The Vastness of Us

On February 7, 2017, Mikayla wrote, I tend to base my MC’s off of myself, and I was wondering if you (or anyone else on here!) had suggestions for how to deal with this, such as precautions, tips, or ways to separate myself from my MC.

The Florid Sword wrote back, I have lots of trouble with this. Usually what I do to make my MC different from myself is I take one aspect of myself, such as a hobby or a negative trait, and say, “How can I change this from being myself?”

So, for example, I like to draw. The book I’m writing right now is based on my own experiences and the main character has to be kind of like me, to react in a similar way. However, I decided to take my hobby of drawing and make my character a cook.

I also tend to get very annoyed by even the tiniest things, but to change that I made my character very longsuffering but also gave her a habit of exaggerating everything.

Clever ideas, Florid Sword!

In a way, all our characters come from aspects of ourselves, or we couldn’t dream them up. Sure, some are based on people we know and characters we’ve read, but inevitably, unavoidably, they’re reinterpreted through our experiences and our innards. Most of you know how much I adore Pride and Prejudice. I’ve gone to Austen more than once for character inspiration, even for my MC. However, I doubt that the real Austen, while spinning in her grave, would recognize my creations as having any connection with hers. We may not be aware of how we’re spinning our characters, but we are.

We’re vast. We who write fantasy, and even we who don’t, have entire universes whirling between our ears–because even the world in a contemporary, realistic story differs from writer to writer. And the world we create in one story varies from the world in another. And we manage to people all those worlds! Though I may usually live by routine, I can, with effort, dredge up occasions when I acted spontaneously. Though I think I don’t have a hair-trigger temper, I remember occasions when something has set me off like a match to kindling. Within me exist spontaneity and routine, calm and fury.

Suppose we decide, to write an MC entirely based on ourselves, exactly like us, down to whether we sleep on our back or our side or eat our favorite foods first or leave the best for last, I doubt that others would agree with our representations. If we’re self-critical, we’re likely to paint a darker picture of ourselves than friends and family experience. And vice versa, if we fail to see our faults. Virtues and faults, however, are only part of it. We don’t know how our faces look when we feel this or that. We rarely hear our own voices, and when we do, the occasion is special, not the ordinary. We may not be aware of how much we change in the company of this person or that, or we may think of ourselves as chameleons and exaggerate our reinventions.

The Florid Sword mentions giving her MC a different hobby from her own, cooking rather than drawing, which I think is a fine idea. However, there is an underlying assumption that this MC, like Florid Sword, has a hobby. Not everyone does. And, if Florid Sword knows nothing about cooking, she’ll have to learn a little or research cooking, which she’ll have to do in her own characteristic way. We can’t escape ourselves!

Coincidentally, in my historical novel Dave at Night, I gave Dave a talent: drawing, because, before I started writing, I drew and painted as my hobby. I picked drawing deliberately so that I could use something I already knew. We don’t always want to cut ourselves off from material that will make our task a smidgen easier.

One more thing. Our readers who don’t know us will read the character we believe to be exactly like us through the prisms of their own personalities. This is particularly true of our MCs, whom our readers will enter. Our identities will merge with theirs.

I think I often do this here–urge you not to worry. Above are all the reasons I think you needn’t. Now for my method of building characters. I do it to a large degree unconsciously, but this is how I believe I do it.

My stories arise out of ideas rather than characters. My new book, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, begins Rapunzel-ish, with an abduction. (I’m not giving away anything that you won’t learn in the first few pages.) Lady Klausine takes my MC Perry to raise as a member of the Lakti nobility and to learn the ways of their Spartan, warrior culture. When I developed Lady Klausine I considered what Lakti mothering might be like and modeled her on what I came up with. Then I thought about how her very-tough-very-little-love method might form her daughter. Both characters grew to a large degree out of these ruminations–which have nothing to do with my own past or my own personality.

You can do the same. Think about your story. What’s the world like? What challenges will your MC face, according to your plot as you’ve imagined it so far? Who will the other major characters be? How will they affect her? In an MC, we’re looking for traits that will allow her to survive but that will also force her to struggle and suffer. We can list possible traits and virtues and flaws, like greed, intelligence, friendliness, jealousy. How will this one or that one help or hinder her as the story moves along?

We can see how this works in reverse and how our MCs can naturally be unlike us. Try this: cast yourself as the MC in a fairy tale or a book or movie you know really well. For example, how would you behave if you were Snow White and the evil queen’s hunter left you alone in a forest? Further along, how would you co-exist with the dwarves? Would you stay with them?

Let’s say the answer to the last question is, No way. Their cottage would make you claustrophobic. You might like them or hate them, but remaining there would drive you crazy. You like to take control of your fate. Sadly, you would make an impossible Snow White. So, if not you, what sort of character would be able to do what the story requires of her?

Let’s turn this into the first prompt. Write the scene in the forest with the hunter with you as Snow White. You may need to check out the original Grimm version for this. If you can’t get with the program, figure out who would be able to. Put that new character in and revise the scene. In Grimm, Snow White is no more than a pawn, but make your MC more three-dimensional.

Here are two more prompts:

∙ Keep yourself as Snow White. You can’t act as she would, so change the story in sync with your nature. Keep going. See what happens.

