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Can't help but write myself as a character

IsaiahF

Dreamer
Greetings! Ok so, as the title points out, my weakness as a writer is writing protagonists that have their own psychology and arcs.

The problem is, I unconsciously keep writing myself into my protagonists - I think because the only psychology I can reliably judge as plausible is my own. (It's happened so many times now it’s honestly kind of freaky at this point.)

So, to combat this, I've tried breaking characters into their core dimensions - their wants and needs, their personas and shadows, their main traumas and life-choices, etc - as a way of finding some kind of formula that will point the way to creating psychologically plausible characters that aren't myself. Make sense? Only thing is, I haven't found such a formula as of yet, and don't even know if this is the way to go about tackling the problem.

I suspect forcing myself to be very explicit on the page with my characters' goals, emotions and stakes may help with this.

Is this a problem you face or have faced? If so, what's your take on it and how'd you get over it?

Thanks!
 

BearBear

Inkling
I did that in half of my books. Then I wrote epic people and female protagonists which couldn't possibly be me, that solved it and there were whole books with no character like me.
 

pmmg

Vala
There is a little of me I recognize in all of my characters. I am not sure it can be helped. But none of my characters are me.

I am not sure that is a problem, I just write them who the seem to me they should come out. All the characters are very different, have different goals and different things they do well, and things they don't do well. As one who has made a lot of characters, I think what makes them the most different is the things they believe that are not really true, and the things that are problem areas for them and not really strengths. And as the characters go through their journey, this stuff ought to come out to bite them at very bad times. And....as the journey happens, I think your character might begin to separate from you a bit.

But, since I am on the subject, I think the one area where characters and I do not separate, is that I don't have characters do things I think they would never do, but the world is full of people who do things I think people would never do. Its like an underlying sensibility that cant be switched off.
 

BearBear

Inkling
This is why its useful to have multiple personalities.

This.

Additionally, what I find interesting aftee much introspection and playing around with personas, aspects, and facets, is that personality is in itself arbitrary, conditional, and causal rather than innate; therefore, through shadow work, introspection, and playing around with such things, you can literally cast off what you don't like and foster what you like. You can, and I have, distinct and separate facets and aspects (made of facets) that are compartmentalized situationally.

In other words, you like yourself, or you are interesting to yourself, so you write yourself into everything, but it's not you that you write, it's the you archetype, which may not represent the behavioral you depending on context or situation.

Yes, you, the character, is well defined, so you are easy to write in confidently.

One exercise you could do, that I have done, is write a facfic or borrow a character from another fandom and eventually you can make that character unique enough to be indistinguishable from the original. They evolve on their own.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
I think it might help to write characters in a different era. Writing a modern character in a modern setting, it'd be hard not to have that character speak with my voice, or view the world through my lens. Write them in an SF setting or in some quasi-ancient or medieval setting, or in a culture much different from my own, and stepping outside myself might be easier.

More generally, and I realize this is not usual, I'm a historian. I've spent my life trying to understand other people, so it feels natural for me to get inside the heads of my characters, to try to imagine what they feel, how they feel it, why they feel it, how it gets manifested, how that gets interpreted by others, and so on. I don't necessarily recommend being a historian (!), but reading good history, especially social history, might provide insights hard to find elsewhere. And, of course, reading lots and lots of fiction.
 

IsaiahF

Dreamer
BearBear - That’s cool. I think my next novel will feature a female protagonist, so that automatically might resolve a few things. It’s interesting that I even have a resistance to writing a protagonist so different from myself, which brings me to your next point re being interested in my archetypal, rather than behavioural, identity. That’s a great observation! I hadn’t quite thought of it like that before. And what’s coming to me now is that (at least in my mind) there are almost two ways of writing a character - the bottom-up approach, which reaches an archetypal identity through the behavioural quirks, features and nuances of a character in situ, and the top-down approach, which flows down from the archetype to the behaviour. It's interesting to note that I've unquestioningly assumed that the top-down approach is the quicker and more reliable path to go down, and am starting to think that maybe this is not the case, and that what's required could be a blend of the two?

Not sure if this makes sense, but I think it does?

Awesome suggestion BearBear - I’ll add that exercise to my list. Thanks for the input.

Pmmg - Interesting! It makes sense to me that building in false beliefs and problem areas would add ‘psychological plausibility’. Off the top of my head, Katniss Everdeen false believes that she doesn't need to engage in politics and win Panem over to survive, and one problem area could be her general rashness. I’ll have a crack at character creation with this in mind, and see what happens. That’s a cool point about that underlying sensibility - there’s always going to be unknown unknowns, I guess. Thanks Pmmg.

