Sometimes when we write, our main characters aren’t all that unfamiliar. They may not be “us” exactly, but they might be fictional versions of ourselves—the people we’d like to be, sharing part of our own psychological makeup. This one might have our sense of adventure, that one our fondness for cooking, while another has our overall height and build.
But sometimes, your story calls for a character that isn’t anything like you. What do you do then?
- Don’t get caught up in adjectives. It can be all too easy to slap a label on someone who isn’t like you and move on, but terms like “he’s an introvert” and “she’s a strong, A type personality” can only help you so much. You need to push past the adjectives to figure out who the characters are if you’re going to tell their story.
- Imagine life from their perspective. If you’re writing about a ceramic owl, for example, what do you think his daily problems might be? His struggles and ambitions? What does he compare himself to and what would he like to change about himself or his life? The “What if” question lets you get started.
- Explore their backstory. One of the fastest and most accurate ways to figure out someone’s personality and individual quirks is through their past. What traumas have they faced? What things did they enjoy? How did they grow up? None of this has to go into the story itself, but if you, as the author, figure out their past, it’ll help you know how they’ll react to things that do happen in the story.
- Picture them in various situations. Again, this doesn’t have to involve anything from the actual story, and the situations can be quite ordinary. How would they handle a telemarketer? Email spam? Ordering ice cream? An overdue notice from the library? The more ordinary, sometimes, the more you might discover an aspect of their personality to which you can actually relate.
- Fill out a character sheet about their favorite likes and dislikes. I put this last because, while it can be useful, it doesn’t necessarily help you know everything about your characters, as they’re bound to be more than the sum of their tastes and hobbies, but it still can be a useful step in the exploration journey. If you look up “writing character sheets,” you can find an array of them, and they can be especially useful in keeping track of those pesky facts that readers will notice if you get wrong.
- Lastly…write their story. Actually writing the story itself can help you learn more about your characters. You don’t have to know everything about them in order to get started, especially if you’re a bit of a pantster, and even plotters can be surprised by what they end up typing. Whatever you do, don’t put your characters in a box just to suit the plot! 😉
Copyright 2019 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by diannehope
4 thoughts on “Unpacking Characters That Aren’t Like You”
Great advice, Andrea.
I especially liked your suggestion to imagine life from the character’s perspective. Someone once said, “everyone sees themselves as the hero of their own narrative.” That really stuck with me, even as I was creating some over-the-top villains in my books.
Allow your “bad guys” to have some humanizing characteristic and your heroes to show a few flaws. No one is all good or all bad all the time and this will make your characters more believable to your readers.
I like to psychologically profile my characters. Are they bold or timid? Fearful or confident? Outspoken or quiet? Humorous or solemn? What motivates them? Money? Attention? Power? Prestige? Achievement? Conflict? Peace?
You have to be careful not to reduce them to ONE motive, but you will often find that they struggle with conflicting needs or desires. Such as the guy who uses humor to gain attention which reduces his opportunity for achievement. Etc.
I think portraying the inner struggle is what makes characters really come alive…
I agree! The inner struggles are what make people far more interesting, and while the struggle might not take center stage, it’s definitely something worth exploring so you, as an author, know what’s going on and can weave in hints of who these people are and what they struggle with into your story.
Thanks for stopping by and commenting!
Love this writing advice, Andrea!
All characters should have just as much thought and prep as the lead characters. 👍👍👍
I need to work more on my characters. I have a feeling most of them are mimicking me in some way. This is bound to bore the reader.