Psychology: Interrogating your characters

[— Karen Myers —]

I was raised by wolves. No, really. Nice wolves, well-meaning wolves, but wolves nonetheless.

Let me explain. My older brother and I were raised in a fair amount of affluence, educated at the right schools, suitably cared for, and never submitted to the least bit of abuse. So, what’s my lament?

We had no family engagement with our parents. They didn’t enter into our lives, and never revealed their own. You have to understand, my mother was exotic — a war bride from Antwerp who married an American GI and boogied out of the land-of-no-nylons as fast as she could — sort of a Zsa Zsa Gabor-type bleached blonde with an accent dressed in mink coats. My father ran his father’s business, a multi-state flour-milling company in KC. They were objectively interesting people who had done things with their lives. They had siblings, parents, and so forth, like everyone, and the sort of restrained social life that elite suburbs simulate (though almost no close friends).

In my entire life, I never heard a single family story from them. No tale about how they met in Belgium. No recounting of the reaction of either family to their marriage. No scandal about Aunt Nora, no childhood pranks for Aunt Louise, no tales about their own parents. Nothing. When my brother and I sat at the dining table and asked a casual question about anything personal, we got the subtle look — the look that said “who wants to know?” And, so, we learned not to ask — we were trained not to ask — since it was pointless (and we took up reading at the table instead.)

In reciprocal fashion, my parents didn’t ask us what we were doing. As long as we weren’t obvious juvenile delinquents or in trouble at school, they didn’t enquire. I may have been a bit on the spectrum, but I had read enough books and seen enough of my childhood friends’ homes and parents to understand how odd this was. I didn’t assume my brother and I were somehow at fault and to blame for it, but it was inexplicable to us. I’m sure they meant well in general (perhaps they feared childish gossip revelations to others), but nonetheless this remoteness was damaging, a refusal of intimacy, a form of rejection. Now, I’m a pretty tough and fatalistic person by nature, but my brother was more fragile, and he eventually broke at 50 after a lonely and somewhat unlucky life, having never formed a successful family himself (putting the cap on four generations of male suicide). We had often joked between the two of us (most recently just before his death) that we may not have known what was wrong with our parents, but whatever it was, it would stop with us. And, indeed, we had no children. These situations have consequences.

There’s a reason I’m flirting with TMI here (apologies), but it was necessary background… It has taken me decades to adequately simulate a normal human who can casually interrogate other people socially about their lives. I still find that hard to do, — it’s not that I don’t want to know (I’m curious), it’s that I didn’t grow up having learned the skill, and my training encouraged me to wall the impulse away. I have a deeply inbuilt workaround where I volunteer information about myself in the hope of soliciting an initial response from my interlocutor to break the ice (and notice that this blog post is an example of just that).

Well, guess what? These days I’m out there creating fictional worlds with characters that are mine. And it is my duty to ask them about their lives. And they have to tell me! My characters aren’t wolves, not to me. I know what their stories are, and I can change them as I want to. It’s difficult to explain just how… exotic I find that. In its way, it’s exhilarating. Perhaps it’s why I’m interested in writing fiction instead of non-fiction — my interest in non-fictional events and how things work, though strong, isn’t anywhere nearly as strong as my interest in my fictional characters.

It’s not a matter of recreating one’s life story with some sort of indulgent self-justifying rewrite — that holds no interest for me and I don’t have anything like that in my fiction (though I suppose everything is grist for the mill). Instead, it’s a way of fantasizing about what normal human relations are like, using my fictional simulacra. I grew up with no inside information about how my parents became the way they were (since they wouldn’t talk about their lives), but I learned how to observe instead, and thus to speculate (and introspect). I don’t feel that lack now — my own inner life in its current shape and decades of normal relational experience have buried any felt damage, except for my early-learned habits of question avoidance which are hard to change.

So, the point of this post is to raise an awareness of one’s own psychology, as a creator of simulated lives, to see how one’s own experiences and drives work as an insight into the potential psychology of one’s characters. I hadn’t really sat down and analyzed what I liked so much about writing fiction until I cast about looking for a topic for this week’s post, and realized what a great part of the appeal is — interrogating my characters and getting answers. Your mileage may vary.

