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What are the best ways you find to get out of your own habitual thought patterns, personality, dispositions, and culture when writing characters?

For example, we are all familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality tests and many of us with the Enneagram. We are also familiar with different learning styles. People view the world significantly different, have different priorities, intelligence levels, and even different ways of processing reality. Eastern and Western cultures are very different.

Many of us are Westerners and so also place our individualistic view onto characters. We have a hard time understanding the medieval worldview which revolved around such concepts as chivalry and duty that were compelling though there were variations in personalities as well as adaptations to that.

What thinking tools or methods do you use to get out of your own mind when writing a different personality into your characters?

Many authors start with just the simple motivations and culture of characters though tend to seldom explore personal psychology. This seems to create one-dimensional characters and is one of the flaws of the Hero's Journey. Many characters appear may fall into an archetype.

One example of bias may be trope of the "reluctant squire" because we have a hard time in our modern culture imagining someone surrendering completely to a master and feeling like it is their duty to do so.

GRRM in Game of Thrones does a great job at more complex character psychology though this is largely based on or in reaction to external events or obsessions.

How do you overcome some of these obstacles to create unique characters?

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    ”We are all familiar with (various ideas from psychology)....” Actually, MOST successful authors don’t know anything about psychology, and also most psychologists are not successful authors. So this is a very odd assumption. – Wildcard Feb 25 at 4:29
  • @Wildcard Good point. – Seanchaí Feb 25 at 4:30
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    Further to Wildcard's point, Myers-Briggs isn't even scientists' preferred characterization of personalities. Evidence favours the Big Five, whereas MB implies personality only has 4 dimensions. – J.G. Feb 25 at 7:26
  • Just mention that some positions that began hundreds of years ago exist still. A family of McCrimmons are the heraditary pipers to the Laird of Clan MacLeod – Rasdashan Feb 25 at 22:01
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I think there are two steps:

1. Decide the character's philosophy of life

I'm using the example of two medieval characters because that's my settings of choice. Imagine we need two female characters: Eleonor is the lady of the manor and Mary is her twice-removed cousin (from a poorer branch of the family) who lives with her as a lady-in-waiting.

As the lady of the manor, Eleonor exerts strict authority over all who live in her property while her husband is away. Her authority comes from her husband, naturally (God did create the woman to be under her husband's authority). She has a good relation with her husband, but she's aware she's lucky and there are many women who are not as lucky. That means that the men in question are at fault and such wives should be helped if possible - but that would enver be an excuse for a wife to try and escape her lord and master!

Mary is aware she is a poor relative and is indebted to her older cousin and lady: all she has comes from her, after all. On the other hand, Eleonor is a kind soul and they both enjoy spending time together, with Mary helping her in what she can. She does have ambitions: to marry a worthy nobleman, for example, even if she wouldn't be so bold as to ask for someone above her position. In fact, that might be a bad option, as her husband's family would dismiss and even despise her for being below their standing.

2. Get inside their shoes

It is all very well to determine the character's philosophy in keeping with their times. But now it's time to write... and the author's feelings cannot shine through.

Let us start with Eleonor.

First step: Take a deep breath and close your eyes. You are no longer J. Doe: you are Lady Eleonor. Sit straight and level your head. With your eyes closed, visualise your garden (or wherever you are). Try and feel the air (hot or cold, dry or damp?), the smells, feel the dress pooling around your ankles.

Second step: Begin the scene.

Lady Eleonor smiled at her eight year old son, playing with the little servant boy. Her husband had brought the little boy as a slave from his latest battle against the Muslim Kingdom of Granada.

!!! Modern sensibility comes in: Slaves and religious intolerance. Yeah. Perfectly in tune with the times, I'm afraid. Harden yourself: having slave muslims was ok in medieval Europe (and common enough in the southern kingdoms). They could be black, dark skinned or perfectly white - it didn't matter. It was normal. Because Eleonor is a likeable character, her only concern will be about having the boy well-treated... according to his station. Resume:

"Mark," she called sharply when the little boy stuck a dirty finger in his nose. "That is not appropriate behaviour."

Slave or not, if he was to be a play companion of her son, he must behave courteously. But enough of play time! It was time for her son's lessons and she still had much work to do with little Mark. She'd had him baptised as soon as possible and was now making sure he understood the fundaments before Father Matthew started teaching him some Latin.


Let us move on to Mary.

First step: Take a deep breath and close your eyes. You are no longer J. Doe: you are Mary. Sit straight and turn your head slightly downwards. Once more, visualise everything around you.

Second step: Begin the scene.

