This is a great question. I often hear people assert that certain writers shouldn’t ever write certain characters because they themselves can “never understand” what that character has gone through. That is complete and utter bull. The entire job of a storyteller is to get into someone else’s skin and tell their story in a meaningful and compelling way. If the former were true, then all my characters would be hairy, white cartoonists in their 30’s.
I think observing others, whether real or fictitious, IS a good jumping off point. I also think it’s useful to simplify a character, particularly at the start. I always repeat this nugget of wisdom: “A strong character can be described in one or two words that do not reflect their race, gender or occupation”.
So, ok. That’s a good way to start. But what about writing a character you yourself have very little in common with? Here’s what I think…
Each and every one of us has the capacity for every action, emotion, and experience in the spectrum of human behavior, but to varying degrees. You ever see someone completely devastated and inconsolable about the cancelation of a show you’ve barely even heard of? To me, it’s about tapping into the basic action, thought, or motivation of a character within myself, and then dialing up or dialing down the frequency. We all know what it’s like to feel like an outsider, even if it’s something as banal as having not been invited to a birthday party when you were 12. How can that feeling be applied? Tap into those feelings and emotions and bring them to the level that your character is feeling.
Do I know what it’s like to stare down the gullet of a rampaging snowbeast? No. Has a dog ever growled and frightened me in my life? Sure. Have I ever had the shit kicked out of me by people in a different social standing? Not really. Have I ever been in a scuffle that started to go a bit too far or been mocked by others? Of course. All experiences and emotions stem from a single place, but it’s a question of degrees and intensity.
Not only do I think that this is useful in writing characters that you have no frame of reference for (you do), but is also a way to have empathy for real people in real life. We CAN understand, if we take a minute to think about it.
Zack Giallongo has interesting insight about character development!