Making characters who aren’t you

Probably one of the hardest things for a writer to do is create characters. I don’t mean characters who largely function as set pieces, but real living breathing people who grow and change from the beginning of the narrative to the end. Beyond just assigning physical traits there’s a lot that goes into forming a character’s personality and a lot of that is bound to come from personal experience.

Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if you have a lot of characters all of whom basically act like you and have your same set of values, than you don’t have as much to bump up against in the story. This is something I’ve been trying to figure out as I’m guiding four characters through a post apocalyptic upside-down world. All of them have a piece of me to start, something my wife picked up on right away. It was actually her that really challenged me to make one of them wildly divergent, to have some trait or attitude that runs counter to the way I think.

I tend to develop characters organically. They never spring fully formed into my mind, but rather coalesce as I construct the narrative. Hence the more time I spend writing characters the better I know them. At the early stages this means I can nudge trajectories even small degrees that will have big consequences by the end.

I’ll admit that certain kinds of character traits and conflicts don’t particularly interest me. In Surreality I have a character who is pretty dedicated to his job, and has decided that it’s probably best not to make any serious attachments as he isn’t able to split his time without hurting one or the other. I could have given him a girlfriend he largely ignores, or one that wants him to stop being a cop, but that isn’t the kind of story I want to tell.

Put another way, a lot of the character conflicts I tend to put into my stories are external, not internal. Something out in the real world pushes up against them, and they react from a place of set ideas. But what makes characters more interesting is both internal and external conflict, something I’ve definitely learned in revising Surreality and in crafting The Sky Below. The Sky Below in particular has some obvious external narrative choices I could make. But it also provides a place for a lot of internal strife and decision making about what’s best and what’s most important.

Some of my characters are going to make bad choices. And those choices may have consequences. They may be choices I would have made, or they may be something that springs from all kinds of other desires. The point is, not every choice made by a character should be the right one, and it shouldn’t always be the thing you’d do in that situation. Not unless you want to keep writing the same book over and over again with a main character who does the same thing over and over again. And don’t get me wrong, a lot of mystery writers have gotten by on this formula. But even those of us who write genre fiction, be it mystery, sci-fi or apocalypse don’t want to rely solely on tropes and one set of ideas and personality traits.

We can still draw from real life, stealing from those round us or even people we just observe in a coffee shop. There are many days when I’m writing that I have to keep myself working instead of listening to the conversation of the people in the table next to me. But in the long run it’s those different view points and experiences that make for diverse and interesting stories. I’m not advocating eavesdropping, at least in obvious and easy ways to get caught 🙂

Pro tip, ear buds with no music make people naturally assume you can’t hear them. Don’t tell me you haven’t done this at least once 🙂

This next tip might sound a little silly, but it’s one I’ve scarily found effective, play an RPG sometime. I’ve been playing a D&D RPG with the little red haired girl for a couple of months now. I started playing as a Paladin, Lawful Good, mixing overtime with a wizard and skewing a little more toward Neutral by the end. Now I’m playing as a Cleric Dwarf, which is inherently flawed in some ways but is also kind of funny and different. Games can help you with the exercise of creating characters, and rulesets like D&D let you determine a lot of personality by adjusting traits like lawful – chaotic or good – evil as well as your race, appearance and profession. People will react differently to a religious dwarf than a fighter dwarf. Sure these are set fantasy tropes, but the exercise is what matters, living in another skin and making different decisions from what you’d usually do can help you to do the same thing with your characters.

Incidentally the cleric spells are very cool and I like having fire elementals at my command. Makes me feel powerful.

Balthazar Mountain Crusher

Meet Balthazar Mountain Crusher

Don’t mess with the dwarf cleric writer.

So here’s a challenge, take a common day to day situation, like someone cutting in front of you in line, or a clerk giving you back too much change, and write 300 words of what a character would do or say that is the opposite or at least 15 degrees to the left of what you’d do. Post in the comments if you feel like sharing.

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