Characters: Musing About Figments

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A rainbow of my protagonists from various stories. You can see Virsune pretty clearly in bright red, bless his bald head.

When I was in high school, I was really into Final Fantasy IV (Square Enix, 1991), which brought me to a fantastic webcomic called Wayrift. It was one of those formative pieces of media for me, mostly because the authors and the associated fanbase talked about characters in a way that made sense to me. I’ve mentioned that I’ve always “grown” my stories by treating them like people instead of machines, which is a common writing technique.

The Sygnus Stories, though, talked about the characters like the authors felt like they were real, which appealed to 17 year old me, and still appeals to 23 year old me today. The reasons are slightly different, I think. As a lonely autistic 17 year old who had been abandoned by their friends only recently, it really appealed to me to think of my characters as people in order to provide some comfort to myself at a time when I was extremely lonely. Now it’s because I’ve found that figments, or muses as I have come to call them, are more than just a comfort technique, but treating my characters like people helps me to write my stories better.

I’ve been told that my view on this is a bad thing, actually, not just because an author needs to be impartial, but because people who think the way I do use our mindset to justify not having more diverse casts. I find, however, that my muses help to keep me more honest about matters of diversity. If I’ve made them the wrong race or gender, something won’t feel right about them until I change it, as if they’re telling me that this is not how they really are and trying to guide me onto the correct path. No matter what the actual psychological reason for that is, I’ve come to care very little, relying on the getting to know you method for all the characters I meet.

I do what comes naturally, according to the characters. They have a set of beliefs and complex thoughts and feelings, not a set of predetermined traits that I wrote in a character bible somewhere. I may not know my character’s shoe size (though there’s certainly nothing wrong with using other methods as long as they work for you), but I find that I do know more about their intimate thoughts and feelings than I might otherwise. If people are more than a series of traits on a piece of paper, I see no reason why my characters shouldn’t be the same, why they shouldn’t expand beyond the paper with my imagination. Whatever I learn about them can lend to adding vibrancy to them and their world, giving them depth that they might not have had otherwise. It’s so much easier for me to ask them questions and get answers, to listen to their feelings and thoughts, than it is for me to try to divine something from a series of traits I assigned them.

I suppose that’s part of why I’m grateful to Sygnus and its authors. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without them and those long defunct forum discussions about whether or not it was okay to feel the way that I did about my characters. Back then it may have been Lusiel (who will forever by one of the princes of my heart and whom I plan to return to someday), but Wayrift caused me to grow, to recognize that there was more to looking at written works, and more to writing, than what I had learned in school.

That’s why, no matter what your method is for character development, whether you’re a muse talker or a list maker or an advocate for character bibles, I hope you think of the things that caused you to travel down your chosen path fondly. We all have reasons for being the way we are and WRITING the way we do. Authors are unique people, so I think it’s important that we recognize that there is no one correct way to be a writer, just as we know that there’s no one correct way to be a person, and that characters don’t have to be good people in order to be interesting.

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7 thoughts on “Characters: Musing About Figments

  1. “I’ve been told that my view on this is a bad thing, actually, not just because an author needs to be impartial, but because people who think the way I do use our mindset to justify not having more diverse casts.”

    I find this interesting. Especially since Wayrift itself has way over 200 characters both main and sub. I don’t think that the Author’s point of view on figments limits a writer’s ability to have a more diverse cast… I think that a writer’s life experience does.

    The older you are and the more you’ve seen, the more you branch out and can experiment with personalities and “flavors” that you didn’t have access to at a younger and less experience world viewpoint. That’s why it’s good to read a lot, watch a lot of movies, play a lot of games and people watch — these all give you a basis for expanding your character diversity by being exposed to different types of characters and people IRL.

    Also, you can still be impartial to figments even if you love them as “real people.” In fact, I think it can be moreso. Do I like and agree with everything my characters choose to do? No. They make bad choices. They say and do things they regret. I don’t stop them from doing these things, or from bad things happening to them in consequence of what they do because that’s what really happens in life. I understand that hard times make a character stronger, even if I don’t like to see them hurt or struggle.

    Again, I think that’s a writer maturity thing. Young writers may want to coddle characters or write them as if they’re immortal and impossibly correct at everything. As time passes, it gets easier to still love a character, no matter how imperfect and flawed (maybe love them moreso because they are)… because we start to understand and accept the flaws within ourselves.

    We move away from writing perfection to writing realism. That’s what the whole idea of figments as real people means to begin with.

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  2. That’s true.

    Now that I think about it, diversity in my casts is proportional to my life experience, not the way that I think about them. Correlation isn’t causation, so maybe the people who think that those of us more attached to our characters are less impartial are talking to young authors, not people who have gained experience. My casts have actually become more diverse as I’ve aged, and existing characters have actually changed from what they used to be into something completely new — this includes Lusiel, who has even had his name changed since I first created him.

    As for your point about impartiality, I’ve actually never thought of it that way before now, but you’re right. I think that I treat my characters in a different way than someone who sees them as tools would. I don’t manufacture struggles or triumphs for them, I let them struggle about on their own. Characters like Virsune wouldn’t exist if I didn’t believe in letting characters make their own mistakes and grow as people.

    I suppose that I fell into the trap of thinking that my attachment to my characters must make me have warmer feelings toward them than someone who seems them as tools, and though I suppose that might be the case, I forgot that warmer feelings doesn’t mean less respect. Respect is really the key component here. I’ve never tried to make my friends do things, as I recognize they have wills of their own, and that extends to my characters.

    I’ve always wanted to write realism, and I’ve always believed that realism of characters is most important in fantasy and science-fiction, where the stakes are higher and the settings and situations are unusual. How can we connect to a world in which there are dragons or high-speed galactic travel if we can’t connect to the personhood of the cast?

    It’s just like my best friend told me — people who see characters as tools may be more likely to kill off a character for shock value instead of thinking about the way that the death impacts the world and the other characters. Deaths might come to be more common and have less meaning, and though in a piece about the horrors of war that sort of death can be interesting, you make just as much of a statement about the horrors of death by showing some sort of body toll of “npcs” , so to speak, than you do by systematically murdering your main cast like it’s a horror movie.

    Actually, that might be a good idea for a story — a group of characters trapped in a house of horrors where their author is the mastermind behind their deaths. At the end it’s revealed that the author is the mastermind and that the reason for their deaths was simply for the entertainment of countless spectators. I wouldn’t write it, though. I like to write hopeful stories.

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  3. What you said about characters keeping you honest in terms of diversity is really true, I’ve found as well. I’ve tried other methods of characterization but “muse-talking” has worked the best for me so far as well, especially in discovering not only how characters are, but how they react in varying situations that go beyond questionnaires and such! Hearing about how you talk to your muses has helped me figure out my own characters a lot. ^^

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    1. I’m glad I could help in some small way. Questionnaires can be a really useful tool, but I find that the ones worded like interviews actually work better than the ones that ask you 50-some odd questions about your characters. It’s useful for me to get into the mindset of my character answering things than it is for me to answer those things about my characters, if that makes sense.

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      1. Yeah! I completely agree– getting a voice of a character down is so important, and I feel that further characterization is easier once I can get a basic read on them as a person and how they speak!

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  4. Being able to understand how they speak is really important. Even how I’d write prose for Virsune vs, say, Xeulo would be incredibly different because they’re very different characters. They notice different things about the environment and the world around them, and of course other people. Characters are the core of any story so I always work the hardest and developing them.

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