1. revelcharlie
    Offline

    revelcharlie New Member

    Joined:
    Sep 4, 2014
    Messages:
    5
    Likes Received:
    1

    Avoiding making your main character you...

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by revelcharlie, Nov 30, 2014.

    I'm writing my second proper story at the moment, in my first one, my main character was basically me. It made it easy when he came up against problems or conversations because I's just think well what would I do?

    Now I've started this second one and this seems like a newbie thing to be doing so I want to try and sway from doing that but it's a nasty habit I've picked up. Has anybody else done this before and do you have any tips on how not to? I seem to be fine with other characters but it's just my protagonist who I keep seeing as myself.
     
  2. Chinspinner
    Offline

    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 15, 2011
    Messages:
    1,918
    Likes Received:
    1,018
    Location:
    London, now Auckland
    You need to flesh out your characters in order to understand their personalities and motivations. There are many guides to doing this, but my favourite way is to pen out a few conversations they may have in various scenarios just to get a feel for their voice (these may or may not appear in my story).

    Having said that, everyone has many aspects to their personality and many different responses to a given situation depending upon the circumstances; so you (as an author) still write these character's from experience, they might just respond using a part of your personality that is less dominant in everyday life. It is often fun to write a character who represents your responses if your inhibitions or social conditioning were absent.
     
  3. Vifibi
    Offline

    Vifibi New Member

    Joined:
    Nov 18, 2014
    Messages:
    11
    Likes Received:
    6
    Location:
    Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
    Personally, I always try to either Hemingway or Tarantino characters I envision as being similar to me. By which I mean, I either underplay their achievements and qualities (Hemingwaying, so to speak) or overplay their flaws to make pretty much a hate-letter to myself (Tarantino it, when he's not too busy being a word I don't like using quite that often). I've had success with both types of scenarios, when I'm pretty much doing a Roman à clef. The problem with my kind of stuff, of course, is that you have to pretty much be willing to hear and acknowledge some of the nastiest stuff people have to say about you.

    And speaking honestly, there's nothing wrong with you being in your story per se. It's when you use it as a means of wish fulfillment that it gets bad. So don't despair if you see too much of yourself in your main character, just always remember that every character must have his flaws, and have them showing, in order to be human.
     
  4. chicagoliz
    Offline

    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    May 30, 2012
    Messages:
    3,295
    Likes Received:
    815
    Location:
    Pennsylvania
    Many writers have a character that is very close to themselves. And in fact, some advocate that you should always put a piece of yourself into every single character you write. Characters are supposed to be human, so it's not only unavoidable, but it's desirable to have some characters be like you in some respects.

    The problem that you seem to have is not that you wrote a character who is similar to you, but that all of the characters you're writing are similar to you and also to each other. You can have characters who are both similar to some parts of you, but are not all that similar to each other.

    Working out different types of people will come with practice.
     
  5. revelcharlie
    Offline

    revelcharlie New Member

    Joined:
    Sep 4, 2014
    Messages:
    5
    Likes Received:
    1
    Thanks for the advice everyone, really helpful. Yeah I guess because I'm fairly new to it, I thought it was a bad thing to do. I definitely feel like it's only my lead I do it on, but I'll try fleshing out characters more and see where that takes me.

    I really like the sound of the Hemingway/Tarantino idea.
     
    Vifibi likes this.
  6. aikoaiko
    Offline

    aikoaiko Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Oct 23, 2013
    Messages:
    285
    Likes Received:
    153
    I think every good author puts a lot of themselves into their characters. They can't help it.:) If you're really trying to inject a sense of immediacy into your characters the only way to successfully do that is draw from experiences you already have, and this will give a character some of your traits in every story no matter what you do.

    If the peripheral characters are okay then you're probably doing fine, but I think the main ones, for any author, are always going to be a little harder to separate. If you're uncomfortable with this idea you can try the suggestions noted above, but I think that's pretty normal in literature.:)
     
  7. Renee J
    Offline

    Renee J Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Oct 7, 2013
    Messages:
    463
    Likes Received:
    214
    Location:
    Reston, VA
    Your characters could also be you, except they do things you are too scared to do. Maybe you wouldn't confront a gang of bad guys, but your character runs right up to them. Or maybe you keep your feelings locked inside you, while your character lets everyone know what's on their mind.
     
    jannert likes this.
  8. EdFromNY
    Offline

    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 13, 2010
    Messages:
    4,683
    Likes Received:
    2,534
    Location:
    Queens, NY
    I think the real issue is learning to write characters who are NOT you. And, as Liz said, that takes practice. But it's also an important part of writing. This is one of those areas where reading can help. Dip into a literary work you have read and like a lot. Bit this time, read with a focus exclusively on the characters. How are they similar? How are they different? Large works with lots of characters can be especially helpful, here.

