Writing Characters Beyond Your Experience

I write a lot of characters with lives completely beyond my first-hand experience. I attack this part of character building the same way I imagine stories in general. I take things I know and then extrapolate out all of the things that are different and how they affect what kind of person that character must be. I admit this might be a lot easier for me than a lot of people, as an anthropologist I’ve had more training in how different things affect individuals and populations, but 90% is careful observation and research. It’s the difference in acting between someone who does impressions and someone who embodies a character.

My favorite example of people misunderstand how it is possible to internalize things beyond your experiences is about Patrick Stewart. Someone asked him how it was possible for him to play a gay man in the movie “Jeffrey” when he himself wasn’t gay. Patrick Stewart replied he’d never been a starship captain either, but no one ever asked how he managed that.

If it’s possible for you to think up worlds with starships, it is possible for you to think through and think up the people who populate them.

  • Give yourself permission to get everything wrong. This is a plan. It is something that will change and morph as you write, learn things, and get feedback. As an extension of this, give yourself permission to write notes and bits of stuff no one else will ever see. There are a multitude of things that are important to YOU as the writer that have no place on the page in your story, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to write them down somewhere.
  • Make an effort to find out what other people have done wrong before you. You’ll find plenty of critiques on the internet of how writers have written various characters into tropes or manage to make an otherwise normal character feel like a complete alien construct by given them a voice or perspective that matches the writer and not the character. Ask your friends what the worst examples of “getting it wrong” are. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll learn and the different perspectives you can get. Asking in this way also doesn’t put anyone on the spot.
  • Make an effort to find out what other people have done RIGHT. While asking about “doing it wrong” will be largely more illuminating, it is always helpful to get the other side too. If you ask a group of people about this, you’re not generally going to get consensus. You don’t need consensus, you need your character to make sense and for there to be an internal logic system to their thought and their existence. Find the things that make sense to you and your story and pull them together into a cohesive fully formed fully realized person through the act of telling their story.
  • Realize you can’t get everything on page 1. A character on the page is not you. You, even as the writer, will not know everything about them. You need to know enough to spot them in a crowd, recognize the sound of their voice, and a few details about them. Imagine them at the level of an acquaintance you went to High School with and have recently reconnected with at an event and are now just starting to hang out. That’s generally the level of character information you need to start a story. By the end of the story you should have learned and internalized enough about them that you’d be willing to go pick them up at 4 in the morning at the bus station when they call out of the blue. If you’ve done your job right, any reader who picks up the book would give serious thought to going to pick them up from such a call too.
  • Think about their view of the world and have it reflected. This is a relatively literal aspect of this, but important: Height. For example, I am 5’6″ and Aaron is 6’5″ I hide cookies on the low shelves. He hides things on the top of the fridge. I’m very conscious of where on a person (collarbone, lips, neck, eyes) my natural gaze rests because of the height of the person I’m talking to. Aaron mostly notes the people he doesn’t have to look down to meet their gaze and anyone who reacts badly to his invariable downward gaze (short men in authority, women with low-cut shirts). Knowing where and how your character grew up are important to how they see the world. Did your character grow up in a wealthy family who now loves all things peanut butter as it was something they were forbidden to have as a child because that was something only ‘poor people’ ate? Did your character grow up with no resources and is constantly disgusted at the wastefulness of Western society? It is the little details that shape a character’s point of view and show the reader their world.
  • Look at the world around you and try to see it through your character’s eyes. What would they think of that store display? Would they eat that? If you are doing your job right people will send you links and clippings saying “This made me think of your character” so be sure that YOU can find those types of things in the real world.

What things do you do in creating characters for your stories?

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