Getting Inside Their Heads

How do you write a story about a character who’s completely unlike you? How do you get inside his or her head enough to make your story credible? Don’t we all admire authors who can do this well? Conversely, isn’t it boring (and confusing) when every character in a story thinks and speaks the same way?

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I’ve blogged before about creating convincing characters who are the opposite gender from you. But there are many ways besides gender to be different—age, race, time period, nationality, home location, economic status, intelligence, species, planet, etc.

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A few years ago, I read Next, by the late Michael Crichton. In that novel, one of the characters, Brad Gordon, is abnormally attracted to very young girls. If I remember correctly, I read about Brad attending a high school girls soccer game. The scene is in Brad’s point of view, and I read about watching the game through a sexual deviant’s eyes. Not only was the scene disturbing, but I was convinced Michael Crichton knew his character well enough to capture his mindset.

It’s a difficult thing, writing from the POV of a character so unlike you, one who thinks differently, who has different goals and motivations. That character doesn’t share your (the writer’s) basic assumptions about how the world works. The character reacts to events with different emotions than you would. Your job is to make that character realistic.

This character might be very different from your targeted readership. The character might be an extraterrestrial, a British colonialist explorer from the 1880s, a serial killer, or a Tibetan monk. Your readers won’t know if you “got it right,” but you still need to make it convincing. None of those characters should think or act like you do.

Of course, it’s worse when your targeted readers do match your character and you don’t. If you’re an elderly male author writing romance, your depictions of young women had better be very close to the mark, because your readers will spot any unrealistic actions, thoughts, clothing, dialogue, etc. If you’ve never been in the military and you’re writing a war story, your readership expects you to get in the mind of your POV characters and convey accurate feelings and actions.

In this blog post, Monica M. Clark discusses some helpful advice she learned from author Terry McMillan on this subject. Her three recommendations follow, paraphrased by me:

  • Empathize. Spend time getting in the mind of that character, feeling the passions, seeing the world through those different filters.
  • Listen. If possible, find real people who are like your character. Go to where they live, if you can. Then watch and listen. Pick up the speech patterns, the clothing, the gestures.
  • Apply for a job. No, the job’s not for you, it’s for your character. Fill out a job application as your character would. That will build the bio for your character.

All great advice. Regarding that last item, there are some things you need to know about your character that would not appear on a typical job application, like physical attributes and personality. Write those down, too. As you write your story, refer back to the job application every now and then to check if you have things right.

The better you can convey different characters, the better your stories will be. For example, I do my best to depict characters who are completely different from—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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