I want you to take a moment and think of two-three characteristics you find unappealing, or unattractive in a person.
Think of two different hobbies or past-times you would never, ever try.
Pick one culture you are entirely unfamiliar with.
And finally, pick an age that is either far older or younger than you are and gender opposite of yourself.
Got all that?
Now, imagine you’re going to create your next book about a character that is all of these things. Excited to hop to it? Probably not. If we’re all being honest, it’s pretty uncomfortable to go outside our comfort zone and create characters that we just plain do not understand.
So why must we do this? Why is it absolutely vital that we step far outside of our comfort zones? After all, isn’t a key part of storytelling writing what you do know? No, not entirely.
Storytelling is a discovery of the world, a way of putting the puzzle pieces of humanity together through honest examination. So if we only ever discover the world through the eyes of one to two types of characters, two awful things will happen:
- You’ll recycle character types (which will bore the reader to tears).
- Your worldview will remain narrow.
And who wants that?! No one, that’s who.
So how do you do it? How do you even begin to write for someone who is nothing like you? You start with someone you already know and work from there.
Think of a friend, relative, or acquaintance who you seem to regularly butt heads with, or have nothing in common with. Then, make a plan to spend some time with them again. Yep, do the unthinkable! Walk right outside that comfort zone, make plans with them to grab a coffee, and tell yourself that this is for the sake of your craft. Why do this? For two reasons:
- To create a realistic representation of this character type.
- To practice understanding new identities.
Once you two get together, do not focus on how his habits, ideas or opinions make you cringe.
Instead, do this:
- Ask viewpoint questions, not ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions.
- Listen carefully to his responses.
- Study his body language.
- Seek to understand the reason behind his ideas, beliefs, or opinions.
Yes, earnestly seek to discover the things which make him human. Once you discover the reasons behind his actions or opinions (no matter how obnoxious!) it encourages you to view this person in a sympathetic light. It likewise encourages you to show empathy. And that is when the real work begins!
See, after sympathy, the key to creating organic representations of characters that are nothing like ourselves is practicing empathy. You don’t want to make a mockery or a caricature of that personality type. Readers will sense insincerity in our writing. So, you want to create an organic, realistic representation of that character. And that will only be achieved through the sincere desire to understand real people that are far different from us and the belief that such people are human too. Sympathy. Empathy.
It’s a gift we have as writers to offer a new understanding of life through the eyes of the characters we create. Therefore, it is our responsibility to garner sympathy and empathy from our readers through such characters. So we must view even unlikeable characters with the same perspective we would our favorite characters. When we do this, we greatly enhance our story-telling skills. We create interesting characters and unpredictable storylines. And that is what we want, after all, isn’t it?
But why is it so difficult for us to as writers to practice this habit? What stops us from coming outside of our comfort zone and writing characters whose lives and opinions are so different from our own? First, our egos can stop us, and secondly, fear.
We may be afraid that our readers will think we approve of such characters and condone their life choices.We might worry that our representation of the character will come out insincere or forced. Or we believe that the reader is thinking about us or judging us when they read about our character’s life.
But let me put you at ease right now: readers are not getting to know you through your book, they are getting to know your character(s).
I’ve been reading an excellent book titled Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories That Resonate by Brian McDonald. To be honest, this is the absolute best book I’ve ever read about the art of story crafting. In my own personal opinion, Brian McDonald is a genius. But more to the point, in his chapter “Sounding Natural”, Brian makes an excellent point about crafting dialogue for unfamiliar characters, and what our real job is as writers in this regard.
Brian says, “Over the last few years I have noticed that every character I read, or see in the movies or on television, sounds like characters in another movie or television show. Real people don’t talk like movie people. Listen to how people speak. They didn’t all grow up in your neighborhood, nor do they all have your educational background… when you write dialogue or anything else, think of yourself as a puppeteer. You are hiding under the table; you don’t want anyone to be thinking of you. You want their attention on the puppet. Once they are thinking of you, you’ve lost them… as a storyteller, your job is to get out of the way of the story. This isn’t about you. It may be about what you have to say, but it isn’t about you. Let go of your ego.”
