When you begin a new project, do you find it easier to build your characters first, then their environment, or build the environment the characters are in before going into detail about them? I have tried both and one seems to be as good as the other, but was wondering how others get the reader to know their characters.

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I'm kind of in the middle there. I know what I want my characters to be, and how evil or ruthless or whatever you want to call it before I begin. I guess what I was asking is better put this way: Are the characters born out of their environ? The project I am starting on now, the main character is a professional chef that goes nuts, but he was born into a normal home in a normal place, so forth. I know full well how I'm going to make this character tick, and it will be partly due to his upbringing and partly due to his environment, if that makes sense.
If you are working on a villain, you have to decide if you want his madness (mental disorder) to excuse his crime because he can't control it, or if you want a guy who is a sociopath and figures other people don't count.

I think Dan and I are a bit more into creating a protagonist with a well-rounded character. In other words, a nice person with some flaws.

Villains are interesting, but I usually explain them in standard psychological terms for aberrant behavior.
If by environment you mean setting, then I build both at the same time. I've had a couple of crazy (crazy!) villains, and in one case there was a medical explanation (brain tumor the size of an avocado), and in the other a very, very severe case of PTSD was probably at work. But generally I try not to let characters be entirely defined by their illnesses, even if they're sadistic murderers. They have senses of humor, they talk about politics, they may even be superficially likable.
If you're talking back-story, I usually try to get it out of the way as early and unobtrusively as possible.
Wow, this is all amazing feedback for such a simple question. I am currently plotting out a project based on serial killers that actually existed, and this all fits into the scheme of things. I have to put the backstory in so the reader knows where he is coming from, both in personality and the crime(s). The setting is what is going to make the character who he is, with the environment he grew up in shaping that, and causing his delusions.
The story itself is going to be very personal, at least to me, since I knew one of his victims, and I have found it to be a challenge to write about this guy even though the only information I have found about his early life is minimal at best. I guess that's where the fiction aspect of this comes in. Even though it really happened, the way I'm telling it will make the reader understand where he came from and what the motivation was behind the crimes.
The character I'm building on now is by far a sociopath, the kind of person that would shake your hand to meet you then stab you with the other while still shaking the first. He will certainly have quirks about him from his childhood, which is where I am at now, and by time he comes full circle, all the quirks will show through. He will certainly be camouflaged since his chosen profession in life is a high pressure job, and like you said, by time anyone notices these things, it'll be way too late to save either him or any victims.
"Environment" for me includes family and family life, and so it is important to me to know a lot about the home life and relatives of my characters. I won't dump it all in the story - but it helps me understand characters, both protagonist and antagonist.
Hi Guys/Girls,
Very interesting topic. My understanding of the differences between the two is - quote ..Both the psychopath and sociopath fail to feel remorse or guilt. They appear to lack a conscience and are completely self-serving. They routinely disregard rules, social mores and laws, unmindful of putting themselves or others at risk.

Of the more distinguishing traits, some argue the sociopath to be less organized in his or her demeanor, nervous and easily agitated – someone likely living on the fringes of society, without solid or consistent economic support. A sociopath is more likely to spontaneously act out in inappropriate ways without thinking through the consequences.

Conversely, some argue that the psychopath tends to be extremely organized, secretive and manipulative. The outer personality is often charismatic and charming, hiding the real person beneath. Though psychopaths do not feel for others, they can mimic behaviors that make them appear normal. Upon meeting, one would have more of a tendency to trust a psychopath than a sociopath... unquote 'Wisegeek diff between Sociopath/psychopath'.

As Dan says, you have to decide which he is, then build the back story. For me, after reading your article and doing the above research, I realise that my character is displaying borderline psychopathic behaviour, and now I can write more of the behaviour traits into his/her character. Thanks Jason and contributors, great food for thought.
It always story first with me. I want my villian and protagonist to have the same goal, and my villians are never crazy. They just want what they want for different reasons than the protag.
My character and his environment (Miami) are tightly coupled. The settings are elements to support the plot lines and the plot lines are woven together to form a smooth flowing story that culminates in crisis. Now - I have an established character with an array of case files (short stories) and novels. That may put a unique slant on the question.

In short - the current story drives the setting for the established character.

Smiles
Bob
For me environment is secondary--both when I'm writing, and when I'm reading. I'm more interested in what's happening. I don't mean I like shallow fiction--I need to feel like my mind and emotions are engaged, and I want the characters to be complex and real--but I think the setting is there to support the characters and the plot, not to steal the stage from them.

Same with back story: Who someone is fascinates me, and how they became that way is important. But rather than go into detail explaining their childhood and family history, I would reveal just enough so the reader gets it, but not more. (My guess is I err on too little rather than too much.) Still, I think you can show so much more, in a more interesting way, just having your characters talk to each other.

But that may be the complete opposite of the story you're trying to tell. Are you writing a psychological composite or an exploration into how killers become killers? If so, ignore me. I write fast-paced crime fiction.
In the history of American serial killers, the one I am working on now is based on Hadden Clark. Memorial Day weekend of 1986, he kidnapped and murdered a neighbor of mine, 6 year old Michelle Dorr. I am trying to put the story together in a way that emphasizes his crazy upbringing with alcoholic parents and such, but I don't want to go too much into his family life for the reasons you noted. Too much backstory would kill the whole thing, but I have to put enough in so the reader(s) understand where he came from and what drove him to be who he is/was.

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