How to write characters who are different than you.
Two wonderful questions about character came into my inbox recently. After some reflection, I decided to answer them both at once. The answer to these two questions is the same, but the questions approach it from opposite ends.
Q: I'm trying to work though the Story Course and I'm having trouble creating characters in Lesson 3. I feel that I'm answering the questions as if I'm interviewing myself. And then the bits and pieces do not feel coherent. I don't feel like I know this character as it feels too much like myself. Any advice on how to avoid answering the questions in my head and jotting down answers but trying to pick bits and pieces from people I know and strangers I happen to see on the streets?
Q: I started to write a scene from the perspective of a paranoid depressive, talking to his wife who is frustrated with him, and I found it hard to stay in his perspective because I couldn't sympathize with him. I often find this when I write about dark characters -- they don't ring true, or I lose interest in them, or I represent them in a shallow way, because their darkness repels me, scares me. It's as if my own mental health feels threatened by them. What can I do to give the anti-heroes in my stories credibility, when they are not people I would naturally associate with or want to be in the headspace of?
Your characters come from you, obviously, and you can only truly know your own thoughts and experience.
But the trick to writing character is to transmit details you know about yourself and details about someone you don’t know at the same time. This isn't easy.
Know this: it's not going to feel normal or familiar or okay to start writing characters who are different than you are. It will feel off-putting at the very least. It can even feel dangerous.
These are the two things you need in order to write true fictional characters: courage and empathy.
Embolden yourself however you can. Let go of your self-control, and let your self-consciousness go along with it. They key here is to lose yourself, so you can find your character.
Wear a fluorescent green scarf and a big cocktail ring. Take dance breaks to pump you up (go to Songza and select a playlist with music you don’t usually play). Put on a blonde wig and wear stilettos. Put on a cowboy hat and wear your partner’s flip-flops. Anything goes here. Make your body feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar.
When you feel embarrassed to be seen with yourself, then write in the voice of your character. Write the answers to the character questionnaire as if you didn't care. Go crazy. It might feel like slight madness to express yourself in a voice you don't know yet.
This part is scary – because making art probably is a slight madness.
But it’s okay. You're still the writer. You can go somewhere (into someone) else and you will come back unscathed.
The frightening part about character work is that when you go boldly into the voice of someone else — it is also true that that voice is your own. Essentially, you're connecting to a part of yourself you don't know yet. And that's weird.
It’s also what connects us to each other. This is the power of fiction: empathy. You have to surrender yourself and everything you know about yourself. Allow feeling to surface in the gap that exists between what you know about you and what you don’t know about your character.
Start with details you see from strangers, and stay in the sensory realm. Your senses are the portal to character.
Is your character a man with slick hairdo, wearing a pair of loosely-laced running shoes, pushing a stroller with three tiny dogs in it? Great. Pour yourself into feeling his experience, not knowing it.
How to write about styling a pompadour when you’ve never had one? Think about the smell of hair pomade, and feel what it’s like to pull a comb through your hair. See? You already share the experience with the character. You’ve pushed a stroller before. You’ve seen tiny dogs before. You know what their teeth look like, what dog breath smells like. Try on a pair of too-big shoes, and shuffle around in them. What does that feel like?
Start with the small details. Work your way up to the bigger stuff, like What is he afraid of? or What is the most thrilling thing he’s ever done?
Once you have a bed of small details you can feel, you’ll be more prepared to jump into feeling the bigger feelings.
When you allow yourself to write characters with empathy instead of knowledge, you invite a catalyst to your writing. This is the chemistry of writing what you know and writing what you don't know at the same time.
Good luck. Character work really is the gold.
ps. One more trick: try writing the answers to character questionnaires with your non-dominant hand. It can be slow, grueling work, but it's amazing for your brain. It really trips you up. You're focusing so much on forming the letters that the content itself can come out without you controlling it so much.
pps. This post might also help.