How to Create Authentic Characters in Your Writing
Updated: May 14, 2021
How would you feel if you were homeless?
That's the question a near-homeless person asked me the other day when I was interviewing her and others for an article about a supportive housing project for the homeless and nearly homeless that some people in the community didn't want to see built.
"They (Not In My Backyard - NIMBY community members) need to open their hearts and really put themselves in their shoes, and stop and think about how they would react if they were in that situation," she said.
"Open their eyes and realize how they’d feel if they didn’t have a safe place to go to sleep at night or if they didn’t have a safe place to leave their clothes or anything. If they didn’t have a safe place to get up in the morning; if they had trouble finding a place to shower and take a bath. A lot of these people have nothing. They’ve got a sleeping bag, maybe a tent if they’re lucky. Some of them are sleeping on the side of the road because they haven’t got anywhere to go.”
I'm sure you know the expression: You can't understand someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes.
Well, that's as true in writing as it is in life. Unless you get out and mix with people who aren't like you, then you won't be able to write convincingly about others. Being able to make your characters come to life on the page is so important to being a good writer and to being read.
American-Dominican writer, Junot Diaz, said recently in a talk he gave to writing students, that many writers today just know other writers so they don't have a range of people to draw from for their work. Staying comfortable with those in your immediate circle and not venturing out of that circle doesn't make for very interesting writing.
When asked to give life advice, the late Anthony Bourdain said to move, get out there and talk to people. In Anthony Bourdain and the Power of Telling the Truth, New Yorker writer Helen Rosner says that "...Anthony Bourdain built his career on the telling of truth." In his 1999 essay in the New Yorker, Don't Eat Before Reading This, which led to his blockbuster 2000 memoir, "Kitchen Confidential," he blew the lid off the world of high-end restaurants by revealing its underbelly. And to understand this world he spent years watching, listening and learning in the kitchen. In his hit show No Reservations, Bourdain made a point of not only trying unfamiliar foods in unfamiliar places, but of also meeting unfamiliar people, often those who diverged greatly from himself.
Making your characters leap off the page isn’t just about being able to imagine other people’s lives, it’s also about exposing yourself to different kinds of people, to really drinking in the experiences of your encounters with them so you can write about them, or at least borrow some of their mannerisms and behaviours for your characters and make them ring true.
In Hannah Gadsby's Nanette on Netflix (stop reading this now and go watch it if you haven't already!), she says the following: "Picasso was right that we could paint a better world if we learned to see it from as many perspectives as we possibly could because diversity is strength. Difference is a teacher. Fear difference and you learn nothing."
Look at Rembrandt or Vincent Van Gogh, especially the latter's Potato Eaters (see below). You can feel the soul and humanity of the characters they portray in their paintings, and it's those kinds of feelings you want to convey to your readers.
Here are some ways to breathe life into your characters 1) Dress up and serve lunch at a local homeless shelter. 2) Volunteer at a senior citizens’ home to play cards or board games with the residents. It’s amazing what stories are revealed during a game with seniors around a table. I once did this at an institute for the blind and then wrote a one-act play based on my experience. 3) Offer to sit with patients at a psychiatric hospital. 4) Work in the kitchen of a high-faloutin' restaurant; doing anything, dishes, prep work cutting veggies.... Anthony Bourdain says in his 1999 essay, Don't Eat Before Reading This, "...love the sheer weirdness of the kitchen life: the dreamers, the crackpots, the refugees, and the sociopaths...." 5) Sit in a cafe for an extended period of time and get to know the people who serve you coffee. Last month I was caught in a thundershower and spent the better part of two hours in a cafe & garden shop with a 21-year-old young man who was working there. We chatted about music and relationships and he told me he was going on a blind date and was very nervous. If it hadn't rained that day I wouldn't have been in that cafe and wouldn't have had a personal conversation with someone much younger than myself. I wouldn't have learned about the stresses of one 21-year-old boy, his dreams, and phobias. 6) Watch the Netflix special Nanette that I mentioned earlier. Think about how to be as honest with your writing as she's being up there on stage. Ask yourself, How do I make myself vulnerable and write that way? As Hannah Gadsby says, "stories help us feel less alone," but I would add that they only do this if they're true. Keep in mind that fiction is the truest written form there is. Get past your prejudices and judgments. Understand that "walking a mile in their [someone else's] shoes" will change your life and your writing for the better. And it might even help someone else, too. Below is a worksheet you can download and print out. Write down what “characters” you meet so that you have this to draw on when you're writing. Get out there! Now! STORY CHARACTER WORKSHEET Photo by Kinga Cichewicz.