Your character is not you (and neither am I)

There are a few topics that come up frequently on writing forums: the value of adverbs, what constitutes passive voice, whether you should self-publish or go the traditional route, and what to use to form your characters’ personalities, actions, and motivations to make them believable.

Today I want to tackle that last one, and I’m going to start by saying


Yes, he may share similar traits.  She may have had a similar childhood, or the same goals.  But your character is not you.

I’m sure you’re a wonderful person.  But as Mark Twain said, “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”  And for you to be in your story, as yourself, it’s not going to make sense.  I struggled with this while writing The Lone Wolf.  It was only when I realized that Kasey’s primary motivation was her family, that the story came together; I’d been trying to have her react how I would react.  And I definitely wouldn’t have made the same choices she did, because she’s not me.

But it goes beyond your personal goals and traits; your expectations and views of societal norms can also affect your character, without you even realizing it.

After I graduated college, I taught high school in rural North Carolina as part of a national program.  One of the things that was hammered into us was that these kids and their families had different cultural expectations.  They were a different religion, a different race, a different economic class, living in a different region.  We had to understand why they acted how they did, influenced by their backgrounds and surroundings, before we could reach them.

In social work, this is referred to as an ecological systems theory, but I think it applies everywhere.

Part of the fun of reading is getting into someone else’s head, into their thoughts and actions. But why stop there? Why not apply this to everyone you come across?

I like opera; you don’t. That’s fine. But rather than tell me how no one could pay you enough money to go to a show, why not just leave it at, “I don’t like opera,” or actually try going to a show before passing judgment?

Same with writing. I write; many people I know don’t. Rather than make fun of my novel, why not just acknowledge that I like to write, and you like to watch reality TV, and agree that we don’t have common ground with our interests?

Try putting yourself in your characters’ heads, or in the heads of those around you. Try seeing the world how they see it, for better or for worse. You might just be surprised what you learn about yourself in return.

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