How do you interrogate your own characters, to find out what makes them tick? Is it just a craft skill, or is there a deeper drive? Let’s hear about your own fundamental motivations, the ones that work in you that are relevant to your own writing. Your turn…

46 thoughts on “Psychology: Interrogating your characters

      1. I do very little plotting and planning before I write, and no outlining. I imagine a scenario and put characters with traits I find interesting in it and then I see how they work their way through it. It’s a weakness of mine, since the serial I’m on the cusp of finally releasing is something I only feel is ready for public consumption after more than ten years of work. Putting the characters in action helped me get to know them, of course. But thinking about them in the meantime, and rewriting and editing all those parts after discovering more about their backgrounds has helped make everything feel more real. Sometimes I interview them. The main character was more than happy to sit down and talk about herself with me. Others revealed themselves through the edits and through the tone of the issues that center on them. I could certainly stand to do more solid plotting or even ANY outlining before I dive into a new story (I know that’s why one of mine fizzled out, and why the other has been nearly impossible to finish), but I work full-time to support my wife and kids so my time is limited. Plus, even thinking about outlining makes my skin crawl. I watched a lecture series by Brandon Sanderson at BYU (I believe) and he referred to the two writing styles as architects and gardeners. I think I’ve seen the Mad Genii refer to gardeners as pantsers. I’m a pantsing gardener, but I admire people who are diligent enough to outline their books before writing them. I can’t do it, though. I’m too busy pantsing myself.

        1. I’m really a pantser myself (writing into the dark) but I have from the start learned to create an overall 4-act structure as a scaffold so that I can keep it all from dissolving into pudding. What that means for me is aim points — I know enough about the overall point of the series book entry [Hero takes prospective bride home to meet the family] and the big mid-point crisis to charge my fabulation engine, and then I keep track of length so the long narrative doesn’t become unbalanced, act by act.

          All the rest is discover-as-you-go. I’d rather unplanned insights/inspirations sparking the later details than pre-planning everything.

        2. We are all pantsers in real life. 😀

          Oh, some folks try to outline a plot, but there are a lot of other characters involved and they rarely conform to it. Life is not organized into 3 acts, or 4. Life just blunders along in the dark as random shit happens and you try to deal with it.
          Zathras used to being beast of burden for other people’s needs.
          Very sad life. Probably have very sad death.
          But, at least there is symmetry.

        3. In my teens, I had to write the entire story and look back on it to deduce what my characters were thinking. . . .

          1. I find it hard to give up on my characters and their stories. A lot of what I have written (I’m now in my 40s) is based on ideas I had as a teen. I only wish I had developed storytelling skills way back then, but I was serious about nothing as a youngster.

            1. Very few of my plot bunnies stick around. Even a few months later I have to realize that one left and turn to a new one.

              Some, however, last a long time. “Magic of the Lost God” took decades to get written.

  1. My characters generally don’t “talk back” to me directly, and are not the kind who tolerate in-universe interviewers with any grace. So, in practice, I am a character paleontologist: I start with a character archetype (or intersection of archetypes) in a situation, and from the bare bones in situ I have to extrapolate the rest. I will say that a clear vision of the protagonist can tell you a lot about the protagonist’s foils and adversaries.

    Sometimes I have the wrong character for the situation. Draft Zero of the Star Master books had a much more omnicompetent, less vulnerable male lead than the one I ended up with. Sometimes I have the wrong situation for the character. “Tomboyish young woman from Fantasy Argentina goes back to the Old World” is a character concept who had been attached to a fairly different setting and leading man before getting transplanted into the Gothic Dunedain project. So far, she seems to work okay there.

    1. Me: Why do you pillage the farmers?
      Steppe raider: What a womanish question!

      What always pops to mind when considering interviewing characters.

      1. “If they were not meant to be sheared, God would not have made them sheep.” That sounds like another answer to the question. I recall a book on primitive warfare that was very blunt about how warlike societies viewed the less violent people around them, such as the Apache and the Pueblo Indians.

        1. That’s an actual answer, as opposed to someone who regards the matter as unquestionable.

          On a more pleasant side, many people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust could not explain why and even got angry at the question.

      2. Yeah, a lot of characters worth writing about just aren’t interested in explaining “why.” I’ve told the story before about how I had no idea what the big conflict between the hero and heroine in Spider Star was until VERY late in the writing process.

    2. Gothic Dunedain? Inquiring minds would really really like to know about this. (Inquiring minds can be reached at aggrokitty at the g-mail if you want. 🙂 )

      1. The Gothic Dunedain label probably makes it sound cooler than it is. I’d been playing with a Steampunk Numenor idea, decided it was too much of a downer, and then asked myself: “What would Steampunk Dunedain be like?” and the short answer was: “Victorian gentleman adventurers/monster hunters, only better armed and organized, with the smarter ones probably fretting about excessive inbreeding.”

