I think all authors put a bit of themselves into their characters. Who's with me on this? Whether it's a main character or side, I think that’s our instinct. After all, who do we know better than ourselves? But what about characters who aren’t like us? How do we do that? This post was actually inspired by my older sister, who described my character, Rook (blood-soaked crime lord extraordinaire and all around fan favorite), as the anti-Dana. And then she said I should write about what it’s like to create someone who’s so different from me. Great idea! Thanks, Heather! So let’s look at some ways to do that.
Get Inside Their Head ~ This is pretty basic. Any time you create a character, just like when you create a new world, you have to know waaaaaay more about them than what ends up on the page. Maybe your character hates getting their hair cut (I knew someone like this in college). Well, why do they hate it? Maybe they have a weirdness about stuff flying around their head. Maybe it’s the buzzing of the razor. Whatever it is, that will inform your character’s responses in the world. If they don’t like stuff flying around their head and they run into a cave full of bats, panic is bound to ensue. Or maybe their earliest memory is of a big dog knocking them down and barking in their face. A dire wolf companion would make for some interesting drama. You don’t ever have to mention the hair cutting thing or the specific incident with the dog, you just have to know how your character will respond to certain stimuli and why.
There are tons of worksheets out there to help you get to know your characters. Just Google "character worksheets" and you'll find an overwhelming amount of stuff. There's also an app called Notebook.ai that I've just started using, but I don't know enough about it yet to give a verdict. Think of this like sitting down with your character over coffee. Scrivener comes in with some built-in character sheets, and my friend Sarina Langer has multiple worksheets here on her blog for just that. Have fun with it and get to know this new character. You may not like them in the end, but you’ll know (and write) them better.
Base Them on People You Know IRL ~ Do I base any of my characters on real people? As I say at the beginning of all my books, they are works of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. 😉 You can, however, always create composite characters, combining traits from several different people. You can even exaggerate your own traits. Taryn and Ozzie are based on my silly side (Ozzie) and my, shall we say, type-A side (Taryn), but they’ve both been exaggerated to the point to create two distinct personalities that are very different from me.
Get Other People to Help ~ This is especially important when you write characters who struggle with issues you don’t. Misrepresentation is an ugly thing, and it’s been an issue in literature for a long time. If you’re a white dude and your main character is an Asian woman, get an Asian woman on your beta reader squad, stat! This person is also known as a sensitivity reader. No matter how much outside observation you do, you will never know what it’s like to be inside that person’s head, walking in their shoes day after day. The same goes for if your character has any kind of mental illness you don't, is of a different religion than you, a different sexuality from you, etc. This is a very minor example, but Calandra in Raven’s Cry suffers from social anxiety. Large groups and small talk makes her want to throw up and run screaming. That is not my particular struggle; I really like meeting new people and chatting about whatever with them. The hubs, however, is not so much a fan of that. He can do those things, certainly, but he doesn't have the same extrovert-y advantage I do, so he helped me construct Cali’s coping mechanisms.
Base Their Experiences on Real Ones ~ Now, there are going to be some experiences that no one has ever had because they're entirely fantastical or because we haven't yet reached that point in technology. Traveling through the galaxy in a single-person pod, living as a mermaid at the bottom of the ocean, etc. Granted, this is also a point where you can start getting really creative because, hey, who's gonna tell you mermaids couldn't figure out a way to eat sandwiches underwater? But shared experiences can help flesh out your characters. Fear for a loved one's safety is pretty universal. Have you ever wondered how you're gonna pay rent or feed your family? Yeah, pretty common struggles. Strangely, one of the most common married/partnered arguments I hear from my friends is over taking out the trash/recycling. Me too! So take those common struggles and apply the same principles to your characters. Just be careful* that the issues you're using aren't limited to your particular class or group or what have you. If your character is living on the streets and starving, they're probably not gonna care if the food they're digging out of the dumpster is organic.
*Long-time readers of this blog might have noticed I use this phrase, be careful, a lot. Yes, because good writing is hard. It's so hard. It requires thought and nuance and persnicketiness and care. As Stephen King says in his book, On Writing, "But if you don't want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well—settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on." Good enough is not good enough, folks.
Indulge Your Fantasies (Just a Little) ~ I put this one last and am even now a little reticent to share it because doing this can quickly turn what would otherwise be a really enjoyable book into a vanity piece. If you've seen one of these, you know it, so treat this like adding Ghost Pepper or Carolina Reaper (two of the world's hottest peppers) to a recipe: with great care, consideration, and an incredibly light hand. Even just a touch too much can create a flaming, unpalatable mess. Right, onto the advice.
Sometimes the characters who aren't like us do the things we really wish we could. Am I tempted to start fires around me, insulting the people I disagree with most, and then walk away? Oh yeah. Do I think that's conducive to a smoothly running society where people can politely share disparate opinions with one another and then agree to disagree? Not at all, but maybe one of my characters does it because they don't share my views that polite discourse is better than talking heads screaming at one another (that's also good for creating drama). Fetch from my steampunk fantasy series, Broken Gears, is an example of me indulging my fantasies a bit. Fetch unabashedly makes the demands I wish I could make of people around me at times, but I lack Fetch's particular skill set and, oh yeah, that's no good way to treat people or make/keep friends!
So that's my advice, friends, for writing characters who aren't like you. Do you have more tips? If so, leave them in the comments below.
Thanks for reading!
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