The believability of your story relies on your characters. How they view the world, interpret it, experience things, and how they feel about it can be completely different than someone else.
But how do we truly know what it’s like for our characters? How can we successfully relay that information to our readers?
While writing my current WIP, I had to imagine what it would be like for a future teen to return to the early twenty-first century. And it got me thinking. I don’t even know what it would be like to return to the early twentieth century. So I started to drill my mom for two days (Sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean to imply you were from the early twentieth century. She’s not… for the record).
I learned that she used to brush her teeth with salt, that her family made treats out of potatoes, and they bottled their own root beer. She used to ride in a wagon to school, and in winter they’d strap giant skis onto it to glide over the snow, have a fire in the covered back, and pick up all the kids and the teacher along the way.
So what did I learn? Well, I learned how people in the past were crazy. Which is important, since my character is baffled by old human customs. Also, it’s amazing how many misconceptions I had about the past, just like my main character, who curtsies in the twenty-first century instead of shaking hands.
So what are some different ways that we can really get into our character’s heads? See what they see? Feel what they feel?
Often we get our inspiration from our vacations, road trips, family get-togethers, or even international destinations. Maybe all you need to do is recall past adventures or pull out the old photo album and souvenir collection. Or maybe your WIP could be an excuse for a new adventure.
Whether it’s a different country or a different time, chatting up others can be the next best thing to actually experiencing it. Everyone has their own take on things, their own experiences. A city can be lively and exciting to one person, and loud and dirty to another. Talk to lots of people, get a variety of opinions until you can start to form your character’s opinion.
What happens to your character in the story? What do they do? Are they a settler? Then go to a living heritage museum. Do they go embark on a long journey on foot to meet with dwarves? Then go for a hike. Are they a dueling knight of the round table? Take up fencing. Writing a romance novel? That would be some fun research. There are lots of ways to put yourself in their shoes. Come on. Get out there. Imagination is a requirement for writing, but sometimes it just can’t replace real life experiences. Our research might not always be enjoyable, especially if your character is a road-kill cleaner. But we are artists! We must suffer for our art!
Can’t afford a trip? Don’t have a time machine? Rent a movie set in your character’s era or location. Watch it twice if you get too absorbed by the plot line to notice the size of the buttresses in the background (you just googled buttress, didn’t you?).
There will always be facts we don’t know about the settings we want to create or the events that happen to our characters. Thank goodness for the internet. It‘s not cheating. It’s research. Or you can head to the library or local book store for more information. Is your story about a monk, a princess, or maybe a samurai? They’ve got books on them too.
Your character needs to eat, right? It’s amazing how different food tastes in different countries. But usually, the food you eat in your own country tastes nothing like the original. Trust me. Sushi tastes totally different in Japan. And I can only imagine how different pizza is in Italy. Try cooking something at home. But after a long day of wandering, a few slices of raw fish might make a difference to your samurai warrior than say, a thanksgiving turkey.
Sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. Recreate your entire book if you must, but details are important. It’s the details that make your novel come to life in a reader’s mind. Make them experience what the character experiences, as though they’re there with them. Each sweet bursting fruity flavor, each putrid sewer scent. Some writers have such an uncanny way of describing the sound of a rampaging bull, or the touch of a bear’s fur, or the taste of dirt that your first thought is ‘That’s incredible. I imagine that’s exactly what it would be like.’ And your next thought is ‘I don’t really want to find out how they know that.’
Get weird. Get creative. There are lots of ways to be one with your character. The closer we come to understanding our characters, to walking a mile in their shoes, the more believable our stories will be.
What helps you to connect with your character? Share in the comments below.
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