by Sue Weems
Do you argue with strangers on the internet? (I plead the fifth). Even if you have enough self-control not to engage most arguments and comment sections, chances are high that you think through how you would argue with them if you weren’t fairly certain they are a troll in an alternate universe. Also if your mother wasn’t your friend on Facebook.
Are you leveraging those thoughts? Or just rehearsing them, allowing yourself to feel irritated and angry? Put that energy to good use for your writing. Your next character is hiding in the comments section of nearly any forum. Here’s how to find him or her.
People Watching: The Writer’s Research
Many writers love to watch people in public, thinking about the possibilities of character presented with each external action. Why did he order the blueberry muffin with the cayenne butter? Who is she meeting? Why does he seem to be looking over his shoulder every two minutes like he’s being followed? (Oh wait, he probably wonders why I’m trailing him with my notebook in hand.)
It’s fascinating to watch people in action. Recently though, I realized how often we don’t see conflict in action (aside from an occasional rude customer or tense family exchange).
There’s one place I can see endless conflict in action, though: the comments section on social media.
How to Create a Character From the Comments Section: 4 Steps
I try to stay out of the comments section on most online forums, but some days I get caught reading responses and arguments. People who don’t know each other have impassioned arguments using poor logic, great memes, and generally atrocious social skills. People expose themselves in the most astonishing ways.
*cue granny voice* Back in the olden days, we just embarrassed ourselves at home. *ahem*
Part of our challenge as writers is that we’re stuck in our own heads. It takes work to see the world from a completely different viewpoint. We miss an entire universe of character possibilities if we don’t intentionally check comment sections from time to time to see how people who aren’t like us think.
Before you plunge in, here are few things to consider about how to create a character:
1. Choose forums and topics carefully.
We all have limits. What you read will influence you, your mood, and your writing, so choose something that will inform your current work in progress. If I’m writing a bubbly, light-hearted romance, I might not find the best inspiration for characters on Dungeons and Dragons forums (although the creative possibilities are endless).
2. Do not engage.
It’s not a character interview or casting call. Trying to rile a person on purpose is bad form and generally ill-advised. (AKA “trolling.”)
3. Ask: Why does he think this way?
If you completely disagree with someone, you have to discard the first two or three instinctual answers (dropped as a child, ignorant, spawn of Satan).
Challenge yourself to think through his or her thought process. Why does she seem to believe the worst? What is he saying through subtext? You can build an entire world for a character based on one tweet or comment!
For example, let’s take a look at this tweet:
This is pretty low-level conflict, but what character do you picture? It probably isn’t a grandfatherly “get off my lawn” older man. Why? He’s not online, or if he is, he wouldn’t ask for likes and retweets. Who might this be? It’s okay to start with a character type or stereotype, but don’t stop there.
What do I know? He’s making blanket statements while condemning a behavior he’s also participating in. He’s looking for affirmation.
Why does he think this way? Maybe he feels marginalized, and he’s angling for attention. Maybe he just posted about his guinea pig that died and some young insensitive punk posted a meme about roasting pigs (the horror!), and this is his retaliation. Why does he need people online instead of real-life? Maybe he has no friends, or maybe he’s working out an alter-ego online because his life friends see him as a tough guy.
4. Change it up.
Now take who you’ve imagined and change it up. Did you picture a guy living in his mom’s basement? What if it was a woman living in her brother’s pool house?
Changing gender and location is easy enough, but go further. What if she’s living in her brother’s pool house because she just lost her house to a sewer leak that she refused to address when it was small and in the same week, she found out her boss is sleeping with her best friend’s husband?
Whoa—that tweet escalated quickly.
Don’t worry about keeping the character true to the original comment or tweet (we aren’t trying to embarrass or expose real people). Keep asking questions and adding details until you have a well-rounded character who’s been wounded and wants something.
Explore the Online Treasure Trove of Characters
Tapping into why a character is being rude online can help you imagine why your characters act the way they do.
People who capitalize or delight on posts about tragedies? Use those to fuel villains.
People who make irrelevant comments on serious posts? Class clowns or comic relief.
The girl who compulsively corrects other posters’ grammar like she wields a keyboard of red ink? Hard to say if she’s a hero or a villain. Maybe both.
As you traverse your way along the world wide web this week, watch the comment sections for character gold. It’s there for the taking.
Do you find character inspiration online? Do you have any other tips for how to create a character? Let us know in the comments!
Take five minutes. Go find a tweet or comment with character-building potential. List the things you know and then ask, why does he or she think this way?
With the next ten minutes, create a short character sketch or what you imagine the character said to her friend (or pet) after writing the comment.
Share your comment inspiration and resulting sketch in the comments. Encourage one another (and avoid becoming someone’s character sketch! HA!).
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