Inventing new characters is a favourite pastime of mine. A young emperor’s son, a wise war general, a runaway, a secret agent. There’s just something incredible about crafting these brand new humans and giving them a story and a home and a voice.
But then I sit down to write their story and I suddenly realise—how on earth am I going to write a battle-scarred war general realistically?
Who am I kidding? I’m a teenage girl living in the 21st century, not a grown man from the 1300s.
I’m sure I’m not the only one (anyone out there who’s been to a war in the 1300s?) and if I am, I’d like a loan of that time machine, thanks. 😛
We could just forge ahead and try our best, but it’ll end with flat characters and stilted dialogue and action. But since no one is forthcoming with that TARDIS, what else can we do?
First off, we can look at examples of those who have gone before us. I’m going to go all geeky on you, so you’ll have to pardon me. 😛
When Tom Holland was cast as Peter Parker he’d never been to an American school, and only had personal experience with a boys-only, strict uniform school in London.
So what did he do? He went (undercover) to a high school in New York City to find out what it felt like so he could bring a more realistic tone to his role in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Viggo Mortensen—otherwise known as Aragorn, son of Arathorn—would camp outside under the stars, and take long hikes to filming locations, and keep his sword on hand as much as possible, all so he could be a more realistic and true Aragorn.
Sure these guys are actors, but they both knew what they were doing. They made special effort to be their character in all ways they could even outside of the camera view.
As writers, we should do no less. We need to put ourselves in our characters’ shoes as much as possible so we can understand them and write them more realistically.
Take a look at the google definition of the ‘put yourself in someone’s shoes’ idiom:
To imagine oneself in the situation or circumstances of another person, so as to understand or empathize with their perspective, opinion, or point of view. Before being quick to judge someone for their actions, you should always try to put yourself in their shoes.
Even if we can’t time travel, we can still hop into our characters’ shoes in other ways.
Like Viggo Mortensen, if you have a ranger-like character, you can go on hikes or out camping—bonus points if you do it in costume. Find out how it feels to be slogging through damp grass for a full day, the sun crawling past overhead and the road stretching ever before you. Find out how it feels to sleep outside with nothing but a thin cloak between you and the ground.
Our job is our imagination.
As the definition says, we have to try see from the character’s perspective, with knowledge of their past and personality and experiences.
Delve deep into the story of the character. What are they like now? What happened in their past that made them this way? If I were like them, how would I view those around me?
That battle hardened general might see everyone as naive or innocent. The runaway might see everyone as so much more lucky than he, maybe with regret, or maybe with envy.
Imagine yourself as them and they will become so much more real to you. They’ll be a part of you in a little way, but unique and true to themselves still. When you can put yourself in the character’s shoes like this, they won’t just be more real to you, but consequently, they’ll be more real to the reader.
Writing them should be a natural flow, not a constant struggle of “How do I make this sound realistic?” Instead it should be a simple double checking of “What would he do?”
Think of one of your best friends. You know a lot about them, you know a lot about their situation, their past, even the way they think. If you asked them “What would you do if you saw someone trapped on the other side of a burning room?” you might know them well enough to be able to guess their answer. Would they charge straight in to help? Would they call for someone else? Would they take the time to get some sort of safety plan before running in?
That’s how it should be in with your characters. Look at situations from their point of view. You can practice all the time. Walking through the shops—what would Freddy be thinking about right now? What would Jason notice? What did Lucy come here to buy? Even small things like that help so much and it can get you into their head and into their shoes.
To be a writer is to be an actor and director at the same time. You must be able to direct the overarching story, but also know each character intimately, as if you’re in costume on set and starring as every character.
Chat with me! What do you do to get into your characters’ shoes? Have you ever done any crazy stuff to help you understand your characters more closely?