Huh. Well, okay, this is one of those rants, like the “ten alternatives” ones, where each item is short because each is obvious and I don’t have much to say about it.
1) Use your experience and emotions, but don’t make them yours.
I think it’s silly to write about a character spraining her ankle just because you once did (guilty as charged!), or a character who’s afraid of heights just because you are. Yes, if the experience fits in with your plot, it can be valuable to know what it’s like from the inside. On the other hand, dumping it in there Just Because is akin to dropping in whole slogs of research which have nothing to do with the plot, just because you did the research. At the worst extreme, it violates the characterization. A tough, stoic character who’s borne broken bones without flinching should not start screaming when he sprains his ankle just because that’s what you did.
So, change the experience/emotions in important ways. Have the character sprain her ankle in different circumstances. Have the character who’s afraid of heights have problems when she then has to fly on a dragon to rescue the city—an experience I can confidently say that neither you nor anyone reading the story will have had. Have the character experience the same pain, but react more gracefully/less gracefully than you did. All of these will keep the character reacting in tune with herself and the story, rather than in tune with you.
2) Give the character one of your traits twisted a bit sideways.
I’ve seen some authors claim that they cannot possibly write a protagonist who’s not bookish, because they themselves are bookish. (Uh-huh. See point 3). What they seem to miss is that a protagonist could, say, be bookish—and be enthusiastic about entirely different kinds of books. You can have curious characters who don’t question strangers about their motives, as you do, but do so constantly with friends, and worrywart characters who worry mostly about impossible things happening instead of possible things happening, as you do.
I don’t think it’s true that you have to have a character who’s very close to yourself in order to write a good protagonist. (Point 3 again). But I do understand the desire to gets one’s own passions into the book. To prevent overidentifying with your character and limiting the stories, however, it would be a good idea to tweak and twist the character traits just as you would experience and emotions with point 1.
3) Don’t let your connection to the characters limit your imagination.
I’ve seen an awful lot of anxiety along the lines of, “But of course I must write about writer characters, because that’s all I know!” or “But of course I must write about professors of Russian literature, because that’s all I know!” Generalized, this becomes anxiety about writing characters of the opposite sex, of different races, of different species, of different ages… you name it, and some author has had a panic attack because he doesn’t think he can do justice to it.
Sit back. Relax. Take a deep breath. Realize some things.
- There is always, always research and interviewing people who are, actually, the kind of people you would like to write about. Okay, maybe not with characters of different species, but in that case there’s studying animal behavior, or mythology if you’re writing about a species like brownies.
- Realize that a lot of leeway can come from individuality. I’ve seen criticisms of female authors writing male characters because they make them too emotional. But it’s a stereotype, not reality, that every single man never expresses his emotions and hates doing so. Create a credible individual, and he or she doesn’t have to match the template of the “ideal” or “real” man/woman/superman. Set it in a different world and different culture, as fantasy often does, and you have even more room. Don’t sabotage yourself before you even begin because you’re afraid that your character travels too far from cultural ideas.
- If you only ever write about authors, or professors of Russian literature, or women, sooner or later there will be a limit to the kinds of stories you can tell. What happens if you do dream up a story that would work best with a male protagonist? Will you never write it, or twist it around and chop and hack the character into a female, because you’re afraid of writing someone who’s not a woman? Challenge yourself. Someone different than you are, even radically different, can force you to write a fine story, because you can’t fall back on all the things you have in common with the character.
- Overidentification with a character is not a pretty sight. I’ve read several fantasy stories already where the main character was an author desperately trying to sell stories to make ends meet, and being ignored because of his “individual” talent, until an elf or a god or an angel or whatever stepped in and made sure he got the recognition he deserved. Every single one of them stank. The closer your character is to you, the more people will start suspecting you of making them into your mouthpiece/avatar, and the whining that comes out when a writer slips over the line really isn’t nice.
- Most authors contradict themselves. The ones who are afraid of writing men still have men in their stories—just not as viewpoint characters. Are you saying that minor characters are perfectly easy to write, while protagonists are hard? That smacks of thinking that no one will notice if a minor character is a stock personality, and not caring enough about your work to spend the effort creating real personas for them. Please don’t do this.
It can be very, very good to step back from the character for a while, take a deep breath, and start trying to put bits of yourself into them in some other way than giving them the same occupation, past history, or tastes in music.
