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After some feedback from this site and a training course, I developed a little tool to help with character generation. It's called "20 Questions" and works just like that: It picks 20 questions (or more) which you can then answer to build an image of your character.

You can find it here (or download it to run it offline).

Question: Is that a useful approach? Or does it distract more than it helps?

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There's not anti-hero option... :( –  Raskolnikov Dec 5 '10 at 17:15
    
Besides, where is the generator? –  Raskolnikov Dec 5 '10 at 17:19
    
@Raskolnikov: You can enter anything you want; the suggestions are just that: suggestions. As for "generator": Do you have a better word? –  Aaron Digulla Dec 5 '10 at 17:47
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I don't know, but when I read generator, I assumed it would be something like this for instance. Except for characters. –  Raskolnikov Dec 5 '10 at 17:50

5 Answers 5

Generators, I've found, tend to produce bland characters. There are few, if any, substitutes for spending time with your characters. Obviously you can't meet your characters in-person. What you can do is use writing prompts to put characters in everyday situations and see how they handle themselves.

A useful tool is stereotyping your character. Think about all your favorite characters, or the characters you want to imitate. Now draw up a character diamond of this stereotype.

A character diamond is a collection of four traits that best describe a character. Usually one of the traits is negative, called The Flaw, and the other is positive, called The Highlight. People change in bad or stressful situations, and their true nature, which is normally hidden, tends to come out. The trait that emerges during a conflict is called The Shadow. How a character acts in everyday life is called The Facade

The Facade is the top of the diamond, The Flaw is on the left, The Highlight is on the right, and the Shadow is on the bottom.

To be clear, a character diamond only lists the most dominant of traits, and is just a tool getting a better grasp on who your character really is.

Now, think, how is my character different? How can I distinguish them from the stereotype? Often, being unique is not a requirement to hold readers attention; an interesting character can be made by a couple degrees of difference. Change either a character's Flaw or Highlight, and either The Shadow or The Facade to some other trait to create an interesting new persona.

To help you along, you should take a look at TV Tropes which, despite the name, has many articles, and discussions on characters from novels, as well as stereotypes, and gives more specific examples than I could possibly ever list. Also Google "character diamonds" for articles that go into greater depth. Getting a list of character traits is also useful for gaining some ideas.

Blindly asking questions without knowing who, even in the simplest sense, your character is on the personality level, is a recipe for boring. Answering some basic questions about the character is good, so long as you ask the right questions.

Too many forms provide a laundry list of physical questions, hair, eyes, height, build, clothing, gender, age, occupation, etc. The problem with this is beginning writers assume that these questions are important; are these questions important, really? The answer to that is only if the answers help tie the character to the narrative, or inspire further development.

It is the difference between John Doe, thinning hair, who works as a chemistry teacher in some boring this is my life sort of story, and Walter White, worried about his thinning hair and thinning health, dying of cancer, and using his occupational knowledge in chemistry to cook meth so his family won't suffer financially when he is gone.

Spend some time with your characters, their (supposed) to be people too! You want your readers to perceive them as real, right? After all, characters are how your readers connect to the narrative. When a character feels like a person, it engages the reader's suspension of disbelief, so to me characters are the most important part of writing. Don't do your characters, the people of your mind, injustice by asking the wrong questions, and writing them into a narrative before really knowing who they are.

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Some of the questions you use might be beneficial for a writer to refer to when trying to work out the details of a character they already have in mind. I think most people already pretty much know "who" is going to be in their book, but they may not know all the details about that person yet. Some of your questions or those proposed by justkt could help painting a better picture of the characters you have in mind.

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Some tool such as this could be useful, but I believe you are asking the wrong questions.

In my answer to the question you linked and another answer in that question by Fox Cutter, the questions we posed weren't life detail questions. They were motivation questions. There's a key difference.

I might create this shell man who gets up at 6:45 on the dot every morning, drives a car that is so small that his head constantly rubs up against the ceiling of it to work every day, drinks a cup of coffee at precisely 3 hour intervals, and leaves at precisely 5 p.m. every day, unless he has to stay late working on a presentation. Why should you care about this guy, though?

On the other hand, what if I tell you that this character has a deep-set drive to feel that his every moment is contributing to the cosmic good, and his job consists of him merely editing the sales team's answers to customer questions. At most at the end of the day he can drive home in his too-small car telling himself that he made sure the customer was clear on the order of instructions written by someone else. He's desperately afraid that he will never be able to find significant work at his current salary, which he needs to support his wife and child. All of a sudden there's a struggle. People might even identify with this guy.

