Tuesday, July 7, 2015

On the Dimensional Escalation of Character Profiles

The second week in Indonesia begins. I haven't written as much as I should, possibly because I've discovered something more immediately gratifying to do related to my portfolio of stories: make character profiles.

Character profiles in this case amounts to a simple list of character attributes, demographic data, weird things I associate with them, music, similar characters from other works. As an example:

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Full Name: Marilla [middlename] Rieux

Birth Date: November something
Hair: long, straight, brown / ends dyed blue in modern AU
Eyes: dark blue
Height: 5'6"
Gender: Cis female
Sexuality: Homoromantic/sexual (lesbian)
Ethnicity: French
Religion: Catholic
Voice: soprano

Related weird things:
Animal: Sparrow
Color/Number: 06
Flower: Lily
God - Greek: Artemis
Hogwarts House: Ravenclaw
Instrument: Clarinet, piano
MBTI: INFJ
Stone: Sapphire

Similar characters:
Belle - Beauty and the Beast
Jena - Wildwood Dancing
Kagome - InuYasha
Nita - Young Wizards
Sailor Mercury - Sailor Moon

Music:
Lorde (especially "Team")
Owl City
Faded Paper Figures
Mika (especially "Elle Me Dit")
"Take Me to Church" - Alice Christiansen cover

Creator's notes:
Last name after Doctor Rieux from Camus's Plague

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These are fun for a few reasons: it's similar to taking personality quizzes but it's for someone else, it's easy (because you fill in what you know and if you don't know an answer you just delete that field for now), it lets you consider your character from different points of view (what kind of tea is my character, after all?), and it provides you a common platform for looking at your characters, which means that you can discover patterns. Everyone loves patterns (everyone's brains, at least).

The first character profile I made was of Vincent Linden, my main Doppelgänger, and I made it at the beginning of the year because for some reason, writing that Vin identified as aro/ace (prior to falling in love for the first time at age 25) felt like a necessary step in claiming my own identity as an asexual.

(My experience with my Doppelgangers has made me very sympathetic to the use of thinly veiled self inserts. Vin was a civil engineer before I knew I wanted to be one. Terez, the current WIP's Doppelgänger, is helping me think about my gender identity.) (Spoiler alert: I'm questioning it.)

The one that started off the current spree was Stefano Idoni, main character of the as yet undeveloped Shadow Fissure. He and Marilla are both very different from me and I wanted to list a lot of details about him to try to triangulate an identity. Of course characters develop as you write them, but I wanted a first guess from which to iterate, especially since I don't (think I) personally know anyone who can serve in a pinch as the proxy.

Marilla is very similar to my best friend since they're both INFJ single children with long brown hair, a love of the ocean, and advanced observational skills. They're definitely different, and Marilla was not based on LS, but the similarities were useful enough that early on, I could ask as a check for character plausibility "would LS have done that?" If the answer was hell no, then it was wrong. "Maybe not?" could still stand.

For Stefano, there isn't anyone analogous, so asking "what Hogwarts house would he be in?" actually provided useful information. (The answer is Hufflepuff, by the way.) Modern-America-AUing it also helped a lot. Which university would he go to? Stanford, I found.* Why? Because it would mean disregarding his father's wish for him to go to an Ivy League school and instead spend his college years in California. Which dorm would he live in his freshman year? Ujamaa. Of course. What would he major in? Probably public policy, but I discovered to my utter surprise that he would minor or double major in computer science.**

*You may accuse me of being biased and working from my narrow experience. Fair enough. But Stanford is a school full of ambitious idealists an Ste is definitely one of those.

**Or CS+Public Policy?

What does this mean when I write the Bildungsroman of a medieval Italian prince, that in 21st century America he would study computer science at Stanford University in California? It means he has a methodical mind, that he pays attention to detail, that he likes to think about systems, that he takes advantage of the situations presented to him, that he is willing to learn new things and not just in a superficial way. Why is he interested in CS? 1) The intellectual challenge and reward of making something out of nothing. 2) The practicality of being able to do so. Not the prestige, the money, or the glamor. He likes to hack situations in beneficial ways. (Remember: he is a Hufflepuff.)

I was worried about Stefano. He started off in the very first iteration of SF as an evil prince, then a Machiavellian prince, then swung all the way to being a shiny ingenuous pure-hearted Disney prince who is the very paragon of goodness and also not a character I could bear to spend any time writing.

But now I know that his patron god is Apollo, just like Octavian, and that while the Hufflepuff could have been predicted it's significant in that he is Hufflepuff instead of Gryffindor, as one might expect for a guy who is expected to lead an army. Realizing that he's a closeted CS guy is my most important discovery, because it introduces a note of tension. He's not just a fuzzy-hearted golden prince: he's also a guy who, in the right circumstances, would stay up late writing extensions to a project because he thought wow, this would be useful at midnight and then could not bear to go to sleep until he'd made the damn thing work.

Despite the mileage I've gotten out of the "Stefano likes to code" discovery, I still suspect he will be a more difficult character to write than Marilla, and Marilla is a difficult character to write compared to Vin. But at least I have a better idea of who he is. I don't know any princes, but I do know programmers.

As my story ideas go, Shadow Fissure is more close to critical mass than most others (critical mass being the point at which it becomes something I could start writing). Marilla is of course my current main character, and I am Vin. But it is also fun to make these profiles for characters who have not yet found their story yet, and realize how consistent they are already and also where there are gaps in your knowledge of them. The main thing that's missing is often what was missing for Stefano: a source of tension, contrast, even contradiction. Real people are three dimensional, and characters should aspire to that, but to get a character off the ground often I need that duality as kind of a starter. The ideal is that then I write the character large enough to enclose the contrast believably.

The list is one dimensional; but see where it may lead.

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