Re: Theme and motivations of characters - how do you generate character ethos?

#3
Have you read Lajos Egri's Art of Dramatic Writing?  It's the foundational book about theme and character motivation in fiction.  The Dramatica system also has a nice list of terms.  Avoidance, for example: a character motivated by an excess of avoidance would go to absurd and possibly unethical lengths to avoid a thing he or she is afraid of (probably a fear caused by a past trauma).  So if your villain as a child was forced to "be seen and not heard" and sit through adults actively insulting him because he's not allowed to talk back, he might go to the length of preemptively insulting people so they won't try to chat with him.  You would usually construct this in reverse order - my villain is like this other villain I enjoyed seeing in a movie, who randomly insulted everyone as soon as he met them.  Why might my villain have started doing that due to his own personal history?  Does my villain do anything else out of social norms or as a hobby/interest that could have the same underlying cause?

Re: Theme and motivations of characters - how do you generate character ethos?

#4

sunandshadow Wrote: Have you read Lajos Egri's Art of Dramatic Writing?  It's the foundational book about theme and character motivation in fiction.  The Dramatica system also has a nice list of terms.  Avoidance, for example: a character motivated by an excess of avoidance would go to absurd and possibly unethical lengths to avoid a thing he or she is afraid of (probably a fear caused by a past trauma).  So if your villain as a child was forced to "be seen and not heard" and sit through adults actively insulting him because he's not allowed to talk back, he might go to the length of preemptively insulting people so they won't try to chat with him.  You would usually construct this in reverse order - my villain is like this other villain I enjoyed seeing in a movie, who randomly insulted everyone as soon as he met them.  Why might my villain have started doing that due to his own personal history?  Does my villain do anything else out of social norms or as a hobby/interest that could have the same underlying cause?
I was a psych major, and behavioral systems or characteristics always intrigued me. I never read "Art of Dramatic Writing" but the ethos of these things I have pretty well understood.


I have one brutal antagonist/villain who is a Cajun, normally a very generous people, but this guy (while never having developed these details in the novel) was ashamed of his family's lowly place, simple folks who were a little screwed up in familial love... so a little like you reference, he grows up a petulant punk who digs exalting his brilliance over others (and he IS brilliant) and everything is a vengeance to him - on people, on society, on a police authority... And his technical and digital wizardly is how he begins his little redneck cartel in the bayou outside Baton Rouge...

He collects little critter skeletons and hangs them in the trees off the Blind River... their significance, they are a smart killer's trophy case, eaach skeleton representing his own murder vics, instead of getting busted with mementos. 

More fiendish than the alligators and water moccasins. 

Re: Theme and motivations of characters - how do you generate character ethos?

#5
I find that I understand things better when I make up my own ways of expressing my understanding. As I've tried to understand good stories, the shorthand that works for me is "interesting people doing interesting things in interesting ways." Of course, those things interact. So, a passionately creative individual growing up and trying to find the best outlet for that might not be all that interesting if they are in a family that recognizes and appreciates that and situates them in an environment rich with alternatives. I would sort of expect them to succeed and be only mildly interested in how. But what if he or she is in a family of engineers, or one where security in one's path through life is paramount? Then that raises other questions. Does the family love each other? Is one or both parents trying to live out unfulfilled life goals through their progeny? Does the MC want to make the parents proud? Things are getting interesting.

Or, what about a boy born small and with fragile bones into a militaristic culture that developed on a planet where high radiation levels and a culture that devolved to horses and swords engendered a tremendous antipathy toward any physical deformity or abnormality? Oh, and the boy is the son and grandson of great military leaders, a cousin and close friend of the prince. And he is also brilliant, high energy, a tactical and strategic genius, and a gifted leader? Interesting. How does he express his capabilities despite the adversity of his physical condition and his society's biases? (And, yes, that is Lois Bujold's Vorkosigan books.)

As for antagonists, what about those who are simply trying to do a good thing, but are blind to how their good may be limiting some other good? (For a great graphic of how values conflict, search for "Schwartz human values." For example, someone so committed to environmentalism that they are blind to how their efforts damage the lives and opportunities of others? Or, for a very-well-trod, maybe even a trope, what about a parent trying to find the right way to parent a child with a gift at something? Stage parent or dad pushing son to be the athlete he couldn't be are possible approaches, but, for a real-life story, try Searching for Bobby Fischer, (book is better than the movie for this, I think) where the Dad tells one of the son's teachers who criticizes his trips for tournaments that never result in seeing the cities in which they are held, "You don't understand. He's better at chess than you or I will ever be at anything in our lives." And what if the child isn't one dimensional, but also likes school and baseball and pizza parties? Parenting in that situation is interesting.

