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I'm a plotter, meaning that I develop and plan my novels before I ever start writing them. In my case, this is almost something of an extreme, as I develop every part of the novel carefully and then create a very detailed outline scene by scene before writing a word.

I generally have very little trouble with characters. I develop them like everything else, creating them with all the aspects they need. As I develop them, I get a general sense of who they are, and when I sit down to write, I can visualize them acting out what I have them do. This is all I really need to 'get in my character's head.' It works fine.

With my most recent work, I have a bit of a problem. I had originally created the premise for this work several years back. A year or two after that, I partially developed it, including the character, and wrote something of a first draft. I then moved to something else, and didn't come back to it until now, several years later. During re-development, a lot of things changed, including several key aspects of the character and who he was.

The problem is that when I now sit down to write, the character is coming across as an emotionless cardboard stick figure. It is my theory that this is because I have two versions of him in my head, which are essentially complete opposites in some areas (and thus cancel each other out). I think I know the previous version better and might still see him that way as I write, while trying to write him as the new version.

I think I can fix this problem by getting to know my character better. What can I do to get to know my character better?

Important Note: Do not misunderstand this question as 'how can I discover my character?' I already know who my character is and how he acts. What I need is the ability to write him that way.


After-answer-notes: I've marked Lauren's reply as the answer, but if it doesn't work for future viewers, the answer from Mike C. Ford is the way to go. Especially that bit about renaming the character. That is pure genius.

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Write a bunch of short pieces with no particular plot to get used to writing him. Drabbles (100 words), double-drabbles (200), flash (1,000 to 2,000).

Your stories should just be little windows into him to practice writing what he'll do. Like:

  • He's out of milk. He goes to the store to get milk, and the store is closed. (What are his reactions? What does he do next?)
  • There's a leak in the bathroom faucet. (That can be an entire set piece depending on his reaction.)
  • He decides to get a pet. (What animal? What gender? What breed? fixed? name? Does it need a cage, a tank, a litter box, a leash?)
  • He has to sell his vehicle. (What kind of vehicle? Why? is he happy about it? Sentimental? Annoyed? Desperate for money? Does he enjoy negotiating to get the best of the buyer? Does the buyer get the best of him?)

The point of these pieces is to become accustomed to figuring out what Dude 2.0 does rather than your original Dude 1.0 did, so that when you go back to your novel, the 2.0 version is already in your fingertips and you don't have to work so hard to access him.

Writing a bunch of little bits will help you to slough off 1.0's bad habits. Making them unconnected, meaningless bits which are not part of your novel will help you get past the concern of screwing up your current work. You don't have to worry about leaving your outline because these are essentially pantsed (discovery) pieces, purely for exercise.

  • These kind of exercises were actually my first thought; I'm glad someone else thought they were a good idea too. I'm writing sci-fi, so the examples you gave don't really apply specifically. I wonder if there are more generic exercises that would cross genres? For example, should I maybe focus on exercises to elicit different emotions from him? Or something else? – Thomas Myron Oct 24 '16 at 3:41
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    @ThomasMyron "He runs out of [food]" can happen in any genre; the idea is what you do from there. Running out of milk in 21st C. London is much different from 16th C. Massachusetts or 22nd C. Mars. I was just throwing out ideas. My point was to put him in various situations, some run-of-the-mill and some more extreme, and practice learning what he'll do. See what he's like when he's angry, bored, frustrated, happy, scheming. I agree that the emotion is the kernel of the exercise. Adapt my suggestions as needed. – Lauren Ipsum Oct 24 '16 at 9:44
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I massively struggle with the technique of putting my characters into random hypothetical scenarios to see how they act. I know a lot of writers do this, and it's probably very successful, but I am simply unable do it. So I came up with my own technique.

In thinking about how to get to know characters, I thought about how I would get to know a real person. For me, that would be by asking them questions. It generally turns into an interview type scenario as I think about the questions in my own head, which isn't necessarily how I interact with real people, but considering how many real life interviews I listen to on the radio on my way to and from work I'm comfortable enough with the format to be able to do make the process more efficient than if I were to imagine a conversation at a dinner party, for example.

This way I can ask pretty benign questions, which illicit an honest answer (or a lie if the character is so inclined), but then when I've thought of how they would answer I will ask another question based on what they've just said in order to probe deeper into their personality. This helps me to get through the superficial 'this is who they are' to get to the real 'this is why they are'. Over time I'll think of new questions I want the answer to, so I'll ask them, and usually I end up answering questions I didn't even know I had when I began the process.

