There will come a time in your writing expedition where you’ll want to write a character that’s very different from who you are. Maybe it’s someone of a different gender or a different culture. If you like the types of stories I do, you might be writing someone from a different planet or something supernatural.
The main character in my work in progress is a dead fourteen-year-old boy who’s stuck in a grey purgatory and can’t remember how he got there. Being spatially-challenged, I can empathise with the sense of being lost but I’ve never been a boy and last I checked, I’ve never been dead.
A teen protagonist can also be tricky. There’s a lens that’s peculiar to that stretch of time. Things get skewed and magnified, and our personalities distend and distort while we try on all the different shapes we might become. Then the one that seems to fit best sets hard and it can be strange to look back and remember.
One piece of advice that’s been shopped around on how to capture an authentic teen voice, is to eavesdrop: sit next to a group of teenagers and listen to the rhythm and syntax of their speech. I don’t know about you, but that suggestion makes me supremely uncomfortable. A less creepy way is to realise that essentially, you’re the same person as an adult as you were at fourteen.
The key to writing authentic characters that are different from you is to remember that we share many more fundamental similarities than we have differences. We have the same basic brain chemistry, and want and need and fear many of the same things.
Carve up parts of your own personality and think about how you would react in the situations facing your characters. Comb back through your own life – what experience matches this emotion that you’re trying to write? Can you channel your own memories into what is happening for your character?
An example Deb (my writing mentor) shared was a character who had to shoot someone in the face. Now, Deb’s never shot anyone in the face, but she could remember what it was like to know that she had to hurt somebody. She was able to translate that emotion to the scene without having to actually pick up a gun. Neat.
Here’s the mentorship moment: trust that you are legion.
Trust that within you, there are multitudes. Yes, do your due diligence when writing characters outside your experience: research, interview people, read widely, stalk teenagers (please don’t, that was a joke) but don’t discount the resources inside your own head. Remember that you have the capacity to imagine and exist as many characters and your experiences can translate across to your narrative. Write honestly about feelings and it will ring true for your characters.
Who or what is the protagonist in your latest work in progress? Are they someone like you or are they vastly different? What methods have you used to get inside their head?