I think going back and forth between characters, situation, and plot helps with all of this. It becomes a question of how your character, not just any old character, will act in the situation to reach their goals. The more you let them act true to themselves, the better. 

Or, maybe not. Just my way of thinking about it. Maybe it will make sense to someone else and be helpful. That would be cool. If not, hope it doesn't hurt!

Re: Theme and motivations of characters - how do you generate character ethos?

#6
When I wrote my first story, I didn't really think much of that (and it shows pretty obviously), but as I continued writing on, I guess the main areas of focus lay in power, fear, and loyalty/camaraderie?

For many characters, they get somewhat or completely broken when they lose someone close to them. While the antagonist becomes bitter over the loss and wishes to completely dismantle and rebuild the system that led to his tragedy in the first place, the protagonist tries to protect what he has left. The irony of the antagonist's view lay in the fact that he, in turn, causes many similar tragedies in the course of reaching his goal. The protagonist, meanwhile, bases his identity on protecting the ones he has left, but risks losing himself entirely if he fails.

Because of the aforementioned losses and goals of the respective characters, power and fear also play huge roles as means to do what they're doing. The antagonist has strong political power, but the fear of losing such power leads him to become increasingly controlling even to his most loyal subordinates. Meanwhile, the protagonist has a strong, nearly OP "physical" (if one can call it that) power, but fears it due to the destruction it brings to himself and others and tries to resist it, but running the risk of compromising his main goal of protecting the ones he cares about.

Re: Theme and motivations of characters - how do you generate character ethos?

#8
I love stereotypes and subverting them. 

My most recent protagonist was a goblin who’s race was despised by close to everything that moved. The catch was that goblins were on the very brink of extinction which even if the protagonist wasn’t aware of that progressed the story forward. He learned the local human language from the humans that had captured him as a prized specimen and he later learned of empathy through the kindness of a child who helped him while he was starving in a cage. Lots of thinking later and a light guiding hand allowed him to put his life and the things around him into perspective. By all accounts I tried to portray the character as nothing more than a sack of shit out for his own interests and “pleasure”,if you catch my drift, before this point.

Anyway without spoiling the rest and making this a boring summary of a character’s evolution I found the idea of a close to feral thing like a goblin becoming wiser and more worldly a nice idea so that’s how I continued on. As for the specific character motivation leading to that change I would say that it was hopelessness, suffering and the situation at hand that forced it, although this changes as the character changes over time.

Re: Theme and motivations of characters - how do you generate character ethos?

#9

Sake Wrote: Everyone wants something, some people think they are right, and some people don't think...they just act on what their instincts and desires tell them to.
Well, yea. This is a little more general than I was thinking. 


I guess my "investigative intent" was to hear what the writer's personal favorite "motivation" might be for his literary characters. Is it born of your own? Is it character specific with no connection to one's own moral position?

That sort of thing.

For me, the ethos of the protag generally follows my own "moral thesis", while the FUN of writing the antagonist is EVERYTHING is on the table to choose from. But even in THAT it tells me a little about how my own morals create that character. 

For me, it's the greater intrigue of the written story. 

Re: Theme and motivations of characters - how do you generate character ethos?

#10

VladThatGuy Wrote:
Sake Wrote: Everyone wants something, some people think they are right, and some people don't think...they just act on what their instincts and desires tell them to.
Well, yea. This is a little more general than I was thinking. 


I guess my "investigative intent" was to hear what the writer's personal favorite "motivation" might be for his literary characters. Is it born of your own? Is it character specific with no connection to one's own moral position?

That sort of thing.

For me, the ethos of the protag generally follows my own "moral thesis", while the FUN of writing the antagonist is EVERYTHING is on the table to choose from. But even in THAT it tells me a little about how my own morals create that character. 

For me, it's the greater intrigue of the written story.

oh that.

well, usually I give them a goal that is synchronized with the narrative and the genre.

for example, a romance mc would have a goal of winning the heart of their love interest, and the antagonist would be someone who tried to stop it(for example because they are jealous).

I don't really think in terms of morality and ethos.

