I don’t follow a lot of rules when I write. The way I see it, I follow a lot of rules in every other facet of my life, so in this one area, I prefer to “shoot from the hip,” as it were, and do things a little more organically. However, I have an engineer’s brain paired with my writer’s mind, and that means that I have a tendency to inevitably set rules for myself. One of those self-imposed rules is that I never try to write a real person into my books.

It doesn’t come up often, but occasionally I’ll have someone ask me to write them into one of my stories. They’ll say that they don’t care what I do with the character, but that they want to be in there somehow. I refuse every time. No matter how convincing someone is, I will not try to write a real person into one of my stories. There’s the political dimension to consider – no matter what assertions are made to the contrary, I doubt that anyone is going to be entirely sanguine about me killing off their character to further the plot (people already get mad at me for killing off the character to whom they merely relate, and I do sympathize – killing off a character is never an easy decision). However, what is more important to me is the difficulty in actually pulling it off.

See, in order to really write a character, you need to be able to get into their head, hijack their senses, and in a way, become that character. You must assume that identity so fully that your own is submerged, so that you can know how they would respond to different situations, and what actions they would take. It’s the only way I’ve found to write really realistic characters. It’s a profoundly intimate experience, and I know my character in ways that I can never know another person, or perhaps better even than I can know myself. I would go so far as to contend that it is impossible to ever know another person well enough to write them into a story.

However, being a keen observer of human behavior can help you craft more convincing, realistic characters. Understanding how people respond to different situations, why they make the choices they do, and what thought processes lead to their actions is a key component of character creation, and an author’s observational abilities are essential to building that understanding. As I have sought to improve my writing, I have found that I am much more aware of people and their behaviors, and I’m told that I’ve acquired a tendency to psychoanalyze people with mildly disturbing accuracy.

As I’m working on the rough draft of the second Fo’Fonas book, this deep dive into the characters has become something of a stumbling block. Not only are the plots becoming more complex, intricate, and lengthy, so too are the characters. There is more history to them, both in the writing and in the larger context of the world, and I have to keep track of all of it when I’m writing from a given character’s POV. That’s not as much of a problem in novels with smaller casts, but Fo’Fonas has seven different major POV characters. Switching between them often requires going back and re-reading every other chapter in which they’ve been featured to recapture the feel of that individual, before I can begin to write their next chapter. That’s why Fo’Fonas has such long chapters (typical chapter length is between three thousand and five thousand words, and Fo’Fonas chapters are routinely twice that), and also why the second book is taking so much longer to write than the first one did (plus, it’s going to be about fifty thousand words longer in the first draft).

A question I have taken to asking my alpha readers is “to which character did you most relate?” I always get different answers (although the number of people who relate to Wraith, who is somewhat insane, severely overpowered, and out for bloody vengeance on the most of the world, is, shall we say, interesting), but more interesting than the answers themselves are the discussions that follow. Usually, each reader has chosen that character because they see elements of themselves in those characters. Again, I refer to Fo’Fonas, because I’ve had more alpha readers for that one, and because it has such a large number of major characters. None of the characters in Fo’Fonas are really the “bad guy.” There’s not really an antagonist, per se, although there are certainly characters that are much less moral than others. So there are people who react very different to different characters. In fact, one of the characters, Jargwol, was described by different people as being the best character in the book, and the most evil character in the whole story.

How people react to different characters can tell me a lot about the characters themselves, and how I’ve done at crafting them. If I’m able to receive really complex, sometimes contradictory reactions and opinions on a character, I take that to mean that I’ve done a pretty good job at making that character real to my readers. In other words, the character has become as confusing as real people are.

Next time you’re out walking, or sitting in a dull meeting, look around and think about the people who are around you. What are their motivations? Why are they doing the things that they’re doing? How do you think they would respond to a stressful situation? Whether or not you’re trying to write more realistic characters, this exercise can help improve your understanding of the complex tapestry of individuals we call humanity.

One thought on “Writing Understanding

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