Where To Start
One of the longstanding challenges is writing characters who are different from the author. Everyone has a unique identity, and part of that identity is their age, their gender, and their ethnic heritage. In short, how does an author write from the perspective of “other characters”?
First, let go of this concept of “other”. Do not set out to create a character and start from a stance of “I’m creating a character who is Chinese.” This is an oversimplification, and it defines the character by something that is often used to oversimplify and generalize who they are.
Instead, start with their personality. Decide whether this person is generally polite or blunt, intense or mellow, hyperactive or calm, etc. Next, consider people you’ve met in real life who have these characteristics. Use them to create a mental “sketch” of the character’s personality. See “Creating a Character” below for example personality traits.
In general, it’s rarely a good idea to allow a physical or cultural characteristic define a character. Stereotypes as social constructs are often based on characteristics that are immediately apparent, such as age, gender, and ethnicity. These are part of who a character is, but visually apparent characteristics are often used to oversimplify complex individuals into stereotypes. If a character needs to be defined quickly, use their words, actions, and choices. Give them a skill, profession, hobby, or interest, something they chose to be.
Consider the Setting
When and where is this story taking place? What is the general history of the region? What cultures have washed over the region? For example, Great Britain was settled by an initial group of humans. Over time other cultures washed over them, including the Romans and the Germanic tribes of the Anglo-Saxons.
In more recent times, cultural migration has become more common. For example, New York City is one of the more culturally diverse parts of North America, while most regions are dominated by a few cultures. Research the culture of the region. Consider people you may have met, or interviews recorded by others. If possible, visit the region.
Consider the Conflict
What are the conflicts of your story? Who within the setting is most impacted by the goals/consequences of the conflict? For example, any story about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War 2 would probably feature a Japanese American protagonist.
If there is no strong reason to root a character in a specific racial/cultural heritage, try to accurately represent the spectrum of the population of the region.
Insert the Character
With an initial personality, insert the character into the community of the setting, and mentally walk through the stages of their life, up to their current age. Look for people the character admires, people they want to emulate. Add people they despise, personality traits they would strive to avoid.
Next, consider labels that other people apply, the expectations and assumptions of the community. Most people selectively choose to resist, ignore, and accept/embrace these labels.
Whether a behavior is encouraged and “normal”, or discouraged and “weird”, the greater the pressure to conform, the more defining it is for a character to resist the will of the community.
For example, in 21st century America is not uncommon for people to remain single for much of their life, but in other cultures, such as Victorian era Europe, it was far less common, making a character’s status as an unmarried 40 year old person much more defining.
Build your character through from birth to their current age, using the 8 Stages of Life (below), until you reach the desired age. Remember that for many, things like age, gender, and “race” are only a small part of who they are. Focus on the personality, the culture of their community, and the experiences of their life, and always approach a character as an individual.
Admirable Virtues 102-06
Creating A Character-Guidelines I: Personality-Skills-Culture-Age
Step 1: Goals, Dreams, & Values
Choose 1 goal, one desire, and how they regard people.
Build/protect something stable that endures
Explore new places, learn new knowledge, gain new experiences
Have fun/enjoy life
Do they focus on the good of:
the large group (a town, city, or the world)
a small group (3+ people they know personally)
Step 2: Strengths & Weaknesses
Choose 1-2 lines that define how they are strong and how they are weak.
Optional: Choose 3-6 words that the character “wishes/believes” accurately describe them, when in fact that is not the case.
Are they strong in:
1. Energetic, competitive, self-confident
2. Dependable, patient, practical
3. Adaptation, curious, kind
4. Emotion/intuition, protective, determined
5. Humorous, confident, generous
6. Practical, detailed, ready to serve/help
7. impartial, diplomatic, social
8. determined, resourceful, believes in absolute truth, competitive,
9. inquisitive, wanderer, open-minded, idealist, generous, humorous, values freedom/individual
10. professional, traditional, conventional, serious, disciplined, dark humor
11. intellectual, logical, independent, can be shy or forward
12. understanding, kind, relaxed, accepting
Do they struggle with:
1. Impatience, weakness
2. Stubborn, uncompromising, resistant to change
3. Fickle, nervous, too much multi-tasking
4. Insecure, struggle to adapt to change
5. Arrogant, stubborn, lazy, unrealistic
6. Worrier, shy, overly critical, struggles to stop working and have fun
7. uncomfortable alone, indecisive, avoids conflict
8. Jealous, distrustful, secretive, can appear cold
9. blunt, not realistic, impatient/rude, not detail oriented, avoids deep connections with others
10. show off, arrogant, condescending, pessimist
11. avoids emotion, distant, uncompromising, uncomfortable alone
12. overly trusting, fearful, not realistic, prefers solitude
Step 3: Culture
What culture(s) dominate this region? What traditions exist?
What are the archetype life-paths of a child growing up in this community?
What roles exist within this community for children, adults, and the elderly?
Start with the 8 stages of Life, and map out how the culture of the community affects these stags.
How do these change the character’s personality over time?
Try to write at least 1 paragraph for each stage, including 2 or more significant roles and how they affected the character.
8 Stages of Life
Part 1-What is done to them
*In the beginning characters need to know that they are loved, wanted, and welcomed. They need to learn that parents/guardians are “here”
1. 0-18 months
Through the family relationship, how they are raised by their parents or guardians, the character develops a level of optimism/pessimism, trust/distrust, confidence/self-doubt, and security/insecurity.
2. 18 months-3 years
Character learns about independence/dependence, basic moral values, self-reliance, achievement, and a greater understanding of self-worth through pride/shame. Learning, success/failure, defiance, anger, and determination or stubbornness vs acceptance/submission come into play.
3. 3-5 years
Characters emulate others, take initiative, be creative, create stories for toys/characters, play out roles, and ask “why”. Guilt can become part of the success/failure process.
4. 6-12 years
Characters learn what they are capable of, gaining new skills and knowledge. Social interaction becomes more complex. These social years become a main factor in shaping a character’s understanding of their own competency and self-worth/esteem.
The character’s understanding of the world expands. As new relationships form, parents become less monolithic, less absolute in power and competency.
Part 2-What they choose to do
5. 12-18 years
Character struggles to find and understand their own identity. Struggles with social interaction, finding their place in the social structure, fitting in, developing their own sense of what is right and wrong, which may align with or contrast against the cultural moral compass.
Characters develop a greater passion for an ideal, cause, or person.
Some may try to postpone adulthood.
6. 18-35 years
As they distance themselves from their parents and other mentors, characters begin building their own community from their peers, a community of friends and family who perceive them as equals. Those who cannot form strong peer relationships become isolationists.
7. 35-55 years
The character builds their new life, developing greater strength and taking on more responsibility, as they achieve a long term rhythm and stability via patterns and routines. The absence of activity, meaning, purpose, and value are common fears in this stage.
Major changes will test the character, making the existing relationships even stronger.
Examples of major changes include the loss of a relationship (moving away, growing apart, or through death), loss of a major role (job, team, extracurricular), or the loss of status (inability to perform a skill, or a change in the setting/world that devalues the skill).
8. 55-75 and beyond
*When this stage begins is heavily subjective.
Characters often look back at what they have done, reflecting to find that they are either satisfied or unsatisfied. Those who are satisfied will gradually accept the slowdown of their lives, focusing on savoring the simple pleasures and rewards of their work. Those who feel dissatisfied, may try to change, or believe it is too late, becoming bitter hedonists, or turn to escapism.