We can’t help but write about ourselves. It can be incredibly cathartic to do this- being a writer has helped me though many tough periods of my life. But it can be distressing trying to write something painful directly from your own viewpoint. I’ve sometimes felt frozen, or caught up in the bad feelings that I couldn’t write a thing!
I once wrote a character and situation during a particularly troubled time in my life. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the character was saying everything I couldn’t say with my own voice. What happened is that I’d started speaking through my character, lulled into a false sense of security by my focus on her fictional life. I’ve deliberately employed this technique ever since.
The bottom line is that you will always put yourself into your writing and that is a good thing. You can use it to enrich your characters. No-one else has your personality, your life experience or your way of seeing the world. Mix this with a character with completely different life experiences to your own and you’ll create something magical.
A different face
You’ll have heard the expression, write what you know. You should, but this doesn’t mean every character has to be just like you; those kind of characters are called ‘Mary Sue’s’, and should be avoided. David Mack, who is an American male graphic novel writer, prefers to write from the perspective of a Japanese woman. He’s said in interviews that he does this to allow himself to be more honest. Oscar Wilde said; Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.
I deliberately write characters that are different to me to give me more freedom. For example, one of my protagonists is a 40 year old male Army Commander. When I subconsciously give him my own traits or issues, which is inevitable, it becomes far more interesting. I find it endlessly entertaining to hear parts of myself coming from this grumpy older man’s mouth. It lessens the identification and avoids you writing a ‘Mary Sue’ character. Like David Mack, I find that putting myself into the different shoes of someone from another culture, time and race, liberating.
How can you do this? Empathy.
Common Humanity & Empathy
Brian: Saturday, March 24, 1984. Shermer High School, Shermer, Illinois, 60062. Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. What we did was wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us – in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Correct? That’s the way we saw each other at 7:00 this morning. We were brainwashed.
– The Breakfast Club (1984)
We’re hardwired to like people like us. We look for markers, whether it’s a band T-shirt, a type of style or a kind of attitude. We have to try harder to find commonalities when someone seems very different. For those of you that haven’t seen the Breakfast Club, it’s about 5 high school kids that have a detention on a Saturday. They spend the movie realising that despite their obvious differences, that they’re not so different after all. What makes them human, makes them the same. As Karla De Vito says on the Breakfast Club soundtrack; when you cut down to the bone, we’re really not so different after all. People aren’t that different. Ask yourself, what do I have in common with this person? What is our common humanity?
We all want love, to be loved and to be liked. Even villains have best friends and lovers. (More on villains in a future post) We like to read memoirs of famous people- not on their yachts, but struggling. We want to see that a person is scared, or humiliated. We want to see their character arc, which is the start and end point of your character during the story. We all want warmth and shelter, and food- these are primal desires that we can empathise with.
Empathy is the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, ie, the capacity to place oneself in another’s shoes. This is an invaluable skill for a writer.
I love the X-Men movies because being a mutant could easily be a metaphor for being gay. The films show a series of events and issues that I relate to as a queer person, for example; being feared, misunderstood, wanting but being unable to belong. As a reader or viewer, we project ourselves onto a protagonist, even if it’s a cartoon deer like Bambi, because we’re hardwired to connect with other people (and cartoon deers). What movie or book has ever resonated with you, even though it wasn’t your life experience?
Think of 5 different books or films where you’ve identified with a character. Now write a sentence about why you’ve felt a connection. Try to get to the nub of why.
For example; ‘I identified with the nurse, who tried to help people even though it made her unpopular and put her life in danger, because it reminded me of the time when I got into trouble when I tried to help someone.’
I have never been a blue mutant shapeshifter like Mystique in X-Men, but I could say that I identify with Mystique because she feels she has to hide who she is because the world tells her that she’s only beautiful if she looks a certain way. It’s common humanity, even if we can’t relate to her specific experiences.
Looking through a lens
Your lens is how you see the world. Think of yourself looking through a camera lens. Your own lens is made up of your personality, your values, the way you were raised, what you love- I could go on forever. We’re not all one person all the time. Think of your different personas; you at work, you as a parent, you as a friend, you as a lover. Think about how you change depending on your mood, location or circumstance. We all wear different faces.
Because you’re writing through your own lens, your character’s voice will always be your voice to some extent. You just have to make efforts to disguise it, and by doing this by incorporating facets that are very different from you, you can create rich unique characters.
When a character is different enough to you, you can try give them your problems. (I can promise you, you do this already.) Let’s say you’re a 50 year old man who has always felt overshadowed by your wildly successful brother. Give that problem to a 5 year old girl. Try to fit into those size 2 tennis shoes and look at the world through her lens. How is her world different from yours? How is it the same? Think about the things that shape your lens. How has her life shaped hers? Think about her stepping into your shoes and seeing the world from your eyes. Would she empathise with your situation with your own brother? Does she have anything to say about it? Try and write a conversation about it.
Your voice will always be in your writing but you can choose how much you share, and how it’s packaged. It’s easier to be honest when writing through someone else’s eyes which is why this method works so well. It’s a great confidence booster to get used to your voice talking about certain subjects.
Anyone in the world could have your film or novel idea, but you are entirely unique, and writing is all about what you bring to the table. There will never be another person on this earth that is just like you. No-one else could write your novel in the way that you’ll write it.
1. Write down 5 facts or markers (visual, physical, etc) about yourself.
2. Write down the opposites.
3. Turn that list of opposites into a potential character and flesh them out.
a) Give them something to want that you’ve never wanted.
b) Give them something you’ve always wanted.
c) Give them one of your faults or shortcomings.
d) Have fun- disguise it!
For example, you’re a mother who would like a job with less hours. Let’s break that down into something that everyone can relate to. You’re a person with a very demanding and important job that takes up a lot of your time. People rely on you 24/7. (motherhood) You have something else that you do that gives you a valuable resource (money) that you need to keep doing your more important job (being a mother). But you end up exchanging one valuable resource for the other. (time for money)
(Person) with (a very important job) needs (resource) but can’t get it without sacrificing (making a compromise) another valuable (resource.)
Let’s swap motherhood out for something completely different…. a freedom fighter. This freedom fighter is looking after her people in the middle of a civil war. They rely on her 24/7 to look after their cause and make sure they’re protected from enemy soldiers. She needs to raise capital (resource) for the campaign, but to do this she’s forced to sell (make a compromise) her numerous safe houses (resource). If she sells too many, her people will be found by the enemy, but if she doesn’t, the war will never end.
What a tough balancing act for both the mother and the freedom fighter! The goal here is to keep breaking it down into something simpler and simpler until you end up with a formula for that person’s situation.
4. Now that you have another character and a situation, have fun with it. Step into each others shoes to see the world from each other’s lens. Write conversations between you. Write a page from this characters point of view exploring their world.
Does anything surprising come up? Tell me in the comments below!