspire to be more than the provider to his beautiful wife and adorable children.

In short: Think outside the box.

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I am afraid it is the best way how to discourage everybody from reading something like that. I am serious, characters need to be someway interesting, being alive, believable.

(I can imagine a story of a writer trying that way and - will fail.)

  • Hi, thanks for answering. Could you develop a little more? How would people now how I built my characters before reading it and why would they be discouraged? Why basing characters personnalities on real-world cases make them less believable/interesting? (Also I am ESL so I may have understood your first sentence wrong) – Babika Babaka Jul 6 '16 at 8:15

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