Three men and one woman under a tree, wearing hats, slanting sunbeams

Writing What You Aren’t

In a recent garden photos post, I complained that I couldn’t think of anything to say about writing and asked for suggestions in the comments. Priscilla Bettis wondered how I deal with writing from a man’s or a kid’s point of view, and Elizabeth Merry offered some thoughts on her approach to this.

And I thought–why haven’t I posted about this before? So now I’m doing it.

All my novels have first person narrators, and several of those narrators are men. One of them is gay, and part of one book deals with that character’s childhood. Since no one (fellow writer or reviewer) has noted any serious problems with my portrayals of those male characters, I have to conclude that I did an at least adequate job in writing them.

To be honest, it’s also a challenge to write from the point of view of a female character more sophisticated than I, or who has had a more adventurous or difficult life.

Woman with white mask, eyes outlined black, red hat and fan
Image by Viola ‘ from Pixabay

Dwelling on these challenges can have a paralyzing effect. In fact, thinking too much about any type of writing challenge can be discouraging. Instead, consider the following:

  • Writing exclusively from one’s own type (middle-aged-verging-on-old woman in my case) is way too limiting.
  • People have more in common than not. Everyone was a kid once. Everyone has occasion to talk with and observe all kinds of people.
  • Writers are good at creating from their imaginations. We can do this.
Group of children kids backs
Image by florentiabuckingham from Pixabay

Here are some practices and techniques that I have found helpful in writing male characters, children, and other characters unlike me–present-day me, that is.

  • Drawing upon conscious and unconscious observations made over a lifetime.
  • Drawing upon the results of a lifetime of reading, as well as listening to and watching different kinds of people in media and movies.
  • Deliberately seeking out writings by or about people like the character I am creating. This is a form of research–filling my brain with concepts, outlooks, and turns of phrase used by people different from me. Having primed the pump, when I go to write those characters, I set myself aside and let the other persona gush forth.
  • Free-writing from the character’s point of view, but outside of the main work-in-progress, is a low risk way to experiment.
  • Recognizing when I’m not capable of creating an intended character, due to lack of information or empathy. I can remedy that by further research, or replace the character with one I feel capable of writing.
  • Asking critique partners and beta readers to look out for problems with characters different from me.

In the end, though, fiction is artifice and our characters are artificial people. Close to real may have to be good enough, if we have approached character creation responsibly and respectfully.

So, fellow writers, how do you approach writing characters who are different from you?

Featured Image by icsilviu from Pixabay

39 comments

  1. To be a writer, I think it helps if you are a little crazy. I find it helps me! When I create a character, warts and all, he/she will be a real person. I just watch and see what they get up to . I have even been involved in heated arguments when they disagree with what I want them to do!
    I wonder what other writers do?

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Observation of others is the start (I also helped keep a few foster kids on the almost straight and narrow road of life, but learned more from them than they learned from me) and everything we see, hear, spy on, etc. is fodder for story. Everything.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. The ‘how to write’ parts are the craft skills, the actual story is personal, not only about a particular person, but personal to them, through them, for their expression of the events in their story.
        Or so I think, anyway! *wish I had a laughing emoji*

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for addressing this, Audrey, and thanks for the shoutout.

    You listed some helpful techniques and practices. “People have more in common than not” is an encouraging thing to remember. So is your comment about using a lifetime of observations. After all, I’m middle aged too, and by now I have lots of observations upon which to draw.

    I’m interested to see what others writers will say in the comments.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This is a very timely discussion for me. When I began my current WIP, I made a conscious decision to write from multiple points of view because I’ve never been able to pull it off. Every time I’ve tried, I end up with one point of view character. My primary method for writing about these people who are very different from me is newspaper articles and oral histories from the Library of Congress.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks, Liz! Oral histories would be a great resource. Hearing people reminisce about their lives would add an extra dimension of personality. I’ll have to remember that suggestion.

      Like

  5. A very interesting topic, Audrey. And I’m sure the comments will make for interesting reading.

    I have a very limited ability to create characters. My first limitation is one of preference. In life, fiction, or in my head while writing, I don’t care to spend my time with annoying or unpleasant people. I keep them to a minimum in my stories. The second factor is the limits of my talent. I’m not a student of humanity. Most of my characters are likely inspired by fiction rather than life. My imagination is like an old time movie studio with a stable of stars under contract. My characters are actors who play different roles, with different names and costumes in each story. As actors, they try to give each character an individual twist – but underneath all that, you still can recognize them as the actor whose name is on the marque. For my studio, there’s the narrator, a couple of female romantic leads, the sidekick, supporting actors, comic relief, extras, and the occasional antagonist – all faceless (in my head) actors playing their roles with their little twists in each of my stories. And I’m fine with that.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. This is an excellent post. I agree that fiction is artifice and our characters are artificial people. I think most readers realize that. I write from the point of view of a twelve-year-old. It has been a long time since I was that age but I still recall some of the feelings and experiences. I also hang around tweens and note what they say and do. I have had the odd reviewer say, Kids don’t talk like that, but I know they do because I hear them talk like that! All kids are different of course. I recently had a reviewer say they didn’t like my main character which was almost like saying they didn’t like me or one of my children! As a writer, you can’t please them all.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. If a character generates strong feelings, even if not altogether positive, it means we’ve done our job. Writers who work from the pov of a child have a special challenge, and you certainly do that well, Darlene!

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Great tips, Audrey. Writing villains is another task that hopefully we don’t have much personal experience to draw on. Ha ha. I think you’re right that “People have more in common than not,” and empathy can put us in contact with the human core of any character. Age gives us a lot of experience too (one good thing about being older, right?).Writing character bios also is a way to get into the wounds and desires of our characters, and those will influence behavior more than gender. Great topic!

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Yes! Character bios or interviews, or just writing a scene or two featuring a character outside of your main work is a great way to develop their personalities.
      Villains need as much work as other principal characters. It’s too easy to underdo them.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. To write as yourself as someone else. I think this is a particular challenge for a man writing as a woman, and trying to be authentic, while knowing half the human race is probably seeing straight through him. I think it helps to read the work of women. Similarly, if you’re trying to write a character who lives outside your sphere or class it helps to read things that type of person has written, absorb it somehow and hope the muse can work with it.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I’ve always found it easier to write male characters than female for some reason. If I had made my series The Woman Who Found Birds among the Stars, it wouldn’t have worked at all. My Captain had to be male (maybe I consider men have more flaws than women do? Hmm. Or maybe I’m just influenced by StarTrek) And Robbie’s support structure is mostly female (Wilda, Dr. Souray, Adm Soemady) – his major enemies are all male (well, except his wife).
    Now in The Termite Queen my main character is female – a strong, positive female character if there ever was one. And my flawed character is male and I did have an influence there: I wanted a character like Rochester in Jane Eyre – with a dark secret but this time in the attic recesses of his psyche. If I had reversed the sex of those characters, it wouldn’t have worked at all.
    And I would never write anything outside the story line – if I did, it would become real and I would have to include it. That’s why revising and cutting is so hard for me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve never changed the sex of a character; can’t imagine doing that. Stories demand characters to be one or the other. I found it surprisingly easy to write my male characters. And you’re right–material written outside the story would probably end up in it, the reverse of “kill your darlings,,” I suppose.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. People’s character is derived from what they say (and think). I imagine their words and their behavior follows. Add a little body language—an affectation or attire quirk—and we can extrapolate their personality.

    Liked by 1 person

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