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Mar
15th
2016

Writing tips: Creating characters and cultures · 11:09am Mar 15th, 2016

Journcy contacted me a week or two back about doing a brief interview for a school project, and the questions were interesting enough that I figured it was worth reposting to FIMFiction the writing advice that I offered. Read below the break for about 1400 words on fictional culture construction, how to create a quick character hook, and the story that my writing desk tells.


1) How do you go about writing characters from backgrounds very different from your own, especially from other real-world cultures?

My perspective on this one might be a little skewed, because I primarily write in the science-fiction and fantasy (SFF) genres, and it's a very different question when you're creating characters and cultures from whole cloth than when you're working with extant cultures.

… The answer, on the other claw, is the same: Research! There's only one way to understand what makes different people and different cultures tick, and that is to listen to them. What they value, who they respect, how they solve problems, what assumptions they make … everything from their politics to their architecture to their diets is there because they are starting with a set of resources and a set of needs, and attempting to use the former to fill the latter. Start from the fundamental proposition that their choices are understandable, and then seek to write them so that your audience understands. I suppose that's a second R: Respect.

Made-up cultures are easier in that nobody can challenge you on getting the facts wrong, but harder in that there are no facts to start from. This is where a great many writers start mashing up elements of other cultures they do know, and that's an honorable tradition in SFF — but it's best to dig deeper and understand why those cultural elements exist; taking them out of context and glomming them together will give you the appearance of exoticism, but you don't want your culture to fall apart if your audience starts digging in. For example, if you're designing a culture for a waterless desert planet and decide that you want to add some Middle Eastern flavor, it's simple enough to Google up some recipes and say they're eating salak mashwi for dinner — until you realize that's a dish of grilled fish.

Segueing into characters … on some level, characters are culture writ small. Everyone is informed by their upbringing, whether they embrace it or reject it. So understanding the culture will help you ground your characters, and will help you write with more nuance and fewer stereotypes. Of course, for the characters you're spending most of the story with, there's a lot more to them, and defining character deeply is a different problem — but for the bit parts, especially if they are the only representative of a race/species/gender/class, your audience is going to use them as a shortcut for other members of that group, so it's extra important to know what makes them tick so that you can present them as more than caricatures.



2) You need to write an original character in a relatively short amount of time. What are a few things you prioritize doing to ensure you have a solid understanding of that character?

Short time, eh? No research, no rich cultural details, just fake it till you make it? Alright.

I'm from the Kurt Vonnegut school of writing. One of his famous maxims was "Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water," and exploring those wants is central to character development. Similarly, I'm a longtime tabletop roleplaying game fan, and when you're a player in a TTRPG, your central means of agency is in defining what your character wants and what actions she takes to get it.

So, first, give them a reason to be there. Why are they engaging with the plot, and what do they want out of your central conflict? (Even if it's only to escape it!) That helps you set the stakes for conflicts that they care about, which are the juicy ones. Then give them something they care about that's not plot-related — this is a nice shortcut to depth, developing them in a dimension unrelated to your main story arc. If you can work it into a subplot later, great, but even if it's never otherwise going to come up, you can use it as color (e.g. describing the photo of her family on the counter by the cash register).

Finally, give the audience a way to emotionally connect with the character. This is a make-or-break thing for heroes — if the audience doesn't care about them, they don't care about your story — but it's just as crucial for secondary roles, and even villains. (You want a reason for the audience to hate them … or perhaps even to care about them! If the hero is trying to protect his village from the marauding dragon, but the dragon needs those stolen cows to feed the starving whelps whose mother the last hero killed, then suddenly you've got a conflict brewing that'll keep the audience invested: what happens when the hero learns the truth?)

Three questions, and you've got something to hang storytelling around.



3) You’re writing a scene set in a character’s home, and you want to use this opportunity to reveal more about them as a person. What about that environment do you focus on to get the most meaningful information across?

That's a great question! The truth is, though, that there is no trinket in their environment which does not tell a story. Your challenge is to pick the right ones for the story you're telling.

For example: I could write a several-thousand-word autobiography just based on the things on my writing desk — from the plush giardia that's a souvenir of my 2006 Pacific Crest Trail 900-mile hike, to the Magic: The Gathering card that's a trophy of a writing competition I medaled in, to the small plastic motorcycle toy that's a souvenir of my sister's wedding in Sardinia. But if I was going to write an autobiography, I'd cherry-pick those items exactly because they're the most curious and engaging! If I was a patient with a mysterious ailment in House, it would make more sense for the doctor to scrutinize the dusty bottle of hand sanitizer half-buried in paperwork, the empty prescription bottle of hyoscyamine within arm's reach, and the half-drunk can of apple cider right next to the keyboard. Or to make a point about my social life, someone might point to the smartly painted D&D miniature in front of my monitor, the business card for a furry artist I'm commissioning wedged in my second computer's keyboard, and the framed My Little Pony fanart on the wall. Pick one from each set and you get a much more well-rounded view. The answer that fits your story best is very conditional on the point you're trying to make with the descriptions.



4) How much information do you put into your characters that will never be seen in the story? For that matter, how much background is too much?