That is some excellent advice, isn’t it? Check out Brian McDonald’s powerful book here:
Give the method I’ve suggested at the outset a try, and work out from there. Once you’ve come to understand the one acquaintance or relative you rub shoulders with, why not try reaching out to strangers? Perhaps you’re not interested in the inked-up motorcycle-riding, beard-growing, leather jacket donning lifestyle- but you want to create a character like this in your next book! So, instead of steering clear of this type of person, why not go up to him the next time you see a person like this and ask him about one of his tattoos? Ask him what it means. Ask him what kind of motorcycle he has and where he’s ventured to with it. You may be surprised when you see him light up and tell you all about himself. That special connection will encourage you to create characters you’re eager to honestly represent. And readers will eat up this fascinating new character you’ve created!
Have you tried this method before? Why not share in the comments section below what enlightening discoveries you’ve made?
As for me, I’m excited to share that I’ve tried this method myself, and it’s inspired one of my new favorite characters- the main character in my upcoming novella Guppies. Fifteen-year-old Daniel Wittaker just got a new lip piercing that he’s eager to wear convincingly. Meanwhile, he’s eager to master the bass while learning to play some of his favorite punk songs. He’s also had some treacherous nightmares lately that seem to blur fantasy and reality. Especially when he meets one bizarre stranger bent on turning his world upside down.
Read more about my new YA fantasy novella coming out soon!:
But how do we translate this interaction with acquaintances and strangers into our writing? How do we create characters that are far different from us with consistency?
First of all, it’s important to keep a record; a visual guide that allows you to build your character from the ground up. This record acts as a personal map for your new character. Include in this map what the character would wear, what his opinions are, what his personality type is- even what his favorite ice cream flavor would be!
When you include specific details, your character’s identity begins to stand on its own two feet. Eventually, deciding what his responses would be in any situation you place him in will become second nature! Every time he faces a new obstacle in your story, his strong identity will maintain its course and do the work for you.
Would you like a worksheet that helps you create this character map? Download it now for FREE!:
Print out this worksheet and fill it in accordingly.
What if you’re creating characters that are literally nothing like humans, period? What if you’re creating a sci-fi alien race or a fantasy band of warrior elves? How do you create fantasy personas that you literally have nothing in common with, as a human?
Upon creating fantasy creatures, the laws are placed in your hands. Who that “person” is, what they like, what they do for work, where they live- all of it is in your hands. However, that does not mean the story is still about you somehow. It is about this fictional character. So consistency is necessary, as well as covering all your bases. What do I mean by that?
If you’re creating a fantasy race, you must make them as believable as possible (crazy as that sounds). You must make sure you’ve given this race a unique culture, goals, habits, set of rituals, beliefs, and dialect. So how can you do this? When you’re creating a fantasy race or a fantasy character, how can you make sure all your bases are (thoroughly) covered?
This how-to guide I’ve recently released contains chapter after chapter of thoroughly researched advice and tips on creating a fictional race from head to toe. Plus, this book includes quotes and wisdom from prominent sci-fi and fantasy writers such as Brandon Sanderson, J.R.R. Tolkien, Suzanne Collins, and more.
This book contains chapters discussing topics such as:
- How to build a unique fictional race, culture, and society.
- How to create a working fictional language from scratch.
- How governments influence your fictional society, and what forms it can take.
- How natural laws and man-made laws influence your world.
Plus so much more!
Click on the image above to read more about it. Your fantasy race will thank you for it!
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Are You Building a Fantasy World?
This book is excellent. The information is well thought out, it’s thorough, it’s clearly presented, and I truly feel that anyone seeking guidance on world building will find Rae’s book helpful and inspiring.Science Fiction Author D.E. Morris