Writing can be hard, easy, fun, rewarding, mind-boggling, stressful, and full of excitement. One of the most difficult parts I have about writing, both in creative and academic settings, is being myself. This may sound more like a self-doubt writing session, and I can see that point because we as people tend to be our own worst critics. My intent is not to sound pessimistic or at the same time to say I am the greatest writer of all time or even of my generation. My objective is to share my insights into creating characters while sharing the difficulty of being myself and not another character that sometimes gets control of my mind.
It is true that within every character there is part of the author. I think this fact is difficult to dispute especially when it comes to writing creative characters (as opposed to writing alternative history or historical fiction). The characters that authors create will always be apart of us because in the end, we created them either through our own processes, which for me is mostly observing other people or using people in my life. One of the main characters of my first novel, Within the Grasp of Ordinary, is Philip, who is at least eighty percent me. He’s 16, his parents are divorced, he lives with his mother, has a strained relationship with his father, his sister is away at college, and his older twin brothers are serving in the military in a warzone.
I was 16 once (we all were or will be), my parents were divorced, I lived with my father, have a difficult relationship with my father, but don’t have an older sister or twin brothers, but several extended family members who served in the military and in warzones. Our interests are similar, I used to play soccer as a youth and was part of the soccer team as a student manager during high school, whereas Philip has played soccer all his life. Our academic interests are aligned, we both enjoy political science and have an optimist’s sense for the future, always believing the best in people until they hurt you, and then it is near difficult to restore that sense of trust.
There are always two sides to a person, not fully an alter ego, but somebody who offers a counterbalance, that person is also heavily influenced by me, my biological brother, and some friends, that character’s name is Tristan. Tristan is the same age as Philip, 16, and both have known each other since they were toddler’s learning to play soccer. While Philip is the optimist, Tristan is the realist, and though on a few occasions the roles do change, because characters like people do act differently from the cast-type they have been given. I feel most natural as myself when I’m in these two characters mindsets because they each have a good percentage of me imbedded in them. Their interactions between each other are funny, intimate, and feel authentic, because they know each other so well.
However, characters have the same awkwardness as others, not everybody is imbedded with natural talent to be people-friendly. I can easily approach a stranger, but in the same breath it is also exhausting to approach a person and strike up a conversation. It is here where sometimes I feel, especially at work, I am in character. I am not fully myself because my job requires me to be courteous. I used to work customer service, both in person and over the phone, and I loved and dreaded every minute of it. There are nice people, there are indifferent people, and there are customers who are downright rude, and I wish voodoo dolls worked to inflict torment. I truly believe everybody should be required to work retail for at least one month, to better understand how demanding and unsatisfying the job can be. Perhaps then, people could treat others who fulfill our needs in stores, restaurants, and over the phone with a bit more respect and patience.
At work though, I feel like I’m in character because outside of the happy, shows up almost every day, and goofy attitude, very few people at work know I write or read a plethora of books, mostly non-fiction. This is partially by design, if people know you write, they tend to get a perception of you. I’ve been asked by a few people who know I write, if they are characters in my story. The honest answer is no, but a bit more complicated. I will use a person’s name or a combination of two or three names to create a character but assign different attributes to a person. Part of the reason for this is because I don’t really consider these people friends. I don’t socialize with them, only occasionally run into them outside of work at retail establishments. It feels like a weird sort of constructed wall, I’m sociable not anti-social outside of work and a closed circle of friends and family. Only friends, family, and ex-girlfriends have become characters, and probably will always remain that way because they are people who I have established great connections with, interests, memories, etc.
One of the most challenging tasks of being an author (and a human) sometimes is showing empathy to your characters. Characters need to be real in order to be liked and to feel a sense of progression and recovery, a sense of triumph over their circumstances. Characters need to be genuine, rational and irrational – because for no matter how logical we try to be, we make illogical decisions. Characters also need to be hurt, they need to go through relationships with friends and significant others which tested, they could fail or overcome their difficulties. Their families need to be imperfect, but not too imperfect, otherwise it becomes unbelievable. The difficult part of being myself as a reader and then a writer, is separating myself from the creation. It is hard not to feel emotional or weep about a character’s pain or loss, especially when the experiences are like my life.
It is hard to write about something if you have never taken part in the experience. I have never mountain climbed (and not really that interested in it) but if I ever wanted to write about it I would have to get myself familiarized with it. There is first hand experience, one you as the author have personally gone through, then two types of second-hand experience. The first case of second-hand experience is watching two real people (non-actors) go through an event, like a breakup, a loss of a family member in the military, just about anything. I believe this type of experience is beneficial because while you are not directly feeling the emotions of the event, you are indirectly apart of it. You are able to glisten how real people react to a situation.
The second type of second-hand experience is conducted by actors, so in television shows, movies, etc. I would argue books are a little different, you are not visually seeing an experience, your brain is interpreting the letters into words, then words into an action, which you may imagine. Semantics aside… There are a lot of great television shows and movies out there, and the acting is superb, but it is important to remember, it is a performance. Yes, a good actor has studied the human element of their role and knows how to perform, but it still an act. The small screen and silver screen allow people to get a good understanding of events or topics which many people have little to no idea about. Off the top of my head, going to war would be a big one. Not many people have witnessed the gruesomeness of war, and never will.
Tying this back into the idea of creating characters and being yourself, a character may be based off the author, author’s friends, family, people the author interacts with on a regular basis, etc. The author needs to be the character but also themselves, but at times it is hard to be themselves because the demands of the craft. If one of your characters becomes the President or CEO of a large corporation, you need to know how both of those roles function because statistically you will most likely never get to be the President or CEO of a large corporation. You can endlessly think about how you the author (not the character) would act in a position, but until you’ve experienced the role either first-hand or through careful second-hand research, how will you understand how the role works? How about the norms? The written and unwritten rules?
It is important to research this all when creating characters and it is part of being an author, you have to research in order to make a story plausible. Even fantasy environments need to be well researched, what kind of language do the people speak? What are their customs? Beliefs? Religion? Etc. You can do too much research where the story and the characters become too knowledgeable, too unbelievable and uninteresting. It is difficult to tell people how to create characters, because everybody has a different process and each person can only offer their opinions and share the methods to their madness.