You are Not Your Characters

Anonymous asked: “I find myself creating main characters that are similar to each other. The problem is I put them in a situation and write about how they deal with it based on how I would react, because I don’t really know another way. Do you have any tips on diversifying my characters?”

I think writers have a lot more in common with actors than you might think. Really, writers are more like their shy, introverted, and awkward cousin – I say that affectionately of course, I’m a writer, not an actress. 

Writers and actors are great mimics. You don’t always have to become someone else, but maybe a version of yourself who can humor a different point of view. A lot of the time it might mean stepping outside yourself and trying to see the other side of things. 

I am fascinated with point of view, especially when the characters are very morally gray.  One of my favorite books is The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner and he does a particularly fantastic job of showing how people think. For those of you who haven’t read it yet, this novel is told in four parts – the first three are told by brother: Benjy who is mentally disabled, Quentin who is depressed, and Jason who is burdened by circumstance. The final part is told in third person and follows the family’s servant, Dilsey. This is one novel that whether you agree with the characters or not, your heart breaks for them. There is less of a sense of right and wrong too I think, instead I feel like we get “this is their situation” and then “this is what they did about it.” 

Situation is a great way to help figure out what different choices a character might make.  Even the same person might make different choices given a different set of circumstances. If someone is desperate, they might take bigger risks and make greater sacrifices than someone who is comfortable. One way to break out of your habit is to let the character’s situation inform their actions and choices. Give your characters a variety of different backgrounds, circumstances, and personalities. It will make a difference. While one character might choose to run and hide, another character might chose to stand and fight – and neither has to seem like a stupid choice given the right backgrounds and circumstances. 

Of course too, The Sound and the Fury isn’t even one of the more wild examples of exploring a view point – especially with books out there like Nabokov’s Lolita – and I love that man’s writing so much I’d read his grocery lists. Nabokov is not Humbert Humbert and we’re not meant to be comfortable with what happens in this novel. Sure that’s an extreme, you don’t need to put on a completely different hat just to write a book, but it’s an option. 

Sometimes I’ll try on different voices while writing to try to get into the head of another person – like acting, it’s getting into character. You might know a few things about them, but they aren’t fully alive on the page until you’ve begun writing in their voice and seeing them take shape. You don’t have to become Holden Caulfield to write in a voice. Every character has a voice, even if it’s more subtle. It can feel like your own, it’s just important to remember, it isn’t just you, it’s that character too. 

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