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A common problem for novice fiction writers, and one that I feel that I myself haven't quite graduated from, is always writing characters who are like the author. Each character is merely some facet of the author, at worst a caricature and at best a well-rounded reflection of the author.

I read a quote at some point that I can no longer find to the effect that the best authors can actually write people who are other than themselves. These people get inside the heads of their bosses, co-workers, siblings, parents, friends, spouses, lovers, etc. and pluck out real reasoning, real fears, real desires, real loves, and real hatreds to make realistic characters who are alien to themselves.

How would I go about doing this? I understand that it takes empathy and an active interest in other people, but once I have insight into friends, how do I go about writing it? Is there a writing exercise I could use? Is it even a valuable pursuit?

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Being John Malkovich –  pramodc84 Feb 4 '11 at 9:33
    
It's interesting that people often find it harder to write about older people, with the thoughts "oh, I've not done that yet". But when you think about it, how is that any different to a man writing about a woman, or an American writing about a Chinese person? And you can't not write about people of the opposite sex... –  Panda Mar 24 '11 at 13:27
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6 Answers

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One thing you've got to remember as a writer is that you are not, in any spiritual sense, getting "inside people's heads". What you are doing is producing an artefact that convinces other people that you are inside the minds of many different characters but only as long as they don't look too terribly hard. Your question poses a worry that you can see that all your characters are just variations on you, or that you are having some difficulty drawing the line between where you end and your characters begin.

Much apart from anything else this is a problem of things not being realistic enough. After all, there is only one you and all the people who aren't you are someone else. Therefore any exercise in writing that does not feature you as a character must feature loads of people who are not at all like you and none that are. If you produce a work which has many variations on you and no one that is not you that's a problem, right?

Well, no, not as such. You don't have a choice about lending some aspect of you to every character you write, after all, you're writing them. As I said when we looked at this problem at first glance the problem is not actually writing characters who are not you. It is making other people happy that all the characters are not you and most importantly letting you know all your characters are not you.

The closest experiential parallel I can think of is with the experience of the actor. I was interested in acting for many years and, when taking on a part, I used to try my best to get under the skin of the character. Contrast this mental experience with the advice of most acting theorists; the most famous, Stanislavski, talks in no uncertain terms about the difference between acting something and being it.

To Stanislavski experience of reality is a completely separate thing from acting out that experience for an audience. He talks about the essential property of emotional distance from the character you are acting. The character may be overwrought, therefore the actor must act out overwrought but the actor must not be overwrought because that is just self-indulgence. The actor's duty is to communicate the experience to the audience so they can be moved by it, the actor must try not to be.

Stanislavski's point of view has been argued about but I think there is much of merit in it. I knew many young actors (at one point I was among them) who spent enormous amounts of time psychoanalysing the character who subsequently turned in a performance that a 2'x4' would have been proud of.

Another of Stanislavski's lessons which is pertinent here is called the "magic if". Essentially the characters in plays have families which are not like the actor's, they experience circumstances and have histories which are not like the actor's. In order to "get into character" Stanislavski positively encourages actors to ask how it is they would feel in the exact same circumstances, so "what if my uncle had murdered my father and married my mother, how would I tackle this situation?".

The purpose of this exercise is to measure ways in which you, as a person, are similar to the character you are playing and how you are not the same at all. Essentially your sense of difference from the character as an actor helps you know how to portray them without getting confused and being them. The actor who identifies too closely with his role is a subject of dark, horrific melodrama for good reason. It's not pleasant to feel too close to your subject matter.

So as a writer where does this leave us?

  1. Don't panic about your characters sharing aspects of you, this is inevitable.
  2. Your writing, like an actor's acting, performs the job of representing a world of rich and distinct personality, not actually being one.
  3. The problem here seems to be of gaining some distance and perspective from the characters you create.

3 is the troublesome one. I would suggest two things:

  • Write a story in which you are a character. Nothing acts a distancing mechanism better than consciously trying to do something you 're afraid you're doing by accident. (HINT: I expect you'll find it hideously difficult)
  • Write about a few characters who do things that you most certainly wouldn't do and work out what motives they could have had for doing them. Comb through their motivations because characters are made on such things.

Hopefully these two exercises should start giving you the distance that you need.