The reason you're more familiar with your old character than your new one will likely be the same reason you would be more familiar with a real person in that situation: you've spent more time with them. Of course you'll know the old character better, they have existed longer. You haven't known the newer character very long, so even if you know who s/he is, like with a real person it will be impossible to understand them as well so early on.

You do always have the option of changing the character. I was struggling with something similar to this, but after a name change and gender swap it was much easier to restructure the character and think about them in an entirely different way. Changing something else significant (but ultimately unimportant to the story) might make it easier to anchor that this person is different into your mind.

No matter what you choose to do, it will take some time to overwrite the old character with the new, and whilst the process can be sped up I don't believe there is an overnight fix. Simply spending time with the new character in mind may be all you need.

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    New name and possibly new gender are excellent ideas. I did something similar when I restructured a character; the new name made a huge difference between 1.0 and 2.0. I also tend to cast people (either with actors/actresses or just random photos), and having a different headshot for Character 2.0 was also a big help in reminding me of who she was now. – Lauren Ipsum Oct 24 '16 at 10:35
  • Wow, Mike, now you got me thoroughly upset and confused. Should I swap the gender of my protagonists? They suddenly seem so much more interesting, if I think of them with opposite genders. Please delete that idea from my mind again!... – user5645 Oct 24 '16 at 21:12
  • @what I've struggled with that too, but more along the lines of "Why does Character need to be Gender? Could Character be Other Gender? Why does Gender make Character inherently more interesting to me?" – Lauren Ipsum Nov 29 '16 at 13:13
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I would suggest starting with three very basic questions:

  1. What does he want.

  2. Why does he want it?

  3. Why can't he get it?

If you can't give clear and consistent answers to those questions, you don't have a character yet. In a plot-driven story, it is perhaps easy to lose the handle on these things, especially in revision. Character drives plot, so if you change plot, it is easy to end up with a character who no long performs the task of driving the plot. They may be left with inconsistent motivation.

In a character driven story, you might have to change the plot to accommodate the logical way in which the character would behave. But if you are writing plot first, then you may need to reshape your character to convincingly drive the plot in the direction you want it to go. So then you are asking, "what kind of character would have a desire and would follow that desire in a way that would move the plot in the direction I want it to go?"

Conceivably there is no such character -- no believable human motivation would create the plot twist you desire. In that case, plot may have to bend to the truth of human nature.

  • Thank you for your answer. However, as I said in the OP, I am not trying to discover who my character is. I know who he is, and can answer the three questions very easily. My only problem is with getting accustomed to him. – Thomas Myron Oct 24 '16 at 5:37
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You can only write what you know.

All the writers who are good at characterization are men and women with more than average experience of life. They have lived many intense encounters with many different kinds of people. Think of the life Hemingway led. A good writer of characters is like a gourmet of people, enjoying meeting every kind of person and actively seeking that experience out.

I am not as full of life as Hemingway. Yet when I write, all the characters in my stories are people that I know. Not individual people, necessarily, but abstractions. Like my idea of a table is the result of all the tables in my life, my idea of a certain character in my story is the composite of all the people I encountered that gave me a similar experience of themselves.

And when I write, I write from that experience. I don't have to do exercises when I try to imagine what a certain character would do, just as I don't have to do an exercise when I try to describe a table to you.

Sure, there is always something of me in every person that I write, and my characters are never truly independent people, but I don't want to avoid that, because that is what makes it my book and what makes reading a book by me an encounter with me for you. If I depicted the world truthfully, there would be no reason for anyone to read my novels.

  • Thank you for your answer, but how does this help me? My question was about shifting from hero 1.0 to hero 2.0. Both can be (and probably are) reflections of me and the people I know, but they between themselves are completely different people who I still see as one. How do I shift from one to the other in my thinking and familiarity? – Thomas Myron Oct 25 '16 at 0:41
  • The problem is that you have no-one in your experience whom your characters represent. Find someone you know or an experience you had, that inspired you to come up with that character, and when you write your character, think of that person or experience and write from that. To take an example, if you write a child, think of that friend you had in kindergarden who got hit by his parents and the sadness you feel when you think of him. A character in a novel is not a real person but a function in relation to the plot. Find an emotion for that function, an experience, and write from there. – user5645 Oct 25 '16 at 5:02

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