Characterization Exercise: The Stories They Follow

From time immemorial, people have told each other stories—about why the world is the way it is, about generic youths who all had one of three or four names and somehow managed to make good, about the kinds of people they’d want to be and the kinds of people they’d want to sleep with. For just as long, people have grown up with these stories and inserted them into their own mental landscapes, fitting them into their thought processes.

While not everyone admits that they’ve been shaped by these stories, most people have them; even if they didn’t grow up with stories, per se—and very few people don’t, even if they have to make up their own—they’ve probably used something created from patterns that they’ve seen a lot in life. Some characters will actually mention these stories, admit that they’re watching for them, possibly analogize themselves to some of the main characters (in fact, one of the concepts I’m toying with for my Almagest stories is the parallel analogies that main characters Khadijah and Tabari draw to one of the major religious narratives in their culture). Often, they’re not looking at the genre as a whole, but at specific titles, which does mean you might need to come up with the title and some details of the story in question, and the characters’ names if applicable.

On the other hand, there are those who don’t recognize the stories they tell themselves, but repeat them nonetheless. Often, the stories will code themselves into the characters’ internal rules, so alongside “people die when they are killed” might be “Learn the job of the guy above you, so you’ll be ready to step in if something happens to him and be recognized/promoted for it” or “Live quickly, be beautiful, die young; that is perfection.” They probably couldn’t trace it back to an individual story; they might not even realize it’s from the stories at all. That doesn’t keep them from going through the motions in hopes that this time it’ll fit, though.

For a character starting out, it might be easier to try to shape them around the stories. If you can’t think of a few good generic plots, grab yourself a book of myths or of fairy tales, settle yourself down in the children’s section of your bookstore and read a random sampling of those (they give you nice variety, and they’re really fast reads), or just think about the themes of the kinds of stories you read, movies you watch, RPGs or even video games you play. Simple, encapsulated “facts” that the narrative bases itself around.

On a character who’s been around a while, it’s probably better to try to distill stories out of what they’ve been doing already. You might look at major character moments, not necessarily the kinds of things where they’ve done awesome (though those don’t always hurt), but the ones where they’re particularly motivated in one direction or another, and the ones where they just do something, and neither they nor you can really explain why.

Knowing a character’s stories doesn’t mean you should immediately make them obvious; that way lies sledgehammers. Instead, just take them into account when considering your character’s motivations and decisions. It might be interesting to see what results.


  1. UZ says:

    The stories you tell yourself come out in the writing, even if you never tell anyone else… absolutely agreed.

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