Cup of Dcaf: Getting Close to Your Characters

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“Write what you know”, right? It’s one of the most common writing tips, something that writers of all ages have no doubt heard many times. It’s pretty sound advice on the surface. After all, it’s tough to write about, say, a location in Italy if you’ve never been there or studied it. Trying to do something along those lines is begging for the writing to feel flat.

On the other hand, we need to write about things we don’t know—namely, characters. I’ve found that it’s very common for inexperienced (often young) writers to write characters who are very similar to them. It’s easy to do, because you know yourself better than you know anyone else. But that doesn’t make for very interesting stories. Things will get very stale, very quickly when all of your protagonists are the same person.

So the question remains: how do you write a variety of characters?

Now, this is something that will probably always fascinate me. I’ve found some of my most satisfying writing has dealt with the characters who are least like me—in whatever way that ends up being. For instance, the most challenging short story I’ve written was “A Golden Day”, and that was almost entirely due to the main character. In All Flames Cast, Tymun and Eritan are both very different from me, and even though Harael is closest in temperament, even he has very different priorities and approaches to things than I would. The result is that I have to really bear down while writing these characters, work on finding a voice and a personality…and then submerge myself in them. I have to really get close to them.

It’s points when I feel for the characters, when I find myself getting angry as I’m writing Tymun or getting impatient as I write Eritan, that I know I’m on the right track. I’m not an angry person, nor am I particularly impatient. But Tymun is angry (oh, so angry) and Eritan is impatient and ambitious, and in those moments, I feel like I do actually know them.

So, in the end, I am writing what I know—but I had to get close and learn them before I could do that.

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