If I had a dollar for every time I have heard the advice ‘write what you know’ I would have so much money to spend on water balloons to throw at those people.
When I first began writing this advice really slowed my progress and made me doubt myself and my ability to write. I had so many ideas but, none of them were specifically ‘what I knew’. I couldn’t even really nail down what that meant! But then I had a realization that changed, not only the way I write, but also how I view the writing process.
I have written fiction for years, including spending some time as a ghost writer and novelist. And thusly, I have crafted hundreds of characters. Some were good, and some were, meh, not as good. But I began to notice that there was a pattern in each of the characters. If I was acknowledging that I knew the character as an aspect of myself then they would be so much better and more in depth. AND they were always the reader’s favorite characters. However, if I felt personally disconnected from them then they would be flat and, well, bland.
The number one mistake that I see authors and writers make when crafting their characters is thinking that their character is separate from themselves. When writing a character, everyone wants them to be interesting and many faceted but often, we fall back on the standard cookie cutter characters we have seen elsewhere in our favorite media and it jams our gears right up. We want them to be unique but how the heck is that possible?
The secret here is understanding that to write a good character we have to know them, and not simply in the ‘yeah I based them off my ex-boyfriend’ sort of way but in the ‘ this character reflects my struggle with feeling guilty for being happy’ kind of way. And the way that you do this is actually easier than you think.
We are all composed of different aspects; our aspects exist for a number of reasons but sometimes it is due to a trauma that occurred in our lives or a way that we are protecting ourselves. And the world around us is constantly mirroring our own aspects and each of their wants and desires back to us. So, if we leverage this mirror consciously in the way we write we can create characters that we ‘know.’ Characters that are part of ourselves.
I want you to think of one character, it can be one that you have written, are writing about, or want to write about and ask yourself a few questions.
What is their greatest motivation and why?
What is their greatest fear and why?
What is their purpose in the story?
Don’t think too hard about these questions just ponder a second on your character and write what comes to mind.
Now, we are going to do a little exercise and see if your answers deepen.
Read your answers and then find a quiet space where you can sit and close your eyes. Plant your feet flat on the floor and take three deep breaths. With your eyes closed think of your character and their biggest motivation, what emotion does that conjure up within you? Resonate on that emotion, when have you felt that before in your life? You don’t have to think of any perfect time just whatever time comes to mind. Think about that time, remember yourself in that time. How did that feeling change you? How did you act during that time?
Then, think of your character again, how will they experience that emotion in your story. How will it resonate with them the same way it resonated with you? View that character as yourself. Put yourself in their shoes when they are experiencing their motivation in your story.
Feel how they will.
Open your eyes and re-answer question one with that emotion in mind as your character.
Close your eyes again and do the same for your character’s greatest fear. Think about what they fear and find what emotion that conjures up for you, funny thing, it may or may not be fear. Sometimes when we fear things they present themselves in our lives as something very different than fear. Repeat the exercise you did for question one before answering question two again.
Now, for question three, read over your new responses to the first two questions, and see if you have a new answer to questions three. You may be surprised with how it changes.
Read over your answers from the first time and the second time. How did they change? Do you feel more connected?
This is my process for conscious character writing. I use it every time I write a character. Every time. Even if they are just a random one chapter cameo character. Because the reader can sense your connection if you choose to establish it with the character. And it always makes for multifaceted and deeply passionate characters.
I do have some other techniques that can help you to hone in on your character’s voice and struggles etc that I will continue to share in later articles but, if you have any questions about this process leave a comment! I would love to help you in your journey to create characters that not only drive your story but enrapture your audience.