        About 6500 words into a projected 70K initial book, so completion would be down the road a bit.

        1. I *like* the notion of Steampunk Numenor, but I am generally fond of finding new and exciting dystopias. 🙂 But considering how much of my childhood I misspent making up Ranger/Dunedain adventures, Steampunk Dunedain totally hits my happy place. Good luck with it!

          1. Thank you, and I might get around to Steampunk Numenor sometime. One of my jokes about it is that I need Rings of Power to release a few more seasons and show me how *not* to do the fall of Numenor. 🙂

  2. I figure out my characters like I do most people in my life: not by asking questions, but by watching what they do, what emotions they show, what they say and choose, and how they react. What do they want? What do they value? What way will their training channel their reactions?

    Some characters will also let me know what they’re feeling, some won’t. My poor love and some of my friends have put up with me ranting about characters that won’t explain or emote at all, and I have to figure them out without any help or feedback. Which goes back to goals, motivations, culture, and training – set up the scene, and see what they do.

    Oddly, those are the ones readers have really connected with, and felt I got really right. So I figure my subconscious is smarter than I am about analyzing and predicting people who are Not Me than my conscious is.

      1. Given how appalled J.K. Rowling was with the tween girls and older women going all gaga over Snape, that’s probably a good thing. (“He’s a greasy get! How could you possibly find him attractive?” I believe was her quote.)

            1. More Adaptational Attractiveness, perhaps. Although supposedly the professor she had dealt in real life whom Snape was partially patterned on, was considered something of a ladies’ man among his peers (though very correct in his dealings with students.)

              1. *laughs* In which case, maybe the author’s subconscious knew things the conscious did not? And readers responded to the whole character, not just the part the conscious mind intended?

                …I’ve been there.

                1. Could be. I’m reminded of Dorothy Sayers’ story about talking to a fan about Murder Must Advertise, and how part of her plan had been to show how artificial both the Bright Young Things world and the advertising world were, and the fan said something like: “And Peter Wimsey, who represents reality, never appears in either world except in disguise.” Sayers was much struck because she hadn’t thought of it like that.

        1. There were women in Nazi Germany who went gaga over the villain of Jud Suess which depicts a noticeably evil Jew even among the Jews of Nazi propaganda. . . .

          1. I have to wonder how many people in the Nazi Germany movie industry got in trouble over that one.

      2. My love laughed at me when I was halfway through the first book with Twitch as a main character… and finally realized he was ADHD. I mean, you think I would have known, given he’s affectionately called “Twitch.”

        But he is drawn from several gentlemen I know, and also a whole character complete in himself. And he doesn’t think of himself that way. And I never thought of his progenitors that way. So it wasn’t until a teammate was explaining his ability to hyperfocus that it finally clicked – because someone else was describing him to a third party.

        I still never used the phrase ADHD in the book, because it wouldn’t fit in that world. But now he bounces around the inside of my head, sticking himself into stories that weren’t supposed to have him and dragging them into the series, and I’m like “Oh, I understand you now.”

        1. My main character in the current series-in-process has, as one of his inherited skills, the FOCUS, an ability to really concentrate on a problem to the exclusion of outside events. It’s a source of amusement to his friends, but it’s very much a conscious tool.

          1. As distinguished from an unconscious character trait that makes his loved ones ask “What the hell is wrong with you?” when he is *supposed* to be paying attention to those outside events…As Marion G. Harmon observes in his “Wearing the Cape” series, having a superpower you can’t switch off is not always to your benefit.

  3. A lot of my stories include the character commenting on the past to some degree. In others, my subconscious kicks out a bit of family history. For example, in one of the two music-inspired stories I’m sort-of working on (the primary WIP comes first), one of the protagonists has an odd name. He chose it. His father made a terrible choice that affects the son – or that the son is afraid will affect him – which leads to the name choice, and his very unusual if perhaps excessive self-restraint (doesn’t drink, doesn’t get physically intimate). Because of what bubbled up about his father, I could shape the character better. [Trying to avoid a huge possible spoiler]

  4. I tend to start my characters young, and when I don’t, I manage a few reactions or memories that explain his actions.

    My current MC was just transferred back home after five yeas abroad, so he stayed in the family mansion for a month until he’d found a place . . . Just a competent, intelligent fellow, who on the path to . . .

