Character Kernels: Under Theme

A while back, I wrote about getting to understand the kernels of one’s characters by casting them into character roles from an existing story. That’s a fun way to find the parts of the characters that define them, but it’s not always easy; as often as not, most stories aren’t going to get you anywhere near a 1:1 correspondence.

But casting is just a part of a larger overall strategy for figuring out the characters’ kernels. What it boils down to is giving them the theme [Selected Story] and going from there, figuring out which of the [Selected Story] characters makes the best symbol for which of your characters.

What about using other themes, ones that have a less limited set of things to correspond to?

Most of the time, either the fictional world or the real world will provide plenty of things to try to map characters onto. Colors. Types of food. Gemstones. Musical instruments. Astrological signs. Elements. Magic types. Animals. Character templates from a different fictional setting. Supernatural fighting styles. For the artistic people, just drawing them in different art styles for a while. Heck, I find the problem isn’t finding things to sort them into, it’s figuring out where to stop.

For the unpracticed, one way to start might be to grab an online quiz and get cracking. After all, you can’t kick a rock without hitting one, and the answers to some of the questions might get you to understand aspects of the character that you really didn’t before. Sure, some of them are a little too real-worldy to fit perfectly, but at least it’s a start—and you can learn a thing or two about the quiz-writer from where your image and the quiz’s result just don’t match up. But for the more advanced, it’s better to choose your own set of symbols. After all, it lets you figure out what parts of the characters make the difference, and it means that your list doesn’t have to be limited to whatever someone else created.

In my random mental exercises regarding my game, for instance, the current theme is plushies. (For that I blame one of my players; I’d been thinking of a themed cast pic based on the cartoon lizard I designed as my library’s mascot, and then she started talking to me about an ability involving plushies of accelerated psychotherapy and next thing I know…. this.) Right now it’s in the planning stage, so it’s just taking the form of “If you were an animal plushie, what species would you be?”, but when I do the artwork I’m going to be coming back and figuring out what visual cues will make it a bit clearer who’s who. (And yes, this will be going into the sketchbook.)

Best of all, this exercise can double as a fun little game with another person in the know. Give it a try!

1 comment

  1. Michael says:

    Another benefit to this exercise is that it can provide a way of deciding on character details that will actually appear in the story (http://www.exchangeofrealities.com/2010/04/30/trivial-character-details-why-theyre-so-difficult-and-what-to-do-with-them). For several of the categories mentioned, you may have a reason to want to assign characters to a particular member of the category. Everyone has a favourite food. Everyone has an astrological sign (and there’s a good reason why you might want to know what they are: if your story takes place over an extended timespan and involves children or teenagers, it feels wrong if it completely ignores everyone’s birthday except the main character’s — though yes, I know that both Sailor Moon and Harry Potter did just that). Depending on setting, maybe everyone is at least being pushed by their parents into learning a musical instrument, something it’s helpful to be aware of even if they don’t all feel a strong involvement with it. And so on. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that doing these assignments as a group can make them easier to decide on, since it can be a way of differentiating characters from each other.

    For example, I have a group of characters that I assigned astrological signs to by thinking of various aspects of them that would fit with particular signs — not in terms of which sign best fit their personality, since I have no interest in astrology and don’t know the signs well enough to think of them like that — but spotting little details of their characters that could be associated with one sign or another. For most of them, it doesn’t come up, since this novel takes place over a mere six weeks; but one of them was a Scorpio, which *did* fall into the timespan, so I slipped a mention of it being her birthday into one chapter, and I would never have thought of it had I not been doing this exercise. (The really funny thing is that when I looked at Wikipedia’s page on Scorpio, the characteristics section — sadly gone now — fitted her so well it could have been written by someone trying to describe her!)

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