Through the window of Lady Eleonor's chambers, Mary sees the young men honing their warrior skills. One of the younger ones, thinner than the rest, is once more being swarmed.

!!! Modern sensibility comes in: the boy is being bullied and Mary, as a sympathetic character, is going to decry and try to help him. Take a step back: while it's perfectly acceptable for the character to think that swarming is unfair, she would never dream of interfering: it would be humilliating to have a woman come in to his defense, and, as a woman, she has no right to meddle. Come to think of it, it would be natural for her to assume that being so often 'swarmed' was an appropriate way to help him improve, something like 'tough love'. Resume!

He was desperately outnumbered and, from what Mary could see, he was bound to end the practice all bruised. It upset her to see the scene - to her female eyes, the older boys seemed so violent! - but she was sure John would improve quickly. At least she hoped so. If only his father had wished him to become a clergyman... He was far more skilled at writing!


Last Resort Options

If fighting off modern sensibility is difficult, try to make parallels with something that is natural for you. You should also hang on as hard as you can to the logic that makes something evil nowadays an acceptable option at the time.

Torture, for example. Try to get inside the character and see torture as a sort of truth serum. Yes, you as the author know that torture doesn't guarantee truth as a person will say anything to stop it, but still, as the character, you know they would never own to that murder if they hadn't been tortured and everyone knows the criminal was the one who did it.

On the other hand, your character may feel that torture is only appropriate when one knows for sure who did the evil deed, and they may also feel that some types of torture are a bit too cruel.

If the lack of female freedom enrages you, hold on to that rage and turn it around: now what enrages you is those people who defile marriage. Those people destroy the community and bring down God's wrath on everyone! Sodom and Gomorrah, remember?

Better yet, do not focus on what women cannot do; focus on what they can do. If a woman can't choose her husband, what can she do to have some control? Maybe she can talk to her mother and see if she can put in a good word (at least to avoid someone she despises). Or maybe it's out of her hands and all she can do is... flirt a little behind her parents' back while she's still single.

Forcing a raped girl to marry her rapist sounds evil? Then keep in mind that to not do so means she will end up in prostitution. Maybe she'll end up murdered or sick. Her body sullied, her soul lost, and her honour destroyed. Yes, it is unfair, but far worse would be to not force that man to compensate her in the only possible.

Do not try to counter the logic and arguments of the past using your current knowledge, but if you must counter some ideas, use the arguments of the time. There were a couple of medieval saints who preached against the husbands who beat their wives, so being a medieval person doesn't mean that everyone agrees with domestic violence. Of course, violence at the time meant something far more drastic than nowadays: slapping the wife on occasion wasn't the problem, but beating her till she was unconscious was definitely not seen with good eyes.


While what I wrote focuses a lot on medieval times, the same is valid for any culture. Get inside that culture and find out how people think and feel. Remember that 'People are ok with X' doesn't mean that everyone in that culture accepts it whole-heartedly.

Even if the problematic worldview is not about a culture but a person - an abusive partner, for example - the author still has to understand how the character thinks and feels. Read accounts of real people (both abusers and abused) and understand their logic. Then get inside the characters' shoes and do not let your own consciousness slip onto the text

Remember: you are not J. Doe, the author. You are that character and their logic must come to the fore until the scene is written. Close your eyes and feel yourself become someone else.

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I meet my characters. My MCs, I spend about a week or two imagining them in various situations. When they are fleshed out, I start writing them and see what happens and who they run into.

The key to my character is often the name I choose. I changed one character’s name from Claire to Ariel and imagined what her life would have been like and how it might have differed from when she was Claire. Her personality changed considerably.

I place my character in a situation and discover how he or she will respond - it is rarely how I think I would react should I face a similar situation.

I created a Syrian hacker and had no trouble getting inside his head - I have friends from that region.

My hacker, for example, needed the following qualities; intelligence, attention to detail, discretion, protective of friends and family, rather impulsive, pride in his profession, does not like to be wrong, introvert except online.

I often think my MC would like to do this, would think that and be sorely tempted to do such,but would decide to do something else because he has excellent impulse control.

I know my characters are mine, but they are not me. Some have aspects of me, but they differ significantly.

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Personally, if I want to make a super-realistic human-like character, then I would just write a story based on reality. That is, I would look at my own personal life, study the people in my life, and add the people into my story. The story is based on a series of true events. The characters are all real, including the narrator. The narrator is me, so the narrator will have my own psychology. The other characters are based on how I perceive them. I don't know what goes on in the minds of the other characters, and I don't care. I just care about me, my thoughts, and what I do. It is my story, and I tell it from my perspective.

