One of the best parts of writing is creating characters, telling their stories and in doing so, pretending to be someone else. It’s like having a second life, completely in your control. One of the worst things about it is everyone who knows you assumes that in some respect, you are revealing aspects of your persona that you cover up in public. When you write melancholy, disfunction or even downright malice into your characters, does that mean that inside you feel that way on some level as well? And why is it that it’s only those darker qualities that people question? Why would someone assume that if I write about a serial killer, that I have murderous tendencies myself? Or in a more realistic scenario, if a write about a character suffering from depression or anxiety, does that mean I am revealing my inner issues too?
The short answer is: of course not! The beauty of writing is being able to step outside yourself and into someone else’s life. To use your imagination in a more than superficial way to feel what it’s like to be another person with a unique perspective and a completely different set of circumstances. When we do that we have to be prepared to go to the dark side. To find those regions of human experience that aren’t pretty or comfortable. Because really that is life these days.
I’ve said this previously: being able to shine a light in dark places in our writing is a good thing. It creates the drama a novel needs. It makes our characters believable and relatable. It gives them depth, dimension. It makes the reader invest in the character, either in hoping for their salvation or their demise. But it doesn’t make the writing a confession. It just makes us better writers.
Over the last 5 years of steady writing, I find that I’m most comfortable writing from the first person perspective. That can be a good or a bad thing, depending on the kind of story I’m telling. I always sound like “me” when I write in first person. I try very hard to adapt to my vision of the character, but inevitably that character is some version of my own self. Maybe not exactly, but I guarantee that anyone who knows me well would recognize aspects of my personality shining brightly through.
Ok, so that’s fine if I’m telling a contemporary story about a white, educated, married but childless, female who lives in the Northeastern United States. But what do I do if I want to write from the perspective of a male character, or an elderly person or someone from a different race or culture? There are those who feel that everyone should stay in their own cultural lane but that’s a much bigger discussion so let’s just set it aside for a moment.
When we find ourselves developing a character very different from ourselves, often we can only use information we have either read or observed. This is unfortunately, an aspect of writing where things can go horribly wrong. I think the writer needs to tread carefully and do more than guess or assume how it feels to be someone else. Be humble enough to ask for help. Interview people of that group to ask what their experiences are. And if you don’t know anyone of a particular group well enough to ask for feedback then you probably shouldn’t be trying to write from that point of view. Let’s assume you do. Have someone like your character read a little of the story and comment on what you got right and what you got wrong. Make changes based on their feedback.
As for keeping your writing within your own cultural boundaries, I have mixed feelings on this. On one hand, I think it’s wonderful to include characters from different backgrounds in your stories, especially if that is part of your real life experience. We are creators after all, meant to be using our imaginations. On the other hand, if you get this wrong, your writing can be offensive to the people you are writing about. Now I realize that in today’s world everyone seems to be hypersensitive about everything, so it can be intimidating to write about another culture. But having a purposefully diverse cast of characters can also end up seeming patronizing. If it’s not happening naturally, don’t force it.
I think it is one of the wonderful aspects of writing: pretending to be someone else. We create whole new worlds and people them with characters developed from our creative minds. These characters deserve to be the best, most authentic versions of themselves and not stereotypes or caricatures. Which is why we, their creators, need to be certain of their perspectives.
She was beautiful, but not like those girls in the magazines. She was beautiful for the way she thought. She was beautiful for the sparkle in her eyes when she talked about something she loved. She was beautiful for her ability to make other people smile, even if she was sad. No, she wasn’t beautiful for something as temporary as her looks. She was beautiful deep down to her soul. ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald
I’ve been doing a lot of reading and television watching lately. I think my brain needs a rest from all the chaos that my life has been for the last couple of months. It has not been a good summer. Anyway, even when I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing. So my entertainment choices made me ponder the way I write my characters.
Sometimes, I can read about a character and fall in love with them without even having a detailed description of their appearance. I find them attractive through their actions and dialogue. Or, after a description in the beginning which may not portray them as particularly handsome or beautiful, I will forget as I am drawn in by their personality. Intelligence, kindness, sense of humor, and a well-rounded education (not necessarily formal) are also very appealing. Most recently, I realized this in watching Endeavor on Masterpiece. Shaun Evans, who plays Inspector Morse as a young man, is not a classically handsome man, but I as I grew to love the character, I began to find him very attractive as well.
Over the course of five novels and numerous short stories, I have fallen into the habit of writing all my main characters as physically beautiful. While I have also tried to imbue them with those other fine qualities I mentioned, I haven’t let them stand on their own. To grow and mature as a writer, I need to create characters who are beautiful deep down to their souls.