5 Ways Authors Learn to Relate to Their Characters….

paint-1-1408752-mCrafting characters who are believable yet interesting, vulnerable yet not cloying, and relatable yet flawed, is one of the most important aspects of good fiction. It doesn’t come easy…. I’ve found that the way I end up writing characters I can relate to is to put a piece of me in each of them.

But what does that mean, exactly? There are so many parts of ourselves we can pull from to enrich a character who might otherwise be bland, cliche, or just not feel truly human.

Share one of your interests or hobbies with a character.

If you need to, tweak that interest a bit. I, for instance, was always a fan of learning, reading, and academia. I almost got a Ph.D. to become a professor. It just felt sensible to make one of my favorite members of the Crimson League a scholar and a reader.

Neslan Dormenor is a former nobleman, and he was active at university. Now, it isn’t always easy for me to relate to male characters or to know how they would think, but I know what it’s like to have a passion for learning. For school. To simply be amazed at the wealth of knowledge about the world humanity has amassed.

That really helped me craft and understand Neslan. It didn’t hurt, either, that he loved history as well as literature. My trilogy deals a lot with the historical development of magic in Herezoth and what things in the past created an environment where tensions got so high between those who can use magic and those who can’t.

When the League needed to get in touch with history, Neslan was incredibly useful! And it helped me when I realized a character who loves learning so much would be a deep thinker. A ponderer. A man who took some time to develop his convictions and world view and wouldn’t abandon them easily.

I hope that’s a useful example of taking a personal interest and applying it to a character who is otherwise very different than me, and using that interest to further understand how that person thinks and what is important to him.

Give a character the strengths you don’t have…. But have always admired and wanted to develop.

I find myself doing this a LOT. It motivates me to make sure I’m doing my characters and their stories justice when I make them people that I feel deserve a lot of respect.

Part of who we are is our image of who we’d like to be, and what things we most admire, respect, and look up to. That definitely comes out in my writing.

Share a struggle with a character.

I want to talk about weaknesses and flaws later on. Those aren’t the same thing as struggles, though there may be some overlap in some cases.

A struggle doesn’t have to be related to a personal flaw or failing. All a struggle means is that you are facing a difficult situation. Maybe money is tight. Maybe there’s illness. Maybe grief has struck. (Here are 5 psychological struggles that help to enhance an engaging plot.)

I know that my personal struggles find themselves heavily distorted and disguised, but very present in my fiction. After all, it’s easy to take a struggle that I have and change it so much, keeping the basic personal implications in tact, that I hardly realize I’ve done just that until I read a first draft and realize, “Wow. This is kind of like this or that thing going on right now….”

Struggling to let go? So can a character: to let go of something very different.

Struggling with guilt? With feelings of insecurity? So can a character, for causes that hardly resemble your own.

Share your flaws with a character. Preferably a “good” one.

The obvious inclination of most writers–including me–is to want to keep my heroes “good” and my villains “bad.” But the fact is, everyone has talents, strengths, and weaknesses. That’s not news to any of us.

So, I try to share some of the things I don’t like about myself with the characters I’m rooting for and that I most like.

This is helpful to me on a lot of levels. Beyond helping to ensure that I’m not writing someone who’s just too perfect to be believable, it also helps me feel a bit better about who I am.

I tend to struggle with low self esteem. And I judge myself a LOT. So in addition to helping me realize strategies for combating my weaknesses, throwing my weaknesses upon characters I honestly admire helps me to accept myself when I slip up and encourages me to keep on trying to improve.

Share a strength or two with a villain.

It’s not always fun, or easy, to look at my villains and see myself reflected there. But I honestly have to say, I do. Interestingly enough, I see as many of my strengths in my villains as I do my weaknesses.

I enjoy seeing my weaknesses reflected in my villains because it reminds me of WHY my weaknesses are just that. It empowers me to be vigilant against them and cognizant of their negative effects in my life.