If you want to use a real-life non-Western culture and speak from that perspective, then you should first study the language to a near-native level. Seriously. If that non-Western language is Chinese, then you should achieve a near-native proficiency in spoken and written Chinese. By doing so, you will be able to think like a Chinese person. Then, you write your story in Chinese, because there are some things in Chinese that don't really translate well into English. Heck, I would argue that "China" in the Western sense doesn't really exist, and "Chinese" also doesn't really exist. In the Western world, Westerners may think Taiwanese people are not Chinese. But what they don't understand is that "Chinese" may refer to 中国人 or 华人. 中国人 is a citizen or national of 中国. 华人 is a descendant of the 华夏. There is a massive difference between 中国人 or 华人, and it matters politically because Taiwanese people may identify themselves as 华人, but not 中国人. Likewise, 中华 is not the same as 中国, even though both words may translate into "China". 中华民国 and 中华人民共和国 are both part of 中华. End of story. Stop translating 中华 as "China" and interpret China in Western terms. It is 中华. There is no English equivalent. Period.

So, I propose 2 ways.

  1. Use a real-world person.
  2. Learn a language to a very high, near-native level.

At the end of the day, everyone should realize that a story is fiction. It is not supposed to be real. And the characters don't have to be super-realistic. As long as the characters are believable for the reader, and the reader can empathize with the character, that is the main point of story. Super-realism is not the main point of story.

  • However, how feasible is it - and I'm asking this not because I'm interested in doing it for writing but rather because I am interested in it for its own sake - to learn a foreign language to a "near-native" level, esp. when one did not learn second languages during one's childhood second-language critical period? (Biological limitations) Moreover, given this, it seems logical to me to imagine this reasoning here doesn't just apply to writing alone but has far-reaching implications for any type of non-trivial cultural contact, including – The_Sympathizer Feb 25 at 6:28
  • and especially "going in to 'help' problems in another country" and being able to do more good than harm, given the great depth of understanding of cultural nuance that requires, and thus why I absolutely cannot in any way, shape, or form profess any agreement to people who criticize Western feminism, say, for "not doing enough" about the "far worse" gender inequality problems in other countries. You call it not doing enough, I call it playing it safe, and playing with what you can deal with. Of course, if someone – The_Sympathizer Feb 25 at 6:28
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    wants to put in all the legwork, that's fine, but given that it requires so much - that's easily a 10-year project you're talking about - I'd say it's the height of unreasonability to expect so many westerners to do it. It's the people there who should lead it, and moreover, it should not be taken as negating work here in the west. Even if the problems are not as great as elsewhere, if you do good that is actually a net good, that is always better than doing a net harm. – The_Sympathizer Feb 25 at 6:28
  • @The_Sympathizer To answer your first post, I would expect HSK 6. Your native language matters. If your native language is Japanese, then you will see your old Kanji friends again... used bizarrely. If your native language is English without any exposure to Chinese, then be prepared for a really long time. But at least you will be able to empathize with Chinese people and know what the "Western bias" in the media is referring to. – Double U Feb 25 at 13:59
  • @The_Sympathizer Your second and third posts are not related to writing. We can go on a lengthy discussion about this... but comments are supposed to improve the answer to the question, not chit-chat. – Double U Feb 25 at 14:10
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The first step is to recognize that not everyone thinks exactly the same way you do.

I think the fact that you asked this question shows that you've taken that first step.

Well, except that you promptly blow it with your second paragraph. :-) "we are all familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality tests ..." Really? Are we ALL familiar with these personality tests? You assume that because you and your friends are familiar with them, that just of course everyone in the world is familiar with them. You need to examine such assumptions.

When I was in college I took a psychology class where the textbook had a chapter on how people make decisions. And the author gave as an example -- and this is not an exact quote, I'm paraphrasing from memory -- Suppose that one of your friends got a job after college with high pay, in a big city in California or the north east. It would be hard to say, the psychologist author wrote, exactly why he took this job, because there are so many good reasons. But suppose, he said, that one of your friends got a job with high pay, in a small town in the South. Obviously he took it for the money.

I had to laugh. The writer literally could not even imagine someone wanting to live in a small town, or wanting to live in the South, and preferring such a place over Los Angeles or New York City. He was so caught up in his own preferences that the idea that someone else might have different preferences just never even occurred to him. If someone said that he really like the idea of living in a small town in the South, the only possible explanation is that the person is lying and covering up his REAL reason. And what was particularly amazing about this to me was this came from someone writing a textbook on psychology, someone who was supposed to be an expert on how people think.