Every person is the protagonist of their own story, and every person has more depth than you will ever fit into any story you'll ever tell. There's really no upper limit to the research that you can do … except for your own time.

So I think the answer is to strike a balance between your available time and the need to push the story out the door. Striking a balance between "here's a book of backstory, but I haven't started Chapter 1 yet" and "winging it" is hard! Maybe the best answer is to try it both ways — overprepare and create a story based on lovingly detailed cultural studies and backstories, and then underprepare and try to write one with a bunch of blank slates, and then contrast those experiences to see how much trouble each one gives you.

My own rule of thumb is that, for speed writing like the Writeoff Association 72-hour short-story competitions, I'll typically spend 10 minutes outlining the plot arc and plot landmarks, about 1/3 of the time crafting the world around the characters and building up character sketches for everyone who's going to show up in the story, and then about 2/3 of my time writing. (For intricately woven pieces, like my Spoon River Anthology-style murder mystery The Last Dreams Of Pony Island, those numbers switch.) I don't outline stories, but I do put a lot of effort into outlining world and character, and the story comes from the way that the latter hurtle through the former as they react to the plot seeds.

Hope that helps!

Comments ( 19 )

This is all good advice. Thanks for sharing it!

We need a way to save blogs like these. As it is, I boolmark them in a folder, but it would be nice to, say, favorite a blog.

All very helpful stuff. Good to know that I'm doing a few things right, and I'll definitely take the rest to heart. Thank you for this.

Made-up cultures are easier in that nobody can challenge you on getting the facts wrong, but harder in that there are no facts to start from.

I mostly agree with this, but would just like to clarify that a culture being made up doesn't give you completely free reign. People are going to challenge the hell out of you if your culture doesn't appear to make sense. Off the top of my head, I vaguely remember a story about what was basically a stone-age village, where everyone had what boiled down to carnivorous elephants to ride on. Seemed fine, until I asked the author how this village with mud huts and stone axes managed to feed 30+ creatures clocking in at around ten tons each every day.

Other than that, good stuff here. Especially the "Everyone is the protagonist of their own story" bit.

3808848

People are going to challenge the hell out of you if your culture doesn't appear to make sense.

See: Patrick Rothfuss and his goddamn sex ninjas.

Great questions and great answers. Thanks! :twilightsmile:

3808889
When you talked about "sex ninjas," I thought for a minute you meant the assassin-whores of John Ringo's "Paladin of Shadows" series. (OH JOHN RINGO NO.)

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Glad it was useful!

3808848
Agreed, that's an important point as well: even in SFF, where a lot can be justified on the basis of "aliens!" or "magic!", your worldbuilding still has to make logical sense. If, for example, your main characters use subcutaneous biotech cell phones to keep in touch with each other, you can't just have the villain throw them in a broom closet and have them sitting around whimpering instead of calling for help.

But there's a certain amount of wiggle room allowable with physics-breaking premises. (I mean, let's face it, we're sitting here as fans of a show in which the ruling princess literally moves the sun with the power of her mind.) Tolerances vary, but most SFF fans will agree that creators should be given a free pass on the break from reality of their core premise, as long as everything else makes sense around it. For example, Star Wars is space opera plus "The Force": even though telekinesis and mind control and lightning bolts and light sabers don't even slightly fit in a world of starships and blasters, accepting that is the price you pay for being able to enjoy the story it tells. The alternative is to demand explanations for everything, and that's what led to midichlorians.

Not knowing anything else about your war-elephant example, I'd be happy to give it a pass if there was, for example, any indication the elephants were omnivorous; presumably they'd have to feed themselves if they weren't domesticated, and if they can forage outside the city, the lack of technology wouldn't cause them to starve. (Though I have to assume that in context there are probably any number of other problems with the series you mention, or you wouldn't have brought it up as an example.) Or if the elephants were totally central to the setting, it might be worth handwaving away on Rule of Cool as the one "gimme" break from reality. But in general it's much better to have an explanation for that.

3809288
Why did I follow that link?
Why did I read the whole thing?
I've seen enough of the Internet that I don't need to type those questions in all caps, but still. :raritydespair:

3809288
Oh for sure. Internal consistency is king. Just wanted to remind people that "Magic, I ain't gotta explain shit" only gets you so much leeway :twilightsmile:

I'd be happy to give it a pass if there was, for example, any indication the elephants were omnivorous

300 tons of omnivore is still a shockingly huge amount of animal to feed, even if you give them table scraps :P

A story that handles stuff like that well is the Temeraire series, by Naomi Novak. It's set mostly in Napoleonic Europe, in a world where dragons are real. How the British manage to feed the thousands of tons of carnivore currently serving in their armed forces is handled by huge reallocation of farming priorities. Turns out loads more people are willing to raise cattle, if said cattle will feed the several-ton monster who's currently protecting your farm from invasion by that damn Corsican :rainbowlaugh:

But yeah, not everything has to have a properly citated document explaining how and why it works, but a level of internal consistency is an absolute must.

3809382
I've heard multiple good things about Temeraire, and it slots nicely into my interests. I have it on the dead-tree equivalent of my RIL, but I'm probably going to have to bump it up a notch into my "actually read this someday".