Re: Theme and motivations of characters - how do you generate character ethos?

#11

Sake Wrote:
VladThatGuy Wrote:
Sake Wrote: Everyone wants something, some people think they are right, and some people don't think...they just act on what their instincts and desires tell them to.
Well, yea. This is a little more general than I was thinking. 


I guess my "investigative intent" was to hear what the writer's personal favorite "motivation" might be for his literary characters. Is it born of your own? Is it character specific with no connection to one's own moral position?

That sort of thing.

For me, the ethos of the protag generally follows my own "moral thesis", while the FUN of writing the antagonist is EVERYTHING is on the table to choose from. But even in THAT it tells me a little about how my own morals create that character. 

For me, it's the greater intrigue of the written story.

oh that.

well, usually I give them a goal that is synchronized with the narrative and the genre.

for example, a romance mc would have a goal of winning the heart of their love interest, and the antagonist would be someone who tried to stop it(for example because they are jealous).

I don't really think in terms of morality and ethos.
Thx. It's interesting to me, simply as that morality/ethos seems to be at center of storytelling, even if as a side effect of the character study. 


I believe you are sort of just saying, "My characters 'just do', and those actions are sort of independent of your own moral position? That's what it sounds like. That's cool, a little more independence of character from writer. Interesting approach. I have always had my characters play in my sandbox, sort of. 

No telling where my characters would go if not imbued with the strings of my own moral thesis. Earth might fly off its axis! :)

Re: Theme and motivations of characters - how do you generate character ethos?

#12
Applying a character arc for your antagonist can be of considerable value to a story line. My character Kane is a complex character who loves his daughter, and wants the best for her. When he essentially sells her to the international corporation, for a tidy sum of money, he does it because he can make the excuse that she will live better off the streets. When she invests something amazing and becomes a major assets, of course he feels like its time for his baby to come home, after all the big company is just exploiting her for her value, a value that belongs, in his mind, to their street family.

Most would make him out as purely greedy, but once he has it all, he still wants what's his daughter's best interest, he just doesn't realize....


My point is that sure, they need to have a more complexity that just being evil, their motivations are important, but that doesn't mean their motivations aren't tainted.  Even the far less capable little brother of Kane, Seth has motivations that are more complex them then even his simplistic nature understands.

Re: Theme and motivations of characters - how do you generate character ethos?

#14
I like the plot gardening method of character flaws. Works for me. 

It lists four categories of flaws - moral flaws, psychological flaws, physical flaws, and social flaws, and suggest that main characters have at least three of each. Moral flaws would be things the character could very well do that their society would consider immoral (but may or may not be immoral in another society), psychological flaws is trauma and other things that makes them do stuff that ain't good for them in the end, physical flaws could be anything such as injury or age, and social flaws is stuff the character can't help but still puts them at disadvantage socially, such as being part of a minority, being an orphan, or the 'wrong' social class. 

It's a nice method. It makes it pretty easy to start gleaning what would really be important to this character and why. (It's also nice for creating characters that compliments their flaws.)

Re: Theme and motivations of characters - how do you generate character ethos?

#15

Haust Wrote: I like the plot gardening method of character flaws. Works for me. 

It lists four categories of flaws - moral flaws, psychological flaws, physical flaws, and social flaws, and suggest that main characters have at least three of each. Moral flaws would be things the character could very well do that their society would consider immoral (but may or may not be immoral in another society), psychological flaws is trauma and other things that makes them do stuff that ain't good for them in the end, physical flaws could be anything such as injury or age, and social flaws is stuff the character can't help but still puts them at disadvantage socially, such as being part of a minority, being an orphan, or the 'wrong' social class. 

It's a nice method. It makes it pretty easy to start gleaning what would really be important to this character and why. (It's also nice for creating characters that compliments their flaws.)
Yea, this soounds like a good discipline.


For me, I am an older dude - let's pretend I wasn't born BEFORE 1960 just for the sake of me HIDING how old I really am.... ;)

But I also studied "gradeeated" social psych. Put those two things together and notions of badness flow like lava. 

I think I subconsciously DO something similar to your discipline, but mine is like a shortcut on a bar napkin. 

My FIRST aim in the antagonist is to identify HIS/HER weakness, in life, in vulnerabilities but in AVARICE, GREED OR LUST. Drugs, thievery, digital theft, all of that is next level data.

Then HOW would this villain BE... not behave. But BE!

