Six impossible things

Different folks

One of the first challenges a new writer faces is that of showing characters who are different from the writer in a convincing and realistic manner. Everybody knows this if they think about writing at all; most beginner-advice books talk about it. And most make one of two really fundamental mistakes.

The first mistake is in presuming that “different from the writer” must mean “a character who falls into a different category entirely” – different sex (or sexual orientation), different race, different ethnicity, different age, different class, different religion, different culture. Any writer who has been paying the slightest bit of attention knows that a character who has this type large fundamental background differences like these is going to need extra attention and care in order to make him/her realistic and not merely a stereotype.

Unfortunately, knowing this leads to sub-problem that, judging from my email over the years, is way more common than it ought to be: assuming that all people who are X have a single, essential identity that can be layered on to a character to make him/her convincing and realistic, if only the writer can find out about it. Typically, this belief comes out in questions like “How would a 30-year-old woman talk?” and “How would a child of X background react to having his parents murdered?” and “Would a man from Y class/culture/ethnic group behave this way in this particular situation?” The subtext is, of course, that all 30-year-old women, children from X background, and men from Y class/culture/ethnic group will sound, act, react, and feel exactly the same way about every situation or experience.

That is, of course, nonsense; nevertheless, it is surprising how long it takes many would-be writers to understand that this is what they are doing. They are, after all, trying very hard to “get it right” in regard to whatever group(s) of people their character(s) belong to, and they often get very, very bent out of shape when they are told they are not quite looking in the right direction.

The way a character sounds, acts, thinks, feels, and reacts is informed by things like race, age, class, sex, etc., but it is not determined by those things alone. Even if things did work that way, most people belong to multiple overlapping categories, which interact with each other depending on the character’s personality and background. Ultimately, the question the writer needs an answer to is not “How would a 30-year-old Chinese-American woman talk?” but “How would this 30-year-old Chinese-American woman talk?” This certainly means thinking about the character’s age and sex and how they could influence her speech patterns, but it also means thinking about everything else that makes her who she is. A 30-year-old Chinese-American woman who was born and raised in New Orleans is not likely to have the same speech patterns as a 30-year-old Chinese-American woman who has lived her life in San Francisco or New York, regardless of their commonality of age and ethnicity.

Focusing on big differences, however useful and necessary, often means the littler ones will trip a writer up. A character who is left-handed when the writer is right-handed, or short when the writer is tall, can be just as much of a headache to write as a character who differs from the writer in most of the major traits mentioned above. The writing challenges are less obvious, that’s all; it’s not “How would this character talk?” it’s “Would this (short) character be able to see over that fence, even from this vantage point?” or “Can he reach that shelf without a ladder?” when those are not questions the author is accustomed to asking him/herself.

This brings me to the second big mistake as regards writing characters who are different from the author, which is the assumption that the greater the differences are between the author and the character, the more difficult the character will be for the author to write and/or to keep in character. When the author is not paying attention, or not thinking through what influence a particular character’s background is likely to have on his/her actions and attitudes, this may be true – at the least, an author who is writing a character very similar to themselves is likely to make much smaller and less noticeable mistakes, so the character will very likely be more consistently in character (or close to it) even if the writer is not very good at keeping them there. But for an awful lot of writers, it is actually easier to write a character who is very different from themselves than one who is similar, because large differences are easier to keep track of, and the times when the character is out-of-character are more obvious and easier to notice and fix.

The way to avoid either of these mistakes is to start by thinking a bit, not just about one’s characters, but about the way one writes them. Which approach feels more comfortable – writing “almost-me” characters, or working with “nothing-like-me” characters? Are you the sort of writer who likes a major challenge, or do you like to work your way gradually into using a new technique?

The second thing to think about is what viewpoint you are planning to use in your story. The close viewpoints – first-person and tight-third-person – require particular attention to keeping the viewpoint character in-character, because the writer has to make the same kinds of choices in regard to the entire narrative as they usually have to make solely in regard to the dialog. In first-person, especially, the narrative, from summary to place descriptions to action scenes, has to sound like the viewpoint character, because the viewpoint character is the one telling the story. Tight-third can be less demanding in this regard, depending on just how tightly the author sticks with the inside of the viewpoint character’s head.

If you are most comfortable building up a new technique gradually and/or writing “almost-me” characters, you may find it easiest to make your viewpoint character similar to yourself in personality and outlook, and figure out how to justify that with a different background, and look to your secondary characters for practice on characters who have larger differences. If you find it easier to keep track of your POV character’s personality when it is nothing like yours, go the other way and pick a viewpoint who is very different in several key ways, and try for at least one secondary character who is only a little different from you.

The third thing to think about is the ways in which your characters are different from each other. It is all very well for a shy, introverted writer to decide to write an outgoing, smart-alecky main character, but if all the secondary characters are also outgoing smart-alecks, the writer may have a problem. Furthermore, one needs to think about the ways in which the differences among the characters affect the way they relate to each other. Especially if the ways the characters relate are not quite what you (or the reader) might expect.

8 Comments
  1. It doesn’t help that there are so many self-appointed experts ready to jump in and say “An X person would never do that!” — as if there’s one standard template that all people of X characteristic follow. I’ve heard people say “No woman would ever do that!” about things that I do all the time.

    I actually find the idea of writing a short character very challenging. You’d think real life would be sufficient practice, but I’m forever putting things within what I think is easy reach, and my shorter housemate, er, doesn’t. 😉

    • “Well, no REAL woman would do something like that.” — self-appointed expert’s next line?

      See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_Scotsman

      I have had similar things where the person is complaining about something I have just done in his presence. “You can’t do that!” “I just did.”

      • Not quite so bluntly, fortunately — my response would likely be… intemperate 😉 — but yeah, that sort of “expert” is generally far more interested in redefining reality than in adjusting their view of it.

  2. Some writers wisely choose to depict some types of characters only from the outside, because they can do clear and convincing external pictures of them.

  3. So true. Sigh. I’m having problems with my football player character being too stereotypical right now. Yay for edits!

  4. This reminds me of my least-favorite question in my life as a Reference Librarian: “I need a book for an (x) year old child.” Really? We start being different from each other quite early. It’s truly appalling how many people can’t give details of the kid in question as to interests or willingness to read. It might make for an interesting writing exercise: Tell us a story?

    • Heh. Considering I was reading _Astounding_ over my mother’s shoulder at five…

  5. ….it’s “Would this (short) character be able to see over that fence, even from this vantage point?”

    I’ve been reading a lot of romance lately and what it is, usually, is… waitaminute… she’s described as tiny and he’s over six feet and he’s on top doing it *and kissing her breasts at the same time.*

    … yeah… no. 🙂

    Anyway… what I wanted to say was that it was fun to come here and, synchronicity!, find a post very similar to what I just said elsewhere which was, “I could never write a male character. I probably couldn’t write a female character. I can only write a person.”

    So often, looking at a person who is superficially almost just like you, is like looking at an alien organism. Thanks for some really great writing advice.

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