    When you've written something with a few different characters, go back and compare to your chosen work and see how you stacked up in terms of differentiation.
     
  9. jannert
    Offline

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    7,788
    Likes Received:
    7,300
    Location:
    Scotland
    That's something I've always advocated. When you are the author, you are able to do anything you want. If there is something you've always wanted to do in real life but have been unable to to—for whatever reason—by all means, create a character who can. It's one of the most cathartic things a writer can do. It's a lot more theraputic than rehashing old woes, injustices and personality quirks.

    One of the interesting byproducts of this type of storytelling is that your character (who is the opposite of you) will have insight into what it's like not to have or do these things. A character whose nature it is to confront a gang of bad guys without giving it a second thought will not have the same story depth as a person who is maybe reluctant to do take this bold step, but manages to overcome their fear or scruples or whatever. A person who thinks they are God's Gift to the opposite sex is not going to be as much fun to write as the person who maybe has a basic low self-esteem, but who discovers they actually can attract the right kind of attention just by behaving in a confident manner.
     
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2014
  10. Bjørnar Munkerud
    Offline

    Bjørnar Munkerud Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Jun 8, 2012
    Messages:
    393
    Likes Received:
    140
    Location:
    Oslo, Norway
    One thing that's always worked for me is to think of all the things you can think of that are different between you and your character, even if they are differences that don't matter. These could be sex, sexuality, age, hair colour, place of birth, accent, name, height, experiences, family, friends etc. If you can't think of almost any of these, you should probably sit down and change the character and go back later. If you can, however, you now have something that can make your character clearer in your mind.

    If thinking "Oh, OK, so this is my character Jeff and he's tall, blond and dorky-looking." works for you when you're developing your characters, that's great, just make sure to not make him do what all your other characters do. Also don't describe characters like this in-story. Whether or not you make up some character trait based on the few differences you already know of between you and your character or just draw one out of a hat doesn't matter as long as it fits the character and your story.

    A kernel is all that's needed to make a character. After you've decided on what that is you can just run with that original idea until you have a fully formed character (if the core of the character is that she's jealous, decide her actions based on what you would do if you were jealous and if it's that she's caring, naïve, stupid, obsessed about justice and fair play or just wants to get to live her life in peace, have her make every choice based on that). I think it's wise to make characters from the inside-out like this, otherwise you might just get characters that are identical, uninteresting shells (it's easier to forget to give a character a soul than to give it a body, after all).

    I often find myself comparing my characters and their actions to myself and think "Have I been fooling myself all along? Are they really all me?". What I do then is that I quench that doubt by listing all the ways the characters are different from me, and there's always something. Then I get into why I think they did what I would do if they're not me. Sometimes it's just obvious that it's something everyone would do whoever they were. More often than not, though, I end up deciding that they did not do what I would do at all, rather just what I would have done if I was their age, if I was as smart or stupid as them, if I was brave or cynical enough or whatever.

    In a way you could say is that you need to get away from your subconscious. In the back of our minds is something trying to justify our actions and make new ones that will benefit us based on our experiences. But your characters' actions don't need to be justifiable, they are not meant to benefit us and they certainly aren't made on the basis of our experiences. Let them do what they would do, because you wouldn't be there to decide for them in real life either. So leave your brain behind and have fun. :p
     
    Last edited: Nov 5, 2015
    EdFromNY and jannert like this.
  11. rycbar123
    Offline

    rycbar123 Member

    Joined:
    Nov 29, 2014
    Messages:
    16
    Likes Received:
    6
    The main characters in my book each have a couple aspects of my personality, but aren't copies of each other and aren't exactly like me. This makes it easy for me to connect with them, which makes it more fun to write.
     
  12. ddavidv
    Offline

    ddavidv Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Sep 2, 2013
    Messages:
    353
    Likes Received:
    240
    Location:
    Pennsylvania, USA
    I had this exact problem in my last novel. I started writing the male love interest and he not only was similar to me but he was agonizingly a carbon copy of the male lead in my prior work. Ugh. I don't mind projecting myself into a story to some degree but rubber stamping the same male protagonist into each story I write was a dreadful pattern I had to slay. I think it helped in this particular story that the MC had to be different than me. My solution was to think of everyone I knew and try to imagine who most closely resembled the kind of character I needed for my story. I finally came up with one; not a perfect match by any means but I could visualize this person and how we would probably react to the situations and interactions with the female lead. I took my acquaintance and 'tweaked' him into what I needed, then stirred in a bit of my own personality for added flavor. The result was I had a character recognizable to me as 'familiar' but distinctly different than the one in the story that preceded the current one.