∙ Use the characteristic that Florid Sword gave her MC. This Snow White exaggerates everything. Write a scene from her sojourn with the dwarves.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Jenalyn Barton says:

    This is one of those instances where “write what you know” becomes so applicable. As pointed out, all of our characters are going to have a little bit of us in them, no matter what we do. The trick is to use this to give our characters a sense of realism, rather than having all of our MC’s turn out the same. Like Gail mentioned, we first need to consider our character’s background, like where they’re from and how they’re raised. This will inform a lot of the actions they take and how they react to certain situations. Then we can use our own experiences to inject some realism into our characters. For instance, the MC in my WIP is the young single mother of a toddler, which she conceived as the result of being gang raped in a raid on her village. She suffers from PTSD and has trust issues because of this. I’ve never experienced any abuse in any form, so she and I are very different in that sense, because our backgrounds are so vastly different. However, I am the mother of a toddler son, just like she is, so I used my experiences as a mother and my relationship with my son as a basis for her interactions with her son. I then use my imagination to fill in the gaps between my experiences and hers. Using this approach gives my MC’s different personalities while still having a sense of realism to them.

  2. I love this post (and the prompts as well)! Really insightful. Creating an original character is daunting, and it’s wonderfully encouraging to realize the potential within our imaginations and our own personalities. I finished a manuscript a couple months ago, and (sometimes intentionally, sometimes subconsciously) created my MC as a blend of character traits from myself, my sisters, and a friend. She also is, to a degree, a product of her circumstances, which are unusual, and I threw in some character traits that I WISH I had, that seemed to suit her. For example, I struggle with being a little too timid socially, and tend to keep my interactions with people very polite and shallow. My MC is blunt and practical while interacting with others almost to a fault. The result is a unique character, with a lot of personality.
    Realizing our potential – our VASTNESS – is a huge step toward more confident creativity!

    • Katerpillar43 says:

      Me, as well! My last novel was mainly dialogue and set in medieval times, so I had lots of fun writing witty arguments.

  3. Katerpillar43 says:

    This was very helpful!
    I just started a new novel, and I’m having trouble developing my MC. While it’s a fascinating idea to make a character like or very different from yourself, how do you go about this when your MC is the opposite gender? By default, he’s already different from me, and I don’t quite understand him. Also, as I’m writing in first person, what changes between the narrative voice of a boy and girl?
    Thank you for all of your awesome posts and books!! They really helped me through my last novel.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’ve written two related posts, which you can find by clicking on the “gender perspective” category and the “writing gender” category.

    • Gail, I figured out how to get a picture to show up for my avatar! You have to have a WordPress.com account and assign a picture to the e-mail address you use when leaving comments.

      My problem was that I had an account set up with e-mail address “A” but was leaving comments with e-mail address “B.” Added that address and assigned it a picture… presto! Problem solved. 🙂

  4. Erica Eliza says:

    Wow, this is my favorite post in a long time. Thanks for saying that not everybody has hobbies. I don’t really have hobbies beyond reading and writing, so whenever people who don’t consider writing a hobby ask me, the conversation is either awkward or downright rude.
    Also, I just started reading Lost Kingdom or Bamarre and I love it!

  5. Bookfanatic102 says:

    I love writing and this will really help me with my characters! (I’m writing a story and having a little trouble with the characters this will really help!) Thank you!

  6. Another question — I have trouble faulting my characters. I’m not sure why, but I just can’t give them faults. Maybe it is because I dislike faulting people in real life. I’m not sure. Does anyone else have this problem? Does anyone have any suggestions?
    Thanks!

    • Would it help to think of traits as tools that can be either good or bad, based on how you look at them? Is being shy a flaw or a good quality? It depends. Ambition? Bad if you trample people to get where you’re going, good if you’re working toward a goal despite setbacks. My second book has a kingdom of people who are extremely loyal: it’s good because they did not join the villains, it’s bad because they are unpleasant to outsiders and refuse to help other kingdoms.

      Your characters probably should make mistakes, and those mistakes should stem from their character, but they can come from “good” traits as well as bad ones. My MC is too trusting, which allows a betrayal. A selfless character can get burned out, or accidently help the wrong person, or get taken advantage of.

      • Update! I’ve tried a bit of this with my MC in my WIP. I tried writing a scene where my MC learns that his coach wants to marry his aunt, who is his only living relative. I tried seeing him react in a lot of different ways, and decided that the way I liked best was by using a fault I made up for him on the spot. I made him act spontaneously and angrily. It worked out way better than I would have imagined, and I’m really pleased!
        Thank you so much, this was really helpful!

    • I imagine that my characters are actors auditioning for parts in a play, and that they want to play the characters with interesting faults, because it’s a more interesting challenge. And more fun.

  7. Erica Eliza says:

    Gail, I just finished reading The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre and I loved it! Especially the Moses elements and Perry-as-Nadira. I liked it so much, I took pictures of the pages so I could pull my phone out at work and sneak a page or two. People, you have to read this. Drualt from Two Princesses gets a backstory!
    Also, is Perry bad at oratory because Moses in the Old Testament is described as slow of speech?

  8. Bookfanatic102 says:

    Does anyone have any ideas about knight names? I need three I’m writing a story and I can’t figure out names for them, I looked online but everything I found there was stupid.

        • So, like William the Conqueror or Alexander the Great, from history?
          You could also look at “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”. Peter the Magnificent, Susan the Fair, Edmund the Just, and Lucy the Valiant (I think). Maybe other virtues would help: the Peaceful, the Ambitious, the Benevolent, the Brave, the Courteous, the Diligent, the Eloquent, the Faithful, the Industrious, the Loyal, the Persistent, the Pious, the Prudent, the Zealous.

          First names should be pretty easy. I’d suggest looking at names from Shakespeare or history. William, Edward, Robert, Gareth, Oliver, Henry…

  9. I read the story, Melissa Mead and really enjoyed it! I agree with what Christie V Powell said about the character slowly unfolding. It made her even more interesting. Looking forward to your next story! : )

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