3809288
3809382

Internal consistency is a definite must. You don't have to necessarily have to do the math (or if you did, the answer doesn't have to be right) so long as you've at least addressed the issue, and the answer is close enough to be plausible. And I've found that in a lot of cases, working around some of these hitches when you run into them can make for a more interesting wrinkles that give a setting character that you might not have considered.

In the examples given, the author might develop an elaborate reason or method to feed the elephants, or maybe the dish really is called salak mashwi; it just uses some fish-analog creature that swims in the sand (nevermind the energy expenditure of tunneling).

Also, I can vouch for Temeraire as well, though I've only read the first three books or so.

3809791
Honestly, its probably my favourite book series of the past... decade or so? Its been a very long time since I've read a series of stories that I enjoyed as much as that one.

You better start soon, lest I unleash the ferret on you. She won't let you rest until you're at least three books deep :rainbowlaugh:

3809799

You don't have to necessarily have to do the math (or if you did, the answer doesn't have to be right) so long as you've at least addressed the issue, and the answer is close enough to be plausible.

The phrase "Close enough for government work" comes to mind :twilightsmile:

3809848

Heh. Well, yeah. Or the 80-20 rule. It's nice if you're in a position where it's not too hard to go to 100, but you don't always have to flog yourself to do it.

The Martian, is a good example of one end of the spectrum. Andy Weir worked out the actual orbital trajectories that the spacecraft would take. That's awesome. But it's also above and beyond the call of duty; kind of the cherry on top, if you will. How many readers are really in a position to know if he was fudging that or not, and would it have been a lesser story if he had fudged?

Personally, when writing I'm usually satisfied to do enough research that i know if something is possible or not, or at least guess that it's probable, without actually running the numbers.

Even if it fails that test, though, a story can still work. Take a look at Gravity, for example. It's portrayal of orbital mechanics has some holes in it, but the vast majority of the populace is never going to know that, and it still won't keep it from being enjoyable. It's still basically following Newton's laws, and not showing the 'aircraft in space' type of flight we too often get.

Get everything as right you can, so long as it doesn't get in the way of the plot, and you'll probably be okay.

Just shows how:

My brain works. I answered some very similar questions for Journcy as well--your questions 2 and 3 were my questions 3 and 4--but it never even occurred to me that folks might be interested in seeing what I said. Reckon I'll hafta put up a blog post of my own... :ajsmug:

Mike

Well put!
When it comes to writing characters in particular, I also advocate simply looking around you. Good writers, like good scientists, are observers (and interpreters). Pay attention first to yourself, and then to those around you. Next time you find yourself suddenly growing impatient in the middle of what was a nice phone call with your father, pay attention to those feelings and try to discern their cause. Maybe your sister and mother have a terrible relationship because they simply don't want to get along; or maybe it's because they both really care about having a good relationship and really want one, but their attempts consistently, near un-endingly meet failure, and it creates frustration which leads to arguments and thus further separation, the exact opposite of what they want.

In my opinion, observing and learning about yourself and those around you is the greatest source of meat and potatoes for cooking up realistic characters and interesting, real drama. The more aware you become of how much people care and struggle for all the different things in this life, both good and bad, the more you'll pour that into your fictional world, and the sharper its hooks will become.

Anyway, thanks for the blog horizon!

3808889 Sex ninjas?

My high-school guidance counselor never told me about any of the good jobs.

3818852 Rothfuss wrote into his books a society of sexy warriors who, and I'm not making this up, don't believe that sex has anything whatsoever to do with pregnancy. Who regard the concept as risible and a sign of ignorance, in fact, much the same way we would regard a serious advocate of the four humours or leechcraft as appallingly unlearned.

Patrick Rothfuss knows how to write. He can assemble some compelling words. But every once in awhile he drops something that's just... wow. Just wow.

3820013 EO Wilson, writing about the evolved aversion to incest, described the work of the first person to do a survey of the beliefs of many different societies about incest. That person, who did his work a long time ago, reported finding some tribal societies who were still unaware that sex caused pregnancy, yet had taboos against incest. I don't know if they were pulling his leg, ala Margaret Meade's informant, or maybe the question was considered too rude to answer correctly, or something. Maybe they had rituals which they believed were necessary, or a mythology which required them to say one thing even though they were aware of another. Maybe they just all had a lot of sex?

If humans had evolved from bonobos, maybe lots of cultures would be unaware of the connection.

Sigh. So many of the world's problems happen because the wrong primates won.

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I was going to ask, "Well, does their species reproduce asexually, then?" but the self-evident answer is no, because a yes would immediately lead to genitalia incompatible with the scenes as described (and the mockery thereof). ... Or, alternatively, a complete abdication of basic biology which I really shouldn't write off as improbable given the commercial success of anti-rational wish fulfillment like Left Behind.

(And let's face it, ignoring basic biology is the root of pretty much every single sexual fantasy. Even if only because 99%+ of porn takes place in a world without STDs.)

Anyway, now I'm morbidly curious if Rothfuss based his idea on that little tidbit of questionable research.

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