    If you run through friends, family, co-workers and so on you should find someone at least partly suitable to pull from. I would not use other fictional characters for this solution as I think it's too easy and also immoral to 'steal' a character in everything but name for your own project. Truth is stranger than fiction and real people are immensely fascinating if you study them for awhile. Inspiration is everywhere.
     
    jannert and aikoaiko like this.
  13. daemon
    Offline

    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 16, 2014
    Messages:
    1,361
    Likes Received:
    982
    Here are two ways to get started on making a character different from yourself. These two things form 90% of the kernel of a character, in @Bjørnar Munkerud's terminology. (I like that term -- I think I will start using it!)

    Know your own personality type. Give your character a personality type that is different from your own. Develop an understanding of the theory behind personality types. Apply this understanding to your character. Think about how the character uses his cognitive functions to perceive the world and to make decisions. (e.g. as an INTP, I perceive the world primarily through my Ne, which means I readily recognize relationships between abstract concepts and I get excited about possibilities. If I am writing about an ISFJ, then he perceives the world primarily through his Si, which means he pays close attention to detail, is most comfortable with the tried-and-true, and readily recognizes when things are different from what he is used to. I would examine the little bit of Si that I use in my own life, in order to understand how it feels to use Si, and I would turn that up to eleven. I would also project the ISFJs I know in real life onto this character.)

    Think about the things you care about and the things that fascinate you. Design a character who cares about and is fascinated by totally different things. Whenever you write about that character, think about how those things shape his worldview and how they might come up in the situation. (e.g. if you hate math and your character loves math, then always be on the look-out for opportunities for him to use his mathematical skills.)

    Those two aspects of a character -- personality type and interests/passions -- give you the most bang for the buck. You put a tiny bit of information into them and they give you tons of information back. They are easy to identify, they provide an easy way to choose one option from among alternatives, and they tell you a lot about the character with minimal thought on your part. Other aspects of a character, not so much. e.g. nationality can be difficult to identify (because there are many overlapping subcultures within any given nation), it can be difficult to choose a nationality for a character (because you have to worry about realistically portraying a culture), and it requires a ton of knowledge and thought in order to determine how nationality influences a character (or else you end up with an ethnic stereotype).

    Furthermore, those two aspects are a better starting point than the ever-popular "strengths and weaknesses". While you should definitely know your characters' strengths and weaknesses, they are secondary. The primary aspects of a character are the things that drive him forward -- the things that give him a reason to get out of bed in the morning, to put effort into doing things that are not necessary for survival, to pursue relationships, etc. Personality and interests/passions do that. Strengths and weaknesses act as filters on the things that drive a character forward.

    Now you have a foundation (or kernel) to build on other than just "I'm going to design a unique and interesting character who is different from me!" It is up to you actually to build on this foundation and to make your character more than just a static picture, but a dynamic individual who has his own motives, makes his own decisions in the context of the story, and grows.
     
    Last edited: Dec 2, 2014
  14. jannert
    Offline

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    7,788
    Likes Received:
    7,300
    Location:
    Scotland
    This totally works for me. What is even more fun is when you pick somebody of the opposite sex from the character you are building. Not only does that make the character unrecognisable from your 'real' model, but it's a challenge making their personality fit an opposite sex role. I've only done this with one character of mine—a secondary character, but an important one—and it works. "She" is one of my most popular characters with my beta readers ...and she's based on a guy I used to know.
     
    ddavidv likes this.
  15. EdFromNY
    Offline

    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 13, 2010
    Messages:
    4,683
    Likes Received:
    2,534
    Location:
    Queens, NY
    As an exercise, I once wrote my autobiography assuming I'd been born female. It was an illuminating experience.
     
    daemon and jannert like this.
  16. Chinspinner
    Offline

    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 15, 2011
    Messages:
    1,918
    Likes Received:
    1,018
    Location:
    London, now Auckland
    Dare I ask what research you did?
     
  17. EdFromNY
    Offline

    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 13, 2010
    Messages:
    4,683
    Likes Received:
    2,534
    Location:
    Queens, NY
    It was many years ago, but as I recall, not a lot. Just in areas where I felt my knowledge was insufficient.
     