    Then the Muse informed me he was only staying with his horrible family to check on these two boys he practically raised, when they were ignored to the point of abuse as babies, and he’s going to need to rescue the now-teenagers from his evil family . . .

    I guess my subconscious is in charge of characters.

  5. I’m a relative beginner, but one of the things I’ve recently noticed is that the more you learn about a character, the more you learn about how they would have behaved in the past.

    E.g. I’ve just finished writing a conversation during which a secondary character explains to the primary why she doesn’t ask about another person’s family (in story reasons relating to her having been told that she shouldn’t say too much about her own family). But this means that when the two first met the secondary would have left those questions to a third character. Except that I didn’t note that behaviour when I wrote the scene when they first met, so I’m going to have to retcon that earlier scene to ensure that there’s at least a passing reference to that particular pattern so the reader doesn’t get surprised by “so that’s why she did that” when it comes up in the middle of the conversation I’ve just finished.

    1. I’ve had that happen too. The first fanfic thing I had a character essentially ask why they didn’t just turn around and leave right then.

      Going back, figuring it out and fixing the problem made the story much stronger.

  6. My current problem is creating secondary characters that have a life. My main character I can handle, (He’s just like me, only different!) but the people I want him to interact with have no personality at all. Then again, I’ve chosen a setting with an environment, culture, and day-to-day routines and concerns I know very little about, and my imagination can’t quite pick up the slack.

    1. …and that’s a key part of that feeling of vacuum. You have to live with the characters and their world to really get a feel for them. That’s why it’s so much easier (if less challenging) to use existing worlds or archetype characters.

      One way to do that when the characters/world are still new to your imagination that works for me is to pose imaginary questions, like “What would happen if X had a child no one knew about that he had to leave behind and now regrets? Does he worry about what Y would think? Does he have enough money to do something about it? How would he react to Y interfering with it? Where did the child come from? etc., etc. Just spin out scenarios that don’t necessarily have anything to do with your actual plot, and see how the character would react.

      1. Ah, yes, I can see how that could work. So the MC has a sister or cousin. Which of her children got eaten by a leopard? How long ago? Or was it a crocodile? Where were the men of the tribe when this happened? Did the other women blame her for being inattentive? Was she? Do this kind of thing for a few more people, and maybe I have an actual story.

    2. One trick I’ve learned is “assign a trait.”

      One set I’ve used and know others use is the Olympians. Make one secondary character like Ares, the next like Apollo, the next like Hermes. . . .

    3. If there’s something in particular you want to happen, and you have a clear idea of the protagonist, then you might be able to figure out what the other people need to be doing, and therefore what kind of person might do that. Otherwise, yeah, additional research might be needed.

  7. Two things that I do which are probably very, very wrong.

    Characters show up in my writing, and if they’re interesting I follow them around. Current WIP, the waitress at a Beijing cafe doing a maid cosplay promotion. She ends up getting folded into the story, one of the Valkyries decides she’s the bee’s knees. We find out through conversation and meeting various other characters (werewolf, elf queen, Kali the Destroyer) what her background is.

    Plotted? No, really not. On the plus side, I now know how to say “holy shit!” in Mandarin.

    The other thing I do which is probably wrong is change viewpoints and time-zones to check in with other characters, because I want to see what they’re doing. The events of the day (aka the plot) are moving forward, but sort of as a backdrop to what each person is doing.

    Current WIP, invasion of enemy star system as viewed from the pool downstairs at Angels Inc. Then as viewed by the aliens getting invaded, (they are alarmed and confused but they’re @$$h0les so that’s a good thing) then from the command deck of the invading star ship the TSN Bonaventure, then from the crew cabin of a giant tank roaring around on the enemy planet making a nuisance of itself. (If 30,000 tons of fusion powered doom can be considered a nuisance, anyway. ~:D) My Beijing waitress and her Valkyrie rescued/captured an alien and they were having a very interesting conversation.

    My biggest problem is that none of these people want to do the invasion. They’re much more interested in each other, and any excuse is good enough to have them ignoring the action for a bit of recreation.

    On the other hand, it keeps the sturm und drang of warfare out of the book, which I view as a blessing to the reader. Who wants yet another depressing SF where everybody is an a-hole and everybody dies? We have the Nebulas for that.

  8. Sometimes I have to ‘argue’ with my characters who take off on tangents that DO NOT fit where the book is going… sigh

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