With due permission from your current forum moderator, who is not me because I'm on vacation [a vacation during which I write characterisation essays, it seems], I wrote something up on posting in the character forum, whether it's seeking advice or giving it out.
Characterisation Feedback: How to Seek It, and How To Give It.
There are all sorts of characters in this world -- fictional and real. Bad people, good people, ugly people, gorgeous people, charming people, tedious people, hyper people, shy people, people who seem to have everything, and people he seem to have nothing, -- none of that makes a character a "good" character or a "poor" character. It's how you write them, and what you focus on in the story, and how it relates to the story that makes them work
Character feedback is about priority and balance. Now, there are always the things you want to hit: plot holes, contradictions, believability, “does her hair really have to be pink?”, etc; And those things, I’m sure, will always be taken care of. But there are very important things that we all need when trying to develop characters, and there are certain ways to achieve that when posting. Not only that, but there are certain things to look for when replying. :)
"Your Character Is A Mary-Sue"
… is not a very nice thing to say.
It's become a common misconception that a "Mary-Sue" is someone who is pretty, charming, intelligent and practically perfect in every way. You're actually thinking of "Mary Poppins", not "Mary-Sue".
Mary-Sue is a character whose qualities exist for no good reason at all. A character can have blue eyes, that's fine. There's "no good reason" for a character to have ‘sparkly’ blue eyes. There's also "no good reason" a character should have blue eyes at all if her parents have brown eyes.
So when writing your character you want to convey your reasons; when reading a character you want to look for the reasons. It is unfair to tell someone their character can’t be popular solely because that’s a “Mary-Suish trait”.
No, it isn’t math. You can’t come up with a logical approach to it. But you can feel when a character’s qualities have balance and purpose, and when a character is unreasonably frivolous.
Alas, sometimes the word “Mary-Sue” is the most definitive one applicable. But it is best to use it with care.
Character Forms: Bad?
Not necessarily. They're good. Good for practice, good so that you can get to know your character. They're not very useful in the feedback business.
You can give someone all the information in the world, you can explore every little nook and cranny of your character's biography and personality and appearance - it doesn't tell us why.
Nor do they have any bearing on how you’re going to write the character. Rarely does one come across a story where the characters fill out forms about their personality or actively participate in long, detailed interviews about their biographical information.
While that was a nice exercise in seeing how much I knew about Harry Potter, it really doesn't tell you who he is.
Name: Harry James Potter
Birth date & age during story: July 31st, 1980.
- Basic Appearance: Messy black hair, bright green eyes. Wears glasses; has lightning bolt shaped scar on forehead. Sort of skinny.
- Parents: Lily (Evans) & James Potter; Deceased
- Parents’ Occupations, if employed: Unknown to Harry; they were, however, members of the "Order of the Phoenix".
- Siblings, if any: None
- Other known blood relatives, if any: Petunia (Evans) and Vernon Dursely, Aunt and Uncle; Dudley Dursely, Cousin. Petunia and Vernon are Harry's legal guardians.
Pets, if any: Hedwig, a snowy white owl.
- Area of Residence WHile not at Hogwarts -- Surrey, England.
- Blood type: Half-blood
Hogwarts House [and why]: Gryffindor. "Pure Nerve and Outstanding Courage"
- Best school subjects [and why]: Defence Against The Dark Arts -- he has a knack for it.
- Worst school subjects [and why]: Potions. Very much because he's at odds with the Potions Master, but it also requires a bit more of an attention span than Harry is willing to offer...
- What would your character see if he/she looked in the Mirror of Erised? His parents, his family, alive and surrounding him.
- What would their Boggart be? A dementor
- What would their Animagus form be? Possibly a lion; though, he's not an Animagus.
- What would their Patronus be [keep in mind the Patronus represents a protector or guardian to the character, rather than their own personality]?- A stag
What scent would the character get from Amortentia? By sixth year, a soft flowery scent that reminds him of the Burrow and Ginny Weasley.
- What memory would they relive in the presence of a Dementor? His mother being murdered by Lord Voldemort.
On the other hand:
Here, we skip the prologue and get down to what is central to the character. We could argue all day about why Harry’s Patronus is a stag and why his boggart is a dementor, and we’d manage to establish an issue that’s important to certain parts of certain books. Or, we could talk more about different ways his impulsiveness and bravery influence him and affect others, and we’d have foundation for his character and framework for many of his actions and developments through the entire series.
...Harry doesn't like to see people in trouble, and he often abandons logic in an attempt to rescue or protect someone else. In simple ways, such as flying off on his broom against orders to face Draco and fetch Neville Longbottom's stolen Remembrall, to fleeing to the Department of Mysteries in fifth year on the supposed chance that his Godfather is being held captive. Harry's actions are often rash, and not thought out. Yet, he carries them out with unfailing bravery. It is often Harry's rashness that carries him into situations most people don't find themselves in -- but it his courage and heart that saves the day.
Harry is also an unwilling celebrity. Popular opinion of him often wavers between positive and negative, but either way, he rather wishes he were one of the unknown. Harry's best friends are Ronald Weasley - a steadfast friend, often shunted to the side by Harry's fame -- and Hermione Granger -- a smart and somewhat overbearing Muggleborn. Harry is a naturally talented flyer -- a hereditary trait, as Hermione reveals to him that his father played Quidditch -- and joins the Gryffindor Quidditch Team as Seeker.
Separating the Cake from the Wallpaper… or Something Like That.
Hermione Granger cares about House-Elves. She has bushy hair, she went to the Yule Ball with Viktor Krum, and she's not that interested in Quidditch even if Harry, Ron and Ginny are. Yeah, so? That's part of who she is, but it's not what defines her. Icing on the cake is nice, but you need the cake first.
Hermione's passion for knowledge is central to her being, as is her abidance of the rules, her love for her friends and tendency to control them for their own protection, and most importantly: her willingness to throw rules out the window if it means doing what's right.
You want to address the issues that are central to how your character serves the story, and how the story serves the character. The traits that are most present in deciding how they act, react, interact, feel, think, speak, love, hate, fear, and hope. You have to start with the foundation before you build the walls and then pick your paint and wallpaper. [I know, I know, first it was a cake, and now it's a house; Characters are complex, what can I say ;)]
So, if you’re on the other end, and you’re giving the feedback, look for this: Ask what we are going to see in the writing, in the story. What is most important to this character?
Because at the end of the day, people don’t remember the character thread, they remember the story, and they remember who the character was as a whole. If we can find a way to achieve that, and to help each other achieve that, then we’ve achieved the purpose.