Skip - In my original post I was going to put something about the value of history in developing more of an impersonal, less self-referential perspective and accessing patterns of consciousness that are not our own, but didn’t know how to do it concisely. Basically, I completely agree - and I think this is a really deep point. I just find it hard to transfer this knowledge or historical awareness into the writing process. If I write myself, it all seems to flow; if I try to write another psychological pattern it rapidly becomes grating. Though I suppose it’s not meant to always flow! Thanks Skip.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
>If I write myself
Does this mean you always write in first person POV? But even then, there must be other characters in your story. How do you handle the "not-me" characters?
 

IsaiahF

Dreamer
>If I write myself
Does this mean you always write in first person POV? But even then, there must be other characters in your story. How do you handle the "not-me" characters?
Sorry, I should have been a bit clearer - I write 1st and 3rd person POV. Either way, the 'not me' characters tend to work out fine, and flow naturally enough. It's like I'm more ok with focusing on constructing a convincing facade, and thus an illusion of depth, in 'not me' characters. So they're fine - it's just that I guess I assume that protagonists have to have actual depth, or something. And that's the point when I, often unconsciously, bring in all my personal psychology.

So to recap - writing 'not me' characters seems to work because I'm ok with them coming across as caricatures or 'types' with a hint of depth that I don't really chart out. It's like an optical illusion. It's only with protagonists that I get stuck because I expect them to have actual depth, and as soon as I put this standard on myself I instantly become confused and have no way of measuring how well I'm doing it.

It's not like this is stopping me from writing or anything, but it's something that's been niggling at me for some time now.

Thanks for bearing with all the nuance! :giggle: Even just articulating this all is super helpful.
 

pmmg

Vala
Not being able to measure is not the same as not having it. Sounds what you need is feedback. Sadly, we are always our own worst judge of what works and what does not in our own stuff.
 

IsaiahF

Dreamer
Yep, I bet you’re right on the money there, pmmg. Feedback in other parts of my life (like teaching) has been revelatory, and I see no reason why it wouldn’t be the same for writing. Just need to force myself to bite the bullet and put it out there!
 
I think it’s virtually impossible to not impart parts of your own personality and life experiences into the characters we create. I don’t think that’s to say that we can’t create a character that has major differences from us, but more that there’s always going to be our influence present, because they have been created by our thoughts, and our thoughts are also our reality. You sound like you have an interesting method going on, but perhaps you’re also overthinking it?
 
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A. E. Lowan

Forum Mom
Leadership
Finch is right. I know I've left fragments of myself littered across a thousand worlds. One character may get my smart mouth, another my impulsivity, a third my addictive personality. Bits and pieces, here and there.

I learned to slip into the skins of characters who were different from myself by roleplaying. Lots of tabletop, lots of MMORPG's. Who would I be if I was..? And then go trample the world. Not only is it fun, but tabletop gaming can teach you rapid-fire story-telling skills. Not to mention make new friends.

I would also recommend finding a writing prompt book or site that you like and put out at least a couple of sentences a day that challenge your paradigm. It's both good for shaking the lantern and getting those gears moving.
 

IsaiahF

Dreamer
I agree, Finch - it probably is a case of overthinking :giggle: I’ve learned the hard way that as long as my overthinking doesn’t actually interrupt and get in the way of my daily word quota, I can justify going down some strange rabbit holes - every now and again they end up leading someplace useful. The possibility of overthinking is always something to keep in mind given some of my general tendencies.

What you, Lowan and others say about always being in our characters to some extent is worth keeping in mind. I guess there’s a distinction between, as pmmg said, writing in a way that allows the character to ‘separate from you a bit’ (in which there is an acceptable amount of myself in them), and writing characters that don’t. In fact, now that I’ve articulated that, I’d say that’s exactly what I’m trying to hone in on.

Love your idea of small writing exercises built around challenging my way of approaching characters, Lowan. Your comment on roleplaying also makes a lot of sense. I can see how that would be really useful!

Thanks for chipping in (y)
 
I think it's also part of where you are in your writing journey. When you start out as a writer, every aspect of it is new. How do you create a readable sentence? An interesting scene? A decent plot? How do you create characters? What about the setting and how do you deliver it without simply dumping all information at once? And so on. There is a lot to learn.

Everyone has different skills, and some things are easier to learn for some people and harder for others. But everyone has to learn. The journey for most people starts at the basics: how to you create an interesting paragraph and scene. And after that, how do you string scenes together to form some kind of cohesive story. When you're starting out, that's already pretty hard to do. So focus on that, and forget about the rest. Of course, interesting character make for a better story. But it's fine if at the start of your journey everyone sounds and acts like you. Same with setting. There's nothing wrong with using a generic setting. If you're at the beginning of your writing journey, it can even be beneficial, since it's one less thing to worry about.

It's why writing fan fiction is actually not a bad idea. If you know a story universe well, and write in that, then you have a pre-made world, and pre-made characters you can play around with. You can put them in an interesting situation and figure out what would happen.
 
