Crafting 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?
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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