I Don’t Know You

Writing characters can be the hardest aspect of storytelling for writers. Developing a character from the ground up is a nightmare at times, even if a writer is passionate about the person they are pulling from the ether. Even if they feel they know the character inside and out. Or even when the character is incredibly similar to the author.

So, how much harder is it to create a character when the character is antithetical to an author’s beliefs, ideals, and morals?

I’ve encountered this situation a lot over the last 13 years, writing protagonists and antagonists and supporting characters. Sometimes, if a character shares some of my own traits or thought processes, getting inside of their head is easy. Other times, even if the character feels familiar, I find it difficult to figure them out. However, since there is a shared link between the character and me, it eventually works out. However, when I have nothing in common with the character, and I have no idea what would motivate them, I find myself hitting a brick wall time and time again.

It can make writing a single paragraph the most arduous task in the world.

So…how does a writer solve this problem?

While I don’t have a solution for every writer–we’re all so different–I can tell you what works for me.

In beginning to build a character and flesh them out, my first step is always: how do I relate to this character? If I can understand their backstory, their history, their motivation, and their belief structure, it’s pretty easy to hit the ground running. If a character is similar to me in some way(s), I know how they would act and react in most situations. However, not every character I write is like me. For the sake of making my point easily, let’s talk about Zach/GINJUH from my book “GINJUH.”

He’s seventeen-ish, red-haired, has a speech impediment, has freckles, is kind of shy (a lot due to his speech impediment), athletic, and loves working on his grandpa’s farm. Okay, so he’s gay and I’m gay. But other than that, we don’t have a ton of things in common.

So, I started with, well, how can I relate to the things we don’t have in common? Is there some commonality that will help me understand him?

I have an accent. Okay. That’s not the same as a speech impediment, but I know how it feels to have people make fun of the way I talk–or even just point it out and how awkward that can make me feel.

I’m not very athletic–I trip over my own feet. But GINJUH likes to run, so I can relate to that. I understand wanting to stretch my muscles and feel the endorphins and adrenaline rush.

I understand wanting to find someone to love at a young age.

I understand loving my grandparents and wanting to spend time with them.

This made me realize that I can find some common ground with this guy.

I know how’d I’d react to getting to spend time with my grandpa, finding love, having my way of speaking be the center of attention, and know the thrill of a good run. I can understand what motivates him!

What about Oma from JACOB MICHAELS IS…? I’ve never been and will never be a 70-something white woman who is also a witch and lives in an old house in a fictional town in Ohio. However, Oma is mouthy and just says what she thinks–without a care in the world about whose feelings she hurts or what people think of it.

Haven’t we all wanted to just say whatever was on our mind without giving a shit? I could relate to that. Besides, Oma is very protective of the people she loves. I get that, too!

Often, as writers, we’ll find ourselves thinking: I don’t know you. To our characters, I mean. Our creations sometimes feel like strangers and we don’t know how to introduce ourselves to them, to make them seem like an old friend instead of some foreign entity that makes no sense.

The best way (at least for me) to solve this problem is to find common ground. Figure out something about them that helps you understand their motivation–what makes them tick. And even if those things with which we identify don’t resonate with us personally, we can figure out someone in our life they are similar to. We can use that correlation to start understanding how our characters would behave. How they act and react. What gets them out of bed in the morning and through the day.

Even if we find ourselves writing the evilest character imaginable (and, let’s assume, the writer is the nicest person in the world), we can find something about them that we understand. You say this character wants to destroy the world–haven’t we all had a bad day where we wanted to burn it all to the ground? Haven’t we all felt slighted to the point that we don’t really care what happens to everyone and everything–even if only for a few seconds?

Now, it’s important to point out that some differences between the writer and character(s) are just too great to build a bridge and find commonality. A straight white man is never going to fully understand what it’s like to be a Black lesbian, for example. Being Black is a unique experience that one has to live to fully understand. It becomes part of a person’s soul. However, a white writer can find other things that they have in common with a Black character(s) because we’re all human. They just shouldn’t attempt to fully try to explain the Black experience because they’ll miss a ton of nuance (and probably end up being offensive)–and those aren’t their stories to tell, anyway.

Of course, white writers shouldn’t skate over the fact that it’s incredibly more difficult to be Black than it is white and that shouldn’t be swept under the rug, but trying to write as though they understand it the same way that a Black person would is just not a great idea.

This is a great place to advocate for the use of sensitivity readers when needed.

If a writer approaches their characters as simply human from the beginning, they can write anything. However, we have to be aware of where hard lines are that we should not cross. Write characters wildly different from yourself–and do it often because representation matters–but don’t steal the voice of a group of people of which you are not a part.

However, if it’s simply a matter of personality, beliefs, morals, disposition, or something similar, understanding your characters is easy if a writer figures out something about themselves that they can relate to their characters.

Spend a little time introducing yourself to your character.

You might find you have more in common than you thought.

Tremendous Love & Thanks,
Chase