Know Yourself, Know Your Characters

We all hear write what you know.  Some of us argue the point for multiple reasons – we’re not interesting enough, we’ll never learn anything new, writing is all about imagination.  (You can tell that I’ve had this chat with myself on multiple occasions.)

But it’s true.

The best characters contain a piece of the writer.  Main characters, secondary characters, even your villain – all have a chunk of you in them.  My current secondary character, the best friend, is standing by, watching the main character make some pretty interesting life choices.  And she’s keeping her mouth shut because she knows that this person is going to do her own thing despite what her friend advises.  I can write this character because I’ve been this character.  So, while I don’t know how to wait tables or what it’s like to have a long-term houseguest (as my secondary character does), I do know how to be a friend to a person who is struggling to find meaning in their life.

Still not convinced that you have anything to bring to the table?  Brainstorm on paper and try these exercises:

  • List 10 things you are good at, no matter how insignificant they seem.
  • List 10 places that you know intimately.
  • List 10 moments of courage you have witnessed.
  • List 10 occupations you’ve had.
  • List 10 things you would do with your money, if you won the lottery.

I’ll admit, the lottery question was a lot of fun.  It also showed me some things about myself.  The first item on the list – things you are good at – these are specific to you.  These things are the reasons only you can write your book and tell that particular story.  These are the things that will make your characters intimate and convincing to your reader.

Still not swayed?  Consider the books and films you’ve experienced and give these things some thought:

  • List 10 scenes that have left an unforgettable image burned in your memory.
  • List 10 fictional characters you never want to forget.
  • List 10 places you want to see because of a book or movie. (these can also be fictional places.)

Think about Luke Skywalker having dinner with his aunt and uncle.  He’s angry because he has to sacrifice pilot academy for another year to help out on the family farm.  I’m fairly certain that George Lucas has never lived on the planet, Tatooine, but we’ve all be in our late teens and remember what it was like to want to be an adult, to move away and be autonomous.  In watching that scene, there is a lot that is foreign to us – the food, the clothing, the desert home they live in – but the emotion, that longing to experience life for ourselves – that we all recognize.  In that scene, George Lucas is writing what he knows – he may have even had a similar conversation with his own parents.  By showing a common feeling that we all identify with, he makes the scene memorable.

Take a look at your own novel today and see what bits of your own conversations and experiences you can add.  Those are the feelings and emotions your reader craves, the scenes that remind us all we are human, even if we live on Tatooine.


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