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Wish I could give 2 votes for this answer, it is excellent. –  Panda Mar 24 '11 at 13:24
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It is a valuable pursuit. If you can learn and enhance your writing, it is valuable.

As a writing exercise:

  • Write down, how you characterise yourself. Your profession, habits, feelings, traits. Then write about a person with all these characteristics but the opposite sex.
  • Discuss with friends/spouse how realistic this person appears to them. Learn your lessons.
  • Next change the profession of this fictitious person and change the profession to something you would never do. You hate lawyers? Then a lawyer. Bookkeepers are boring? Take a bookkeeper. Write about the person. Discuss.
  • Go on changing the person to someone totally different from you. You hate green trousers? Let the person wear them. You love staying at home? Let the person travel all over the world. You get the idea.

The best authors are the best, because they have experience doing this. Catch up!

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If you understand enough about psychology and are rational enough, this sort of thing can be approached from an analytical perspective. On a fundamental level, everything that a person or character does is done for a particular reason. They key to getting into the mind of a character who is unlike yourself is to understand those reasons. Keep in mind that the reasons themselves are not always rational.

For instance, a certain character might suddenly burn down an apartment building. They did this because they have schizophrenia and voices in their head told them to do so. They have a reason for burning down a building, albeit one that does not apply to others. This is also a very blatant example; well constructed characters will typically be a lot more subtle.

One of the best ways to come up with a character who develops different reasons to do things than your own is to develop a different rationalization system. Everybody has certain needs, and many of them are the same (think money, food, shelter). However, different people use different rationalizations that let them determine the actions they will take to obtain these things. If you have low moral standards, than theft may be your primary course of action to fulfill your need for food. Or, alternatively, if you are in a dire situation, other, more extreme actions may then become more "rational".

In essence, you can design a character as a type of system. They have needs and desires, which are then processed by a series of rationalizations which then lead actions that they take in order to obtain what they need or want. Sometimes just making a character ignorant to certain actions can create vastly different scenarios because they are not able to take the same actions as a character who "knows better".

Some people will probably argue that this method is too sterile or boring and subsequently shouldn't be applied to realistic characters, but psychology is a regimented science and can absolutely be broken down systematically in a manner just like this. All of the flavor and substance that makes a character interesting needs to be added in after you've developed a proper understanding of their psychology.

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In essence (ha,didn't mean to mimic you, there, Chris), you're asking "What does this person want?" and "What is he/she willing to do to get it?" Keeping those questions in mind, even for minor characters, will help differentiate your people. –  foggyone Feb 3 '11 at 19:55
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You can also just try to expand your source materials - expand your own experiences!

Work as many different kinds of jobs as you can fit in, always speaking to the people you work with, trying to learn how they think, what they think, how they speak. Travel, and spend significant time with the locals, learning their habits, ways of thinking, ways of speaking. Keep a detailed journal of notes you take along the way. Write down interesting phrases you hear in use along the way.

As you learn about the people around you, try writing them up, and then provide your writing to them. Get their feedback - see if they recognize themselves in your writing, and learn from their reactions and thoughts.

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That's (if you can do it) good advice. Look at the biography of successful writers, and you'll often find they worked any number of odd (sometimes really odd) jobs. While they waiting for their big break, that is. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 29 '11 at 13:44
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You've heard of this thing called imagination, right? It always surprises me when people are surprised at a writer's ability to "get inside" someone else. You're making up the rules, so you get to be or do or see whatever you want.

Getting to know you:

  • Pretend you're on a first date with your character. Ask questions.
  • Think about where your characters came from. How will this influence their speech? Do all your characters talk the same way? Have the same vocabulary?
  • Wind them up and let them go. Once you know who they are, a lot of what you see will be reaction to events.
  • Leave room for surprises. You can't really know everything about someone.

Caveats:

  • Don't get caught up in this. It's easy to spend all your time with your characters and never get to your story.
  • Just because you know something about your character doesn't mean it has to come out in your writing.
  • Writing about your friends isn't any better than writing about yourself (and could probably get you in more trouble).
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One thing I would suggest is to try and give each character a different way of speaking. Dialog is one of the best ways to differentiate characters on the page. I personally talk out loud using different characters' voices, and in fact I don't feel like I have a handle on a character until I know how they talk.

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