Your questions need to be about

  • fears
  • desires
  • hopes
  • motivations
  • dreams
  • passions
  • doubts
  • goals

not about daily habits. We do things because we will things because we want things. Your tool should encourage me as an author to think about what my character wants, which starts the whole process off, and why he or she might not be able to get it.

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Excellent points. I'll add those; I was already thinking about grouping questions or giving them importance. What you mention is important for the story; my questions are important to flesh the character out, to give it history and depth. –  Aaron Digulla Dec 17 '10 at 22:57
    
Good God that was a great answer. +1 all the way –  Aerovistae Mar 23 '12 at 13:25

Question: Is that a useful approach?

No.

Or does it distract more than it helps?

Yes.

The problem with this approach is that it causes the writer to think carefully and intelligently about their character, which the last thing in the world he should be doing.

When you're writing a story, you're attempting to create a work of art.

You can't create art by filling out a form.

"But at least it can help you get started."

No it can't. Not even a little.

In many ways, characters are like real people. They're capricious, illogical, and contradictory. They have traits, which they betray and subvert at every opportunity. They do the last thing you'd expect.

You, the artist, can't discover these things about your character until you actually live with him. It takes time and effort.

If you try to bypass that time-consuming, uncertain, and somewhat painful process with some sort of tool, your characters will not be anything like real people. Instead, they are certain to be boring, predictable, and utterly implausible.

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I viewed the tool as a place to start thinking about this person you are going to live with. In writer's workshops they teach you to answer questions about your characters - why not have a tool for it? –  justkt Dec 17 '10 at 19:32
    
@justkt I'm saying "thinking" is counterproductive as it stifles imagination and tries to turn the act of creation into a reliable mechanical procedure. "Why not have a tool for it?" By all means go ahead! Use one if you feel it helps. But can you imagine Robert A. Heinlein using a tool to invent a character? Do you think Death from The Sandman could have been created with a tool? As for writer's workshops... You wouldn't actually follow advice you got in a writer's workshop would you? The whole point of a writer's workshop is to learn what not to do. –  Ethan Dec 17 '10 at 21:37
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Sorry, no points from me either. I understand what you're thinking ("art isn't mechanical"). My feeling is that imagination works better if you have a spark. The tool gives you lots of those by asking weird questions. For examine the question "Scheming?" Most characters aren't but an answer can be: How does he react to scheming? Oh, even better, a relative was scheming, so he hates it. Nah, too obvious. To what lengths would he go to stop scheming? Or isn't he scheming, too? At least a bit? etc. –  Aaron Digulla Dec 17 '10 at 23:03
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Writing is a craft. Crafts can benefit from tools. Not every tool fits every task, and not every task can be solely completed by tools, but attempting to create a tool and asking for ways it can be improved is a worthwhile activity. –  Panda Mar 23 '11 at 22:33

I'm not sure what all these questions mean. For example, one of them was "Dying?" Is it asking whether this character will die? Is it asking how this character would react if someone else died? How is this character related to the dying person? That will have a big effect on the impact it has on the character.

I think that it's a great idea for helping with character building in theory, but I think that the questions need to be quite a bit more specific as well, so I can spend time reacting and answering the questions as my character rather than trying to decipher the question.

EDIT: Overall I think this idea has potential if the questions are cleaned up a bit.

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But that's the point: Making you think about your character -- if the question was obvious, the creative process wouldn't start. My goal is to create unique characters not ones which can be created by supplying "yes/no" to some questions. –  Aaron Digulla Dec 5 '10 at 17:12
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@Aaron You can still make specific open-ended questions instead of vague ones. As it stands, the vagueness of the questions makes me spend a disproportionate amount of time figuring out what to answer and not enough time thinking about the answer itself. –  StrixVaria Dec 5 '10 at 17:24
    
@Aaron Upon looking at the page again, it seems like "Dying?" might be the only one with this problem. –  StrixVaria Dec 5 '10 at 17:28
    
You can find all questions in questions.js; I'm pretty sure that other questions are too vague, too. But then, you can simply delete it and get another one. Or do you have a suggestion for better/other questions? –  Aaron Digulla Dec 5 '10 at 17:49
    
StrixVaria: "Prefers warm meal or dinner" also has the problem. I haven't an idea how I'd answer that for any character in my mind right now. –  David Thornley Dec 5 '10 at 17:49

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