Writing Characters Who Aren’t Like You

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writing characters

When you write a work of fiction, your characters can be anyone, from anywhere, and from any time. This is exciting creative freedom, but it can also be perilous.

If you don’t have first-hand knowledge related to some aspect of a character you’re crafting in a work of fiction, how do you make that character authentic, alive, and accurate? Equally important, how do you avoid relying on clichés, tropes, and stereotypes when you’re creating a character who isn’t like you or anyone you know well?

Here are some tips to help you craft figures in your story who are less caricature and cliché and more fully-formed, multi-dimensional, living-and-breathing creations.

Define your characters

Write down a list of details about your character. Start with census-like information — age, location, family structure, occupation, ethnicity, gender, species (if applicable!), and so on. Then add a few more key details that will define your character in the context of your story — hobbies, fears, aspirations, or whatever else makes the character unique within the world you’re building.

Identify clichés

Once you have the above profile created, set it aside. When you come back, skim through it and write every assumption you can quickly think of based on that character. Who knows what you’ll come up with? She likes steamed beets, wishes she could fly, doesn’t want people to see her as weak, identifies with stray cats, is irresistible to members of the same gender… Record everything that comes to mind.

Next, go through that list of assumptions and ask yourself, for each character, is this a passive cliché or stereotype, or an active detail that you truly believe your character possesses? Keep the real and toss the rest.

Learn your characters’ histories

Let’s say you’re writing a story about coal miners in Pennsylvania but have never worked in that industry and don’t know anyone who has. Start by doing your research — spend time looking through reputable sources on the web for history of the coal-mining industry, the technology involved, the industry’s economic peaks and valleys, the health and environmental impacts, how the industry shapes the surrounding communities, the politics involved, and so on. Everything you learn about the world immediately surrounding a key character will help you write that character into a rich and convincing context.

Read stuff they’ve written

What better way to give your characters the realism and depth that they need than to read what their real-life analogs have written? Let’s say one of your main characters is a young female reporter in Guatemala. Dig deep for articles, journals, memoirs, anything written by similar, real-life figures that will let you see how they describe the world in which they dwell.

Talk to them (if you can)

If your story revolves around characters who are very similar to people who are currently alive, do your best to connect with real-life equivalents and try to have a conversation. Is your main character’s father a Vietnam War veteran who continues to struggle with the legacy of that conflict? If you don’t personally know any veterans, visit vfw.org, find a local chapter, introduce yourself as a writer who would love to have a casual conversation over lunch, and see what happens.

Find an analog and superimpose

If your book involves workers reeling from the impact of the first Industrial Revolution, sadly, you’re not going to find anybody to talk to with first-hand experience. But you can still create conversations that will help you in your writing. Do you see a parallel between the characters in your story and service workers adjusting to the tech boom in San Francisco? See if you can speak with or find written accounts from the latter to get a sense of the struggle. With any luck, you will find common human elements that you can then superimpose onto your characters, even though they may be placed centuries earlier and oceans away.

Don’t exaggerate

Writers can fall into the trap of choosing one aspect of a character who is not like them and expanding it to the point where that single facet overwhelms everything else. It’s easy to do this if you’re not paying close attention as you write and the strength of your story and vividness of your characters can suffer as a result.

The answer? Keep balance and depth in mind. There’s nothing wrong with writing a character who has a single, strong, defining trait, as long as that trait actively serves your storytelling and there’s more to the character in the long run. Any fictional figure who is simply an avatar for greed, sexuality, ambition, benevolence, or violence will appear flat and unconvincing; if you find your own characters feeling unrealistically defined in this way, tone down their overwhelming characteristics on your next edit and add other elements that will allow readers to experience them in more ways than one.

Get an informed opinion

If you’re writing about dancers, and you’re not one yourself, find a local teacher, student, or professional who will give your work a quick read and let you know if your words ring true. Similarly, if you’re writing about characters from a certain event in history, getting in touch with a scholar of that period can help you know if your work resonates as solid and realistic.

How do you approach breathing authentic life into characters that aren’t like you? Tell us in the comments below!

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10 COMMENTS

  1. I found this a really useful article. I intend to follow up on many of your suggestions for the characters in my book.
    Thanks for the advice.

  2. I had to create characters in my Novella, APR/Adams, Pendergast and Raab who were unlike me, but I had first hand experience with their personalities. I could practically see them as I created their dialogue. I heard their ghetto slang and I knew how they would react in certain circumstances, because I knew their world. Also, I knew how the upper crust of society lives because I had first hand experience with them also. I based my characters on people I knew or had knowledge of., which is why it was so easy for me to create my screenplay adaptation of my book. My characters were there with me the whole time. It may be helpful for some writers, but I don’t believe in making a profile of a character. I even read that the creator of the James Bond, 007 character never made a profile of him, either.

  3. Thanks for the great article. Stereotypes no longer sell, so writers must do their research even if they don’t like it. I would also recommend getting out in public places and meeting people to see how they interact in real life.

  4. Thank you so much for this post. I have been struggling tremendously with the main character in my current WIP. After reading this post I also discovered that I may need to tone down the animosity of the antagonist. She really isn’t evil for the sake of evil, but she comes across that way. This was very helpful to me and I shared the link on my FB page.

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