4) Remember that non-attractive traits have a place—and not only in your villains.
Most of us know our own faults, even if we’re not going to admit them aloud. And putting them in a story, for our characters to get tripped up and gnawed on by, is not admitting them aloud. On the other hand, I think it is cheating when all the people who have the author’s least favorite personality traits are evil. Sure, it gives you a road into their heads, but you still don’t like them, and you still heap punishment on them. It’s vicarious changing of faults, which is much easier than actually changing them in real life.
So why not give your heroes some of your own faults? Make a character loudmouthed and bossy, and unable to keep herself from being loudmouthed and bossy even at inappropriate times, if that’s a fault that plagues you. Make a character stubbornly unwilling to listen to good sense, or so committed to making himself look good that he endangers’ other people’s emotional health—and then make him the hero. And, of course, treat them as faults. The most pernicious character trait can be airbrushed and polished away by authors who are anxious that we not actually think their protagonists are bossy or pigheaded or inconsiderate.
Being honest with your heroes makes them real, makes them flawed, and gives you a road into their heads that’s much harder to walk when what you share with them is good or neutral. Remember how embarrassed you felt that time you told a dirty joke in front of your prim and proper aunt, or when you, for some reason, just could not stop giggling during a very solemn occasion? It becomes part of your character, and you’ll start understanding in a way that has to do with shared experience, but doesn’t prompt triumphal self-congratulations.
5) Remember that not everything has to go in a story.
This is the corollary of Point 1, really. Just because you sprained your ankle does not mean that you should use the experience. Maybe, someday, you’ll be able to, but it doesn’t fit in the piece you’re writing now. Or maybe it really was a boring and commonplace occurrence, and making it the absolute center of a story that has much more interesting things on the periphery is silly. (I’ve read stories before where the author spends more time on how the protagonist primps for a party than on how she grieves for her family. Yes, I understand that the party may be based on a true event while the author’s family is still alive, but really, people. Priorities).
Authors are often exhorted to reap their own lives, watch people around them, use their memories to make a novel feel authentic, and so on. All good advice—as long as you retain the capability to judge between what makes good novel material and what doesn’t. “Based on a true story!” never means that something is interesting, or good, or deep, just that it happened.
6) Not all of it has to be conscious.
You can notice similarities with a character long after you started writing or planning a story. And characters who had a few of your traits chucked at them in order to make them “real” may need to change those traits before the story works. As a rule, I distrust and dislike the impression some writing advice gives of every single successful author sitting down beforehand and deciding, “Okay, this character is going to have my temper, and this character is going to have my passion for antiques, and this character is going to be driven crazy by the buzzing of a fly, just like I was that time in band camp…”
Why do I dislike and distrust it? It’s too conscious. It smacks of designing a character around a super-cool ability, only this is supposed to be better because the trait or experience is often not super-cool. Still, if a character only exists to say the witty retort that you wish you’d thought of ten minutes after someone verbally ripped you to shreds, then I want to know what the hell he’s going to do for the rest of the book.
Don’t hinge everything on one trait or one experience. The characters should also have things that aren’t you, or aren’t you on the surface. No author is an island. We put things into the characters that also come from outside ourselves. That has to be the truth, or such tricks as research and interviews would be useless.
7) Use the bits of yourself to map out other character traits.
Perhaps you start with someone waking up slowly, just the way you always do. Because he wakes up slowly, he nearly dies when the ninja who’s waiting by the bed swings the sword down. Because he nearly dies, he has a wound. Because he has a wound, he’s not going to fight as well, and will have to flee. Because he has to flee, the plot can then begin.
Okay, that’s a too-tidy and too-linear example. It should serve, however. Character traits, experiences, likes and dislikes, don’t exist in isolation. To develop someone beyond “He loves roses, just like I do!” start thinking about what that similarity implies. Does he grow roses? If so, that implies he lives somewhere where roses can be grown. Is he rich? Does he hire gardeners? Or does he live alone and put all kinds of work into maintaining his flowers? And then you trace the implications out from that, and you start getting a glimpse of how he moves in the larger context of his world. Character-in-context works much better, I believe, than character-as-list.
Yeah, I admit that if I tried to write an author who was exactly like me, she would be suspicious of authors who put bits of themselves into their characters with laser-like precision. That’s just the way it is.