But seeing my strengths in my villains is useful too. You see, knowing that my villains share a handful of my strengths helps me to utilize and to maximize their strengths. It helps me craft them into formidable forces who have a plan, a purpose, and motivation that make sense (and might not even be all that condemnable.)

Also, recognizing my strengths in my villains helps me feel for them and to recognize their potential. It is a reminder that all people–even those I don’t like or find difficult to interact with–are unique and have something special and personal to contribute to the world.

So, how do you find ways to relate to your characters? Do you find them reacting in similar ways and feeling similar things to you, even if the stimuli are very different? Do you find yourself popping up in characters that you don’t want to like?

RELATED POSTS:

How to humanize a villain

Leave categorizing your characters up to readers

On the “reluctant hero”

On the “willing hero”

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

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21 responses to “5 Ways Authors Learn to Relate to Their Characters….

  1. Thank You for your input on Characters. I needed too read up on this and you have made it so easy for us too live and learn based on your development of Characters. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Great that you mention villains because I run into other authors who never consider making the bad guys relatable. They swear there isn’t a piece of them in the villain and some try really hard to wipe out anything they see as a similarity. You really said it best that a strength in a villain can help us realize that they have potential. I think it can also give a sense that there is a chance at redemption for the character and that they’re not entirely evil. That gives an opening for some readers to connect.

  3. I really love the idea of giving your protagonist one or two of your own flaws. I actually did that with my book — I gave the protagonist some of my shyness and anxiety, and writing about how she overcame that … I think it helped me get out of my shell a lot back in university. Great post!

  4. Fantastic post! Thanks for all of the advice on characters. I agree with you and Charles on villains, and how they need to be relatable. In a way, every character should have the potential to be a hero or a villain. It all comes down to circumstances and how they choose to act through their strengths and their weaknesses.

    • I agree. It is SUCH a great, fantastic reminder that none of us are equipped to judge the souls of other people…. Judging an act as sinful or wrong is one thing, but judging souls and deeming ourselves superior to those who have different weaknesses than we do…. That is not our place, and what you say about circumstances and how they play to our strengths and weaknesses….. It reinforces that for me.

  5. Ha. Everywhere I look I read about characters. Or is it that I am casting for a new WIP. Building characters is hard for me. Even with the Ackerman / Puglisi books and a Myers Briggs chart, it is difficult for me. But I never thought about the hobby or passion part. Thank you, Silent

  6. Or just have conversations with them, but try not to do it in public. 🙂

  7. So true – I attempt the same with my characters. Putting a little of yourself in their personality creates empathy and understanding, and both are needed to write a realistic character. Great post!

  8. I really like the suggestion to give your character strengths you don’t have, but admire. It’d be fun to write a character like that, maybe even push you to be a littler more like whatever about them you admire.

  9. I feel you have to remember people are people… Good or bad we all have weakness and strength. What make a good person into a bad person? They have a blind spot to their badness. They are convinced that they are right and everyone else is wrong. I’m sure that an evil person doesn’t wake up in the morning and rub their hands together and say ‘I’m going to be evil today’ no more than and good person gets up and says ‘I’m going to be good’. They both just get up and get on with their lives.
    This is how I draw my characters… as the story unfold so my characters make their choices for good or bad just as it happens in life. What line draw in the sand would we chose to cross over or not. The differences between me being good or bad is when I say ‘God, I could kill that person for what they did to me!’ is that I wouldn’t… just words, but? 🙂

  10. I’ve recently looked at how I create characters, and I feel like I’ve used too much of what I am and what I’m not as a person, resulting in characters that are similar to each other, which makes for a dull reading experience. My bad obviously, lol. I mean, its’s a great tool and it’s bound to happen that you can look at your characters and the reflection mirrors yours to an extent. But I’m trying something different with a story that’s cooking in my head, approaching it from the needs of the themes and morals and what not, how will those manifest in the characters and how should they relate to what the story is about, what type of characters does the story need? It’s also kind of awesome to see that hey, I might have actually developped as a writer a bit further 🙂

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