Kernel Hunting Exercises: The Casting Call

Yesterday, I talked about the kernel of a character, those parts and attributes that make the character herself. A lot of people try to get across kernels by comparing characters to other fictional characters, either equating them and then noting changes, or picking aspects of those characters. (Sometimes, they even do it the other way around; a friend of mine sold me on a series by describing one character in terms of a couple of my creations.) But there’s another way to play with that, one that’s already recognized by comic artists everywhere: taking a small group (or more) of characters and assigning them into character roles from an existing story.

What does this have to do with character kernels? First, you have to understand the characters whom your characters are being cast as—essentially, attempting to intuit their kernels. What parts define this character?

Then you start comparing your characters to theirs, and figuring out which traits are relevant in casting—and, more interestingly, which aren’t. If you’re looking for a heavy-meta analysis instead of just a thought exercise, you can follow it up with self-examining on why one character was a perfect match for one of yours or another just wouldn’t work under any definition. (While anyone could tell you that it usually ends up being a combination of plot role, personality, skills, and occasionally relationships to the other characters, often one of the above features has more impact than the other. Finding out why is a key to understanding.)

Moreover, tracing the ones that aren’t dealbreakers tells you a lot about what you find important in defining a character. Would you find yourself in a situation where all the main roles in the story end up being filled by minor characters because your main characters’ approach to life better fits people who are vital to the plot but don’t really get screen time until near the end? Or when most of the main characters cast as main characters just fine, but because of plot context the role of the outspoken, outsized-sword-wielding hero-boy is best covered by that quiet NPC girl who relies on small, concealable (and concealed) weapons and almost never fights her way out of trouble? Are you the kind of person for whom the gender of a character trumps anything else, or do you tend to ignore it in favor of other considerations? In short, what’s important enough to be worth ignoring those traits, and why?

As an added bonus, doing this over a prolonged period of time might show you a few more of your own patterns. If a character tends to crop up regularly in a variety of role that you wouldn’t expect to fit her, what might be causing her to do that? Do you often find yourself consistently putting the same pairs of characters in shippable roles? Granted, it’s not always easy to get a large enough sample of stories, particularly with a huge cast to account for: sometimes, there just aren’t enough of the right kinds of roles to keep from breaking suspension of disbelief or just making the exercise impossible.

Best of all, this doesn’t have to just be a characterization exercise. When I first started doing this, it was as a fun little time-waster game, usually with my boyfriend but often with whoever else seemed interested. Webcomic artists often use it as a filler gimmick. And what’s not to like about an excuse to spend ages playing your favorite game or watching a show you really liked and call it necessary prep for a writing exercise?

Have fun!

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