That's the shorthand of how mine come to life.

The good guy must have some duality about him... he must "go there" if push comes to shove. Nothing PURE about the guy/girl. Warring does that to good people. Compromise is made for sake of expeditious solutions! 

Good stuff everybody.

Re: Theme and motivations of characters - how do you generate character ethos?

#16
The short answer is, I'm not 100% sure how I do it but I do.

Basically, I have a few steps I always go through when creating a character.

First, I determine "what is this character's purpose." Normally I'm making a character to fill a need in the story. Like most recently, my main bad guy needed a subordinate who was really good at managing and manipulating people and getting people to fall inline without force but more by winning people to their side. The person needed to be cunning, have political and economic savvy, and a personality that draws people to them.

Okay, so that's the person I need. Then I ask myself. "Who do I know who I could base this character off of."

Usually this helps me with the character's (general) looks, and also helps me create a skeleton personality for them. Normally, especially with bad guys, it's not about who do I know who has the qualities listed above but rather, who do I know who I could imagine has the qualities listed above (I'm not sure how best to describe what that means). It could be a real person or some other character in media I've seen, whatever the case, I now have a base for that character's looks and personality.

After that, I create a character backstory. I can't really flesh out the character's entire life all at once because there could be subtle changes after I throw them into the story, or maybe I just don't know everything about their life from birth until now all at once (sometimes I do). But I need enough of that character's backstory and what led them to where they are now so I can understand why they are going to do the things they do. It also gives me parameters to work with. If I understand who that character is (at leas the last ten years or so of their life or key major events or traumas) then I know what they're likely to do, what they're likely not to do, and it prevents me from having them "act out of character".  This is the point at which character motivations and moral compass come in. I start to learn who this character is, what makes them tick, and why they do the things they do. The more I know about their history (what happened before this story even started), the more I understand how they are likely to act in any given situation.

Once I've done that, then the character basically has a life of its own. I throw them into the story at the point they're introduced, then let them act based on who they are and how they think. At this point, I'm usually letting the character inform me of what they're going to do instead of the other way around. As time goes on, I learn more and more about the character's past and who they are and they grow on their own and I soon have a fully fleshed out character with full backstory and a set of very defined motivations and way of thinking.

This can be a double-edge sword because once you let your characters drive the story, it makes the job a bit harder as the author. I've got all these characters with all these competing motivations and I have scenes that I want or need to play out a certain way and my characters just "aren't having it". So I have to be creative about the challenges I put in their way.

Re: Theme and motivations of characters - how do you generate character ethos?

#17

Haust Wrote: It lists four categories of flaws - moral flaws, psychological flaws, physical flaws, and social flaws, and suggest that main characters have at least three of each


Oh, my! That surely seems like a LOT of flaws! How many strengths mush a character have to keep up with that many? How do you even keep that many in mind as you write? Do most people you know have twelve major flaws?

Re: Theme and motivations of characters - how do you generate character ethos?

#18

InterestingLad Wrote:
Haust Wrote: It lists four categories of flaws - moral flaws, psychological flaws, physical flaws, and social flaws, and suggest that main characters have at least three of each


Oh, my! That surely seems like a LOT of flaws! How many strengths mush a character have to keep up with that many? How do you even keep that many in mind as you write? Do most people you know have twelve major flaws?


It's really not a lot when you think about it. 

Being a child is not a flaw of character. It's just normal and unavoidable. If the setting of a book is a childrens book, being a child is also likely not a flaw. (It might be, though - it's a common trope for adults not to take children as seriously as they should.) 

But if the book is a grimdark, taking place in a recently peaceful land, now plunged into a broiling war? Being a child is a huge flaw now, because children lack physical strength, experience, advanced education and even a certain degree of autonomy that adults take for granted. There's nothing necessarily flawed about the childs character - they just are what they are and in this situation, that happens to really suck, because they are incredibly vulnerable.  

If taking into account all the flaws that aren't necessarily a flaw of character or morality (which as you may note is a separate category among those four categories for this reason) but is a flaw in the setting, then yes, most people I know have at least 12 flaws, myself included. Little flaws like these might not be noticeable IRL, or even be thought of as weakness, but they provide a lot of opportunities for writers to capitalize and push the plot. Something as innocent and random as a mild allergy to cheap hotel shampoo could shape a characters behavior in a plot. Put them all together, and they will form the basics of a characters motivation and morality.