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Unpacking Characters That Aren’t Like You

Unpacking Characters That Aren’t Like You

by Andrea Lundgren (originally posted on 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!

Happy Writing! Guest post contributed by Andrea Lundgren. Andrea enjoys books and all things writing—from how we write to why we write—and her blog explores things from a writer’s point of view.

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