I agree, Finch - it probably is a case of overthinking :giggle: I’ve learned the hard way that as long as my overthinking doesn’t actually interrupt and get in the way of my daily word quota, I can justify going down some strange rabbit holes - every now and again they end up leading someplace useful. The possibility of overthinking is always something to keep in mind given some of my general tendencies.
I’m a serial overthinker too, in most facets of my life, which is actually why I think I enjoy storytelling. I like the fact that there isn’t necessarily an ‘endpoint’. There are endless possibilities in the worlds i’ve created - endless character angles, time periods, prequels, sequels etc. but that’s also why I’ll probably never get to the point of publishing anything! Sometimes stepping away from the writing part is beneficial for me, and ideas can flow a bit more freely, but we all have different ways of doing things.
 

IsaiahF

Dreamer
Thanks, Spires and Finch, both of you have given me some much needed reassurance. I definitely think I’m coming to appreciate how hard it is to balance all these things, as you say, Spires - I mean, it feels nothing short of miraculous when things like plot, character and setting start to click.


The more I’ve been thinking about it and hearing from you guys these last few days, the more I’m realising a) the virtue of working with pre-made characters to get a taste for what functional characters feel like to write, and b) the importance of nailing a really solid character arc skeleton, as a way of popping the individuality of the character into focus, and ensuring that other aspects of their profile are relevant and consistent with this central aspect.


And Finch, thanks for sharing that - I love the joy in your creative process that shines through your post! It sounds like you’re describing brainstorming vs actually writing as a bit of an in-breath, out-breath kind of thing. I hope eventually to get to a point where I have enough self-trust to start extending time spent going down rabbit holes again! :giggle:
 

Oculus

Acolyte
Greetings! Ok so, as the title points out, my weakness as a writer is writing protagonists that have their own psychology and arcs.

The problem is, I unconsciously keep writing myself into my protagonists - I think because the only psychology I can reliably judge as plausible is my own. (It's happened so many times now it’s honestly kind of freaky at this point.)

So, to combat this, I've tried breaking characters into their core dimensions - their wants and needs, their personas and shadows, their main traumas and life-choices, etc - as a way of finding some kind of formula that will point the way to creating psychologically plausible characters that aren't myself. Make sense? Only thing is, I haven't found such a formula as of yet, and don't even know if this is the way to go about tackling the problem.

I suspect forcing myself to be very explicit on the page with my characters' goals, emotions and stakes may help with this.

Is this a problem you face or have faced? If so, what's your take on it and how'd you get over it?

Thanks!
My main characters start out as young adult/teenagers and it's helped me that my kids were around the same ages as the characters I was writing. Sadly, there's no swords or sorcery around here, but people are the same.
 

BunnyJen90

Acolyte
Greetings! Ok so, as the title points out, my weakness as a writer is writing protagonists that have their own psychology and arcs.

The problem is, I unconsciously keep writing myself into my protagonists - I think because the only psychology I can reliably judge as plausible is my own. (It's happened so many times now it’s honestly kind of freaky at this point.)

So, to combat this, I've tried breaking characters into their core dimensions - their wants and needs, their personas and shadows, their main traumas and life-choices, etc - as a way of finding some kind of formula that will point the way to creating psychologically plausible characters that aren't myself. Make sense? Only thing is, I haven't found such a formula as of yet, and don't even know if this is the way to go about tackling the problem.

I suspect forcing myself to be very explicit on the page with my characters' goals, emotions and stakes may help with this.

Is this a problem you face or have faced? If so, what's your take on it and how'd you get over it?

Thanks!
I'm the exact same way with my protagonist. I'm currently working on a magical school girl type story for a comic book I want to make and each one of the 3 protagonist seem to have a part of my personality. The leader of the group is rebellious and energetic then there is the shy quiet but caring girl who tends to be overly emotional and finally there is the tomboy who is a bit insecure of herself. Each one represent a different part of my personality. I think writers when starting out tend to write protagonist that are like them. Not entirely sure how to get over it.
 

IsaiahF

Dreamer
I'm the exact same way with my protagonist. I'm currently working on a magical school girl type story for a comic book I want to make and each one of the 3 protagonist seem to have a part of my personality. The leader of the group is rebellious and energetic then there is the shy quiet but caring girl who tends to be overly emotional and finally there is the tomboy who is a bit insecure of herself. Each one represent a different part of my personality. I think writers when starting out tend to write protagonist that are like them. Not entirely sure how to get over it.
Hey Bunny, yep, it's been a struggle. Something I seem to actually be finding some success with lately is getting crystal clear on the nature of the character arc as a whole. I think it's just been helpful in separating their journey from mine. Specifically, this video helped click some things into place for me, maybe you might find it helpful?

How to Create Character Arcs
 
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