Point 2: Once you grasp that other people don't always think the same as you, step 2 is to grasp that even though they think differently, their thinking will usually be rational and consistent, at least to them.

I have read many books and seen many movies where characters fall into two groups: Those who think just like the author, and those who are completely irrational. It's easy to tell which side of some controversial question the author is on, because the people who take one side are all presented as intelligent, friendly, interesting people, and those who take the other side are all screaming, irrational, obnoxious, maybe even violent fanatics.

If you're writing a character who disagrees with you on, say, some political issue, and the only reason you can think of why someone would disagree with you is because he's a racist or a religious fanatic or some such, think harder. Do some research. Find articles written by people who disagree with you on this issue and see what reasons they give. You don't have to find their reasons persuasive to acknowledge that they are persuasive to them. Like if someone said, "I am against the president's policy on X because it will throw millions of people out of work", you don't have to agree that this will be the result of the policy to accept that that might be someone's real reason for opposing it. MAYBE this is a smoke screen and their real reason is because they have an irrational hatred for Irish people. Or maybe they really believe what they're saying.

I'd suggest trying to think of what this character's basic motivations are. Not something irrational, like "he's a fascist who hates everyone everyone with a German-sounding name and he hates all truth and beauty". Find a rational, coherent motivation. "He believes that music has been unnecessarily limited by excessive regard for classical composers (who happen to be mostly German), and would like to see a greater variety of music styles explored and respected". If you're going to make him a villain, he probably has to take his views to an extreme or pursue them in an extreme way, but you can at least give him an aura of plausibility.

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This is probably a variation on other answers. I often ask family and friends what they would do in the situations in which I put my characters, and why they would do so. I struck a conversation on a train with a perfect stranger who was intrigued by my typing furiously on the laptop. I asked her too.

When I don't have the luxury of having others around, for instance in the middle of the night, I research on wikipedia whether some famous historical personae happened to be in the same situation as my characters. Personal blogs also offer some insights into people's mind.

Last resort, open up a chat, anywhere, and ask. It is the internet: there are surely weirder conversation starters than "Hi, if you were X and Y happened, what would you do? And why?"

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People are defined by their experiences and environment, this is as true in fiction as it is in real life. Understand what your characters have lived through and where they live. Understand who characters are and they'll speak to you about their actions as you look at various different situations within the world of your story.

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I guess I do this analytically, and naturally. Naturally because we all know other people that are unlike us, yet we have mental models of what they like, don't like, would do, and wouldn't do. I have mental models of my siblings, cousins, nephews and nieces, my parents, my friends, my professors in college, my co-workers, my neighbors and other random people I know. They aren't like me. My neighbor (a woman) cries very easily and openly, even just watching an awards show like the Oscars that isn't all that emotional. That is far from being like me, but I can tell you what she will likely cry over.

My characters are not me. I try to think about them a lot, give them traits I have seen before, and develop the same kind of mental model of another person in my mind for them. There's plenty of room up there! I think about my MC for at least a week before I write the first word of a new book, and that first word is nearly always her name. In the course of that week, for nearly all the situations I encounter, I am imagining how she would feel, react, or talk in an analogous situation for her and her world, and I'm building a model of her mind. Whatever I might be doing; what is she looking for in the grocery store and why? Does she pay her bills as they come in, or does she stack them up and pay them all on Sunday? Does she spend money frivolously (like me) or is she thrifty even when she doesn't have to be? Is she a good tipper or stingy? Either way, why? (I am, my mother was a waitress for 20 years, and even though she is gone I tip 25% so she won't be embarrassed by me.)

I'd say pretend each of your characters is an actual person, think about them in various situations, and build up a mental model of them, enough for you to start with. You don't have to spend more than a day or two with most characters to figure out who they are. If, while writing the story, they encounter a new situation, actually stop and think, how would THIS person deal with THIS situation, and Why? You may have to make up a new trait for them, some new history for them, but make it fit with what you already know about that character.

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Make half of a person.

Leave the other half empty because this is the half that will always be wanting, always be doubting. The empty half is a hungry ghost that haunts the character, that makes unreasonable demands, that looks for bad people to fill the empty space, however imperfectly.

These are fictional characters.

They have to be interesting, and they need BIG flaws and BIG desires.

During a story, there will be unnatural things going on, heightened excitement, impossible odds, zombies.... Psychology tests are for boring people who sit at home not conquering the galaxy or plotting revenge against the mole people.

You need characters who will face the unknown in hotpants and a pushup bra. Nerds who hack the Pentagon, and farmers who battle space aliens. These are not normal people. They are all seriously unbalanced.

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