Characters and Distance


I want to start this post by pointing out that when I write about writing, I’m not giving my thoughts on what I think you should do, or even what works. I’m really just sharing what works for me, and how I write. If it works for you, then great! But I’ve come up with my own tactics for writing by practicing and reading a lot of books on craft. Some of them are better than others, but by combining all the ideas in them that have worked for me and ruling out those that don’t I’ve been able to come up with a pretty good method. However, what works for me might not work for you. And that’s just fine.

One thing pretty common among writers is that a lot of us start out writing characters who are very like ourselves. In fact, they might actually be facsimiles of ourselves, self-inserts by the author put there so we can experience the adventure we’re putting the characters through.

This isn’t an autobiographical thing. We always change the name to something that sounds cool. Or maybe even the name we wish we had. Let’s not discuss the strangely fantastical names I gave myself and my friends in my first manuscript… It’s a little embarrassing.

I grew up on video games, so my first forays into writing seemed very task-based. Go to the place, get the thing, move on to the next place, eventually save the world. It was the kind of experience I wanted to have, so I wrote about myself and my friends.

Ever since those first attempts, I’ve had a couple of characters who unintentionally seem very much like myself. Even when I try to change some aspects about a character to make them different from myself, I find myself imagining me in their place. This is especially true if the character is around my age or younger and doesn’t have a career.

The net result, however, is a somewhat boring character.

It’s not to say that I’m boring—at least, I hope not. But when you write about yourself, it’s hard to be sure to include all the weird quirks that make a character an individual. This is because everything you do, every weird little thing about you, you either view as normal or you just ignore. For instance, apparently I have a very expressive face, as pointed out by other people. I did not know that about myself, and would have written a character based on me as being a little more unflinching and stoic. Because that’s cool.

It’s also harder to upend their whole world and completely screw them over in the interest of story, because that character is you.

I’ve found two solutions to this.

Solution One: Multiple Main Characters

I’ve mentioned the story that I’ve planned out extensively but haven’t written much of yet before. Well, for that one, the bulkiest part of the plan (and probably the reason it’s sixty pages long) is the character section. Each main character has four pages: a simple run-down of who they are, their role in the story, some random facts about them to help build their character, and then their entire story arc.

A lot of them die, come close to death, or might as well be dead.

Off the top of my head, I can think of one who remains alive and unmaimed who isn’t in some way an antagonist, but his entire world changes. One of the characters becomes a martyr, one is captured for experiments, another is indoctrinated and taken away to work for the enemy. Only the bad guys really get any good outcomes. At least in the first book. I’ve yet to plan the rest of the series (assuming it becomes a series) so I don’t know what will happen.

These situations serve the story well. And because I’m not too attached to the characters—by dint of there being so many “main” characters and the fact that none of them are pseudo-me—I have no problem completely destroying them and everything they love. It’s all to serve the story, anyway.

Solution Two: Vastly Different Point of View

I’m a man in his late twenties. My main character for NaNoWriMo is a teenage girl. I don’t have her exact experience in the world—I couldn’t, really.

However, I know how to be empathetic. And I can use this empathy to get inside her head. But none of the thoughts there are exactly mine—they’re hers. I view the world I’ve created for this story through her eyes, which is a bit different from how I see the world.

Have I pulled it off? Well, I don’t know yet. Time will tell. For now, I’m still discovering who this character is. And because she’s nothing like myself, I find it a little more difficult to just reach for my own quirks while writing her. That makes her a little more interesting to me, if nothing else, and forces me to flex my creativity.

But I still get to include some of my own experiences as a human being, because some things are just universal. Plus, when you write from your own experiences, you can sometimes add a bit of depth to a character by bringing them into the real world.

I’ve also found that it’s easier to write about this character’s flaws. When I write a character based on myself (or who I view as myself) I tend to try to portray that character in a positive light. They never get embarrassed, they always have the best comebacks, and they always get the last word.


Photo by Tyler Mullins on Unsplash


About David Shank

David T. Shank is a writer, runner, and musician, in that order. His blog is hopefully an oasis among the vast ocean of negativity that is the Internet. He lives in Cleveland studying how to write good.

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