Monday, May 7, 2012

Why your best characters are just you

Going through the beta reader/editing phase of my novel has already taught me a ton about my own writing. I have a real issue with comma splices and a tendency towards too much dialog with not enough breaks.

One of the most interesting things I've learned is about character. Even though my main character is a forty-year old man, I didn't think too much about finding his character "voice" or "type". I did that on purpose, and instead basically wrote him in my own voice, as natural as I could be. So yeah, I basically wrote myself as a forty-year old man. Sort of. Anyway.

I did, however, think through the "voice" and "type" of many of the secondary characters. I based them off a very character-y image I had in my mind. Crazy lady type, clumsy soldier type, slimy skinny villain type. Some of them paid off, and were fun to write. However, the consensus from the feedback so far is that my MC is much more developed and round as a character than the others. Not just that (I mean, he needs to be more developed obviously, since he's the MC) but some of the others are falling a bit flat. That's not so okay, and we're working on fixing it.

Maybe this should be obvious, but its a revelation to me. I mean, nobody is more developed and rounded than a real person, and we don't know anyone better than we know ourselves, so characters where we go the natural route and basically put ourselves on the page are clearly going to be more human than when we don't. The dilemma, though, is how to make round and developed characters out of the ones who are nothing like us. Yeah, I'm not a forty year old man but I might be able to relate to one, whereas I really don't know what to do with the slimy, sleezy, malicious villain type. So what do I do if I want a slimy, sleezy villain?

I think the problem starts with thinking of characters as "types". We need to think of each character as an individual, and if this guy happens to be slimy, sleezy, and malicious then that's what he is. But he's also geeky and desperate and lonely and ambitious and just trying to get where he wants to go, and that I can definitely relate to. When we try and write "types" then the characters end up turning out like bad versions of characters people have seen many times before. And we don't want that.

So just be yourself. Be your shy, quirky, girly self for one character and your snarky, bitter, witty self for another. Every character comes from you. They turn out better when you let them.

Anyone else experienced this before? What characters are easiest for you, and which are the hardest?

Sarah Allen


  1. Interesting post. I was really surprised when I realized my children's story 'voice' was the same as the voice for my adult stories. I enjoy creating the minor characters - they tend to be quirky individuals, not types.

  2. While none of my characters are ever exactly like me they all have characteristics of mine. I guess this makes them seem more real to me.

  3. such an insightful post and hard question for me----i will be thinking about this!

  4. Sometimes my characters are the me I'm not but would like to be.

  5. Freewrites help to "find" a character. And, yes, thinking of them as complete people, with lots of seeming contraditions and nuances. I am reminded of method actors who spend lots of time "being" their character before they even do the film.

  6. I tend to use people around me that I know well (family, work, school) and use their reactions as a template. I feel like I have more confidence in behaviour I could imagine a real person exhibiting.

    Moody Writing
    The Funnily Enough

  7. This is actually nice to know! I write my main character through my own voice and it's good to know your feedback was that it was a well rounded character! It gives me hope! ;) with that said though I find my main character toughest to write. Especially in my latest WIP. But I am discovering she is more well rounded than I thought because of characteristics I am adding. I'm not quite in the feedback stages, but I will be interested to see what responses I get from this!

  8. There is always a little bit of me in all my characters. For one, it was a brief conversation I had with someone, for another it was my fear of spiders, another my envy of someone's dress... Like you say, your characters come from you, so it's impossible for them to be completely seperate.

  9. You young lady are a character unto yourself. Looks like you are having a good time getting through the beta process and becoming a better writer...not all bad.

  10. The characters that are always easiest for me are the sarcastic ones, the ones who are most like me. I do have characters that I could never imagine identifying with in a million years who were so difficult to write and yet, they turned out to be some of my best.

  11. I'm SOwith you. I never understood why people try to keep themselves out of their books. USE yourself, lol

  12. My goal is to make my characters as unlike me as possible. Usually, this happens when I instinctively give them a reaction to something in the story that's just as I would react, and change it. Otherwise I fear my characters will be too similar not only to me, but to each other.


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