It’s a lot easier to write characters who are like us than it is to write characters who aren’t.1
Many writers, probably most writers, build whole careers on writing about their own milieu, their own people. That’s what F. Scott Fitzgerald, Federico García Lorca, and Virginia Woolf did, to name three famous examples.2
There is nothing at all wrong with writing what you know in the narrow sense of the place where you live and the people with whom you are most familiar. People are very complicated. There’s a lot to write about even with such a narrow lens. Think Jane Austen.
But if you look more closely you’ll see even those writers wrote characters unlike them. Lorca wrote heterosexual characters, Fitzgerald wrote women, and Woolf wrote men, not to mention creating Orlando who is both a woman and a man and also sort of immortal and all awesome.
Unless you’re going to write books that are populated by only people who are identical to you, called say, The Books of Clones, you’re going have to write someone who’s at least a different gender or age from you. And even if someone is the same class, race, gender, sexuality and age as you they’re still not you. There are still a vast amount of things about them that are different. I’m not just talking about the colour of their hair.
Think about it like this: you know many things about yourself that no one but you would know. For example, you always wear the same very low-key scent, sweetgrass hydrosol.3 because it smells how the rain you grew up with smelt, but very few people have ever noticed it, or asked you about it.
Or to give a different example, when you walk down a street, you have to alternate stepping on a crack, with not stepping on a crack, and you have to do this in such a way that no one notices that you’re walking oddly. You can’t break stride. Over the years that has meant you’ve developed a whole array of rules around what counts as a crack and what doesn’t. At this point those rules are almost canon law they’re so byzantine and detailed. But no one else has any idea of how much thought goes into every single step you take even as they walk beside you holding your hand.
Those are the kind of specific details that help characters come alive. And the kind of details that reveal how we are not all exactly like each other even when our fundamentals (gender, race, class etc) appear to be identical.
Some writers create characters by writing themselves but with some aspect of their life changed: if their parents had died, if they had been sent to boarding school, if their parents lost all their money. Invariably the resulting character is markedly different because those changes transform lives.
It’s an interesting exercise to try. Imagine for a moment how different your life would be if you were a different religion. Imagine being Mormon instead of Muslim. Or Buddhist rather than Baptist. How would your life differ if you had no religion? Or if you’re not religious how different would your life be if you were religious?
What about if you grew up in a different town? Or a different country? If you were a refugee? Or if your parents split up/stayed together? If you had siblings/no siblings. If you were a twin.
Can you see how incredibly different all those change would make your life? In some fundamental ways you wouldn’t be you.
Now imagine if you were a different class or race. For many that’s incredibly difficult to do. Particularly if you’re in the dominant category and have rarely been in a situation where you’ve had to think about your race or class because being you is the norm.
Being white and poor in NYC is a very different experience from being white and rich there. It’s also very different from being black and poor or rich and black in NYC. Or from being any of those things in Sydney. As would being rich and white or middle class and black. And so on.
But what kind of black? What kind of white? These are huge categories with many differences within them.
Leaving aside class, is your character an immigrant? Are they the child of immigrants? Are they or their parents from Nigeria or India or the UK or Cuba or Russia or Vietnam?4
Not to mention which part of those different countries are they from? There’s a lot of diversity within countries.5 Is English your character’s first language? Their second language? Third? Fourth? My Eastern European grandparents grew up speaking six different languages, which is very difficult for monolingual6 me to get my head around.
Not all black/white/Asian/European/etc people think the same, act the same, vote the same, or eat the same food. People are as diverse within racial/ethnic/class categories as they are across those categories. Often two people of different races, but of the same class, and working in the same industry, will have more in common with each other than with someone of the same race, but different class, working an entirely different job.
But then there are those moments of commonality that cut across those other differences. This has happened to me living overseas. Another Australian will instantly understand a reference to something back home despite us having only our Australian-ness in common.
This planet and the people who live on it are diverse and very complicated. We do our writing a disservice every time we forget that.
All novels are in some way about race and sexuality and class and gender, and all the other categories that make up who we are in the world, how able-bodied we are, how neurotypical, our height or weight, whether people we love have died or not. This is true even if we did not intend our book to be about any of those things. It makes our writing much more nuanced and convincing when we’ve thought about those categories and how they shape how we—and by extension our characters—exist in the world.
None of this is easy. But thinking about it, and reading as widely as you can, will make you a much better writer.
- Though, let’s be honest, it’s also hard to write convincing 3D living characters who are exactly like you. Writing is not easy. How many times have you put a book down because you didn’t believe in the characters? Doesn’t matter if the author is exactly the same as the character they’re written, down to them both being left-handed, if the author can’t bring the character to life. [↩]
- Obviously Fitzgerald was the more narrowly focussed of those three writers. But Woolf and Lorca mostly wrote about their own countries: England and Spain. [↩]
- Thanks to Alyssa Harad for that particular detail. She responded to a tweet of mine asking whether there are any perfumes that smell like rain. Turns out there are. Also turns out that rain smells different depending on what it lands on. I already knew that but it was something I knew that I didn’t realise I knew until Alyssa pointed it out. [↩]
- I am making an assumption here that your character is living in Australia or the USA. But Australians and USians also migrate. I’ve come across them living all over the world. [↩]
- Most Russians are not, despite what Hollywood will tell you, gangsters. [↩]
- With a tiny bit of Spanish. [↩]