  18. Commandante Lemming
    Offline

    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    May 8, 2014
    Messages:
    1,241
    Likes Received:
    1,000
    I almost always write gender-swapped protagonists (I'm male, all my protagonists are female) - and when you do that correctly, it forces you to think of doing things in different ways and forces people to react to the character differently. Granted, it also means you have to run your writing through opposite-gender readers to make sure you are getting it right, but I think it's a fun trade off - for me, writing girls as my lead characters gives me both handicaps and advantages that I as a man never confront (the simplistic example would be that brute force is not always a problem solving option for many women - which means on average they have to think more - but by the same token they occasionally get the option of manipulating the the opposite gender using sexuality, which doesn't always work as well for men...and yes I realize that's exactly how a man would think of it rather than a woman, but it's a start :p)

    The other thing I do is purposefully program traits into my characters that are opposite of me. I'm working right now to try and program my protagonist NOT to be a gender-swapped version of myself - which for me means writing a lot of backstory and also purposefully removing traits that remind me of me. My protagonist shares a lot of my values, ideals, and interests...which means I purposefully deprived her of my ways of processing those things. I like political science, especially the statistics, which show me patterns of behavior. My character likes the same things, but she's a journalist who prefers to be literal and involved in the story at street-level - which makes her both unable to see larger patterns and a lot more of a thrill seeker than I am.

    I deposited that ability to see larger patterns into her sidekick, who processes the world exactly as I do but shares very little of my life experience or interests and takes great joy from things I can't stand. (I also deposited most of my neuroses and fears into that character). So, while that character can see the big picture - she takes almost no interest in the political aspects of the story and is a professional fashion and culture blogger - she's a valley-girl, a mall-rat, and a part time DJ...all very far from my experience...and most importantly she's extremely comfortable and empowered in social situations, which I am not.

    .....which brings me to my last point. DISTRIBUTE YOUR CHARACTER TRAITS AMONG YOUR CAST MEMBERS RATHER THAN POURING ALL OF YOURSELF INTO ONE OF THEM. At the end of the day, all of your characters are you...they represent some facet of what's going on in your brain. Give one aspect of your thought process to each of them, then use their interactions to play out the internal arguments of your own thought process as external conversations.
     
    jannert, Simpson17866 and EdFromNY like this.
  19. Commandante Lemming
    Offline

    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    May 8, 2014
    Messages:
    1,241
    Likes Received:
    1,000
    Also I'm going to chime in on the nationality/ethnicity-swap option. Yes it is challenging and requires a lot of research but it can be an EXTREMELY rewarding experience if done right. I have an Indian-American character who is a practicing Jain (sidekick mentioned above) - she requires more research and sensitivity than anyone else but she is an absolute joy to write. (Also you find odd commonalities of experience....Vinya's experience as a Jain has become a stand-in for my own experience as a practitioner of a minority religion, in my case Judaism)
     
  20. Chinspinner
    Offline

    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 15, 2011
    Messages:
    1,918
    Likes Received:
    1,018
    Location:
    London, now Auckland
    Although I have read a few badly realised English characters in American literature and they just grate horribly.

    "A'right Gov'ner. Give us a pint of yer best!" said Frank, "now I need a Jimmy. Where's the lav? Up the apples and pears?"

    That would swiftly kill any book for me.
     
  21. Commandante Lemming
    Offline

    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    May 8, 2014
    Messages:
    1,241
    Likes Received:
    1,000
    Research being even more imperative when you're writing something you THINK you know. :)
     
  22. Simpson17866
    Offline

    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 23, 2013
    Messages:
    1,734
    Likes Received:
    1,285
    @daemon I'm INTP, and I use MB too :) I actually got a lot of flak for saying so when I first joined the site, do you think it might be an INTP thing? Maybe other types of writers aren't as likely to use typologies as INTPs are?

    EDIT: and apparently so is Daniel
     
    Last edited: Dec 2, 2014
  23. daemon
    Offline

    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 16, 2014
    Messages:
    1,361
    Likes Received:
    982
    Carl Jung's typology (which MBTI implements as a questionnaire) is a pretty elegant system once you understand the function stack, although it is quite complex. And INTPs love complex-but-elegant systems. :)

    Without understanding the system, it can be easy to see Jung typology as nothing more than a choice between 16 archetypes, as a replacement for doing the work necessary for developing a complex character who has his own motives, makes his own decisions, and grows. So, the likelier you are to understand the system (i.e. the more interested you are in thinking about systems, and the higher your capacity to understand systems), the likelier you are to appreciate the usefulness of Jung typology in character design.
     
  24. Lemon flavoured
    Offline

    Lemon flavoured Active Member

    Joined:
    Oct 12, 2014
    Messages:
    117
    Likes Received:
    34
    Location:
    Newark, Nottinghamshire
    I quite like basing characters on me. They aren't usually the main character though.
     
  25. jannert
    Offline

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    7,788
    Likes Received:
    7,300
    Location:
    Scotland
    Yes. Exactly. And it can actually make you think closely about yourself and how/why you do things. I ended up with one of my characters embodying traits I want to have (but don't), while my own actual traits turned up, unexpectedly, in somebody else.

    This presented me with a very interesting way of looking at the central relationship in my story.
     

Share This Page