Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Going Old School for Character Ideas

Are all of your characters starting to sound the same? Do they lack a
unique something at their core? Here’s an exercise that can help you
come up with new characters.

It starts with Theophrastus. Who in the world was Theophrastus, you
ask? He was an afterthought to the golden age of Ancient Greek
literature, in short. But around 319 b.c.e. he wrote a strange work
that you might find helpful. It’s called “Characters,” and it consists
of 30 short character descriptions of various types, like “The
Insincere Man,” “The Man without Moral Feeling,” “The Talkative Man,”
and so on. They’re all defined by their flaws, so they are inherently
interesting, in story-telling terms. He makes up typical dialogue and
situations for each of them which you can translate to a modern
setting, if that’s your thing.

For example, here is Theophrastus on “The Unseasonable Man”:

The Unseasonable man is one who will go up to a busy person, and open
his heart to him. He will serenade his mistress when she has a fever.
He will address himself to a man who has been cast in a surety-suit,
and request him to become his security. He will come to give evidence
when the trial is over. When he is asked to a wedding, he will inveigh
against womankind. He will propose a walk to those who have just come
off a long journey. He has a knack, also, of bringing a higher bidder
to him who has already found his market. He loves to rise and go
through a long story to those who have heard it and know it by heart;
he is zealous, too, in charging himself with offices which one would
rather not have done, but is ashamed to decline. When people are
sacrificing and incurring expense, he will come to demand his
interest. If he is present at the flogging of a slave, he will relate
how a slave of his own was once beaten in the same way — and hanged
himself; or, assisting at an arbitration, he will persist in
embroiling the parties when they both wish to be reconciled. And, when
he is minded to dance, he will seize upon another person who is not
yet drunk.

Aside from some historical strangeness, a lot of this still has
resonance, and you can use just one of the situations, or make a
variation on any of them, to develop your own character or story.

Go skim the rest at http://www.eudaemonist.com/biblion/characters.

A lot of the descriptions are actually pretty funny, and here are
several ways you can use them:

1. Find one that seems especially interesting to you as a basis for a
character, and develop it. Think about an interesting situation to
plop that character down into. What will really challenge that person
the most? Or give them a chance to shine?

2. Turn the flaw into a virtue, and create a story that is a response
to Theophrastus’ unfair slander against your character.

3. Change a significant detail, and see how that changes your idea of
the character: make the character a woman instead of a man, make them
a recent immigrant from China, make them a dog, or a child, or a
magician. You’re a writer—use your imagination!

Click here to learn more about Darren Howard.

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