I have this joke about my husband’s family. They all have larger-than-life, really obvious character traits. OCD tendencies, extreme fairness, being super loud—really interesting characteristics that I don’t happen to share. Not only do I love these people for their unique qualities, I love them because they’ve made it possible for me to write characters who share their qualities—characters who would’ve otherwise been really difficult to write, since I was so far removed from them.
We’ve all been in that situation of trying to write a character who was nothing like us, and it’s not easy to do. But Alexander Limberg is here today to share 3 helpful tips on how to get into the head of your characters and write them well and realistically.
Say there’s this guy you just can’t get along with. You’ve tried everything to make it work. You attempted to be tolerant about his annoying sense of entitlement; you did your best to see the positive in his constantly reserved manner; you tried not to judge his ridiculous correctness. But you don’t understand him. He’s just completely different than you.
It wouldn’t be so bad, except you’re both involved with an important project and see each other almost on a daily basis. The good news? He only exists on paper – as a character in your next novel. But if you want to make that novel work, you better get to understand him as well as you understand your very best friend.
It’s not the easiest thing to do, but I’ve got some ideas for how you can slip into the shoes of any character, even if the two of you are wildly different.
Use People You Know Who Are Similar To Your Character
Let’s face it: we’re experts at summing other people up—usually by their most obvious character traits. So-and-so is stingy, or touchy-feely, or hard working. That other person is humble, or dishonest, or a busybody. Chances are, we’ve known or encountered a person in real life who shares a trait or two with our characters. Siblings, parents, neighbors, co-workers, and the checkout lady at the grocery can all be used to help you write dozens of different characters.
Most of your characters won’t exactly mirror their real life prototypes because you’re writing fiction, not a biography. Instead, your figures will be hybrids of the people you know: for example, as brilliant as your sister and as restless as your best friend.
Take from everybody what you need. The more life experience you have and the more characters you have met over the course of your life, the better! Society is just a big, yummy, never-ending buffet of character traits. Feast at your convenience, and bring your unique cast of characters to life.
Don’t Act. Be!
In some ways, writing is like acting. The difference is that you have to be everyone at once. Switching between characters from one moment to the next is an ability that distinguishes great writers from the not-so-great ones. It’s a lot like method acting.
In method acting, you don’t try to pretend you’re a different character. Instead, you ask yourself: “If I was that cheerful/vain/sneaky/dumb, how would I act?” As you answer that question, you move into a different headspace. You’re doing what the best authors in the world are really good at: They don’t act, they are. For a brief moment, they are that character, with all of their being.
It’s a small step between pretending and being. So the next time you’re trying to write a character who’s not at all like you, just ask yourself: “How would I act if…?”
Recall a Situation that Brought out the Opposite in You
We all have multiple sides to our personalities. Sad individuals are occasionally joyful, mature people can be childish, and yes, even the dumb ones are smart sometimes. Likewise, that trait that your character embodies may not be an obvious attribute of yours, but you’re likely capable of acting that way. It’s actually very possible that you have been that way for a period of time in the past.
Perhaps your character is extremely confident, and you’re not. Surely there was a time in your life when you did feel confident—maybe, right after you got your promotion or passed that exam in university, you felt on fire and were invincible for the next couple of days.
Close your eyes and remember that time: What was different? What did you see, or smell, or hear? How did you feel? Try to revisit that time with your entire body. Yes, it might sound overly esoteric, but give it a try. The experiences, and your character’s traits, are most likely hidden deep within you. Just tap into your emotional memory and put that character down on paper.
Writing about a seemingly foreign character isn’t easy, but then what part of the writing process is? Hopefully these tips on how to temporarily be someone else will come in handy. Now it’s your turn: Have you ever written a character who was very different from you? How do you write someone whose nature is nothing like yours? Let us know in the comments!
* Photo Copyright: © Esolex/Dreamstime.com
Alex Limberg is the founder of Ride the Pen, a creative writing blog that dissects famous writers (works, not bodies); his blog offers detailed writing prompts. Make your story great by checking your character development with 10 crucial questions from his free e-book. The ebook contains ‘44 Key Questions’ in total to test your story. Alex has worked as a copywriter in a Hamburg advertising agency and with camera and lighting in the movie business. He lives in Austria and has previously lived in Los Angeles and Madrid.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.