If you ask any writer what the biggest mistake a new writer can make is, they’ll give you a ton of different answers. There’s stuff about technicalities of writing newbies all seem to do (trust me, so did I), there are different plot mistakes, and there are things with characters.
The one I’ll say is the biggest mistake with characters that most, if not all, newbies make is writing a character that is essentially themselves. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You can understand the character, get into their heads, make them well-rounded because obviously you’re a real, well-rounded person.
BUT, 1) You’ll probably end up with characters that come out flat because you won’t bother to develop them, since you already know yourself and don’t think any extra “explanation” is needed. And 2) All your characters will be the same person, which gets real boring, real fast.
For my first book, the main character was basically me. You should see my early writings, I made all the stereotypical newbie mistakes. Actually, you shouldn’t see it. It was all pretty bad.
I’m not saying you can’t have characters who share pieces of you. These come out of you, they are your “children” so obviously they share some of your qualities. But they have to be their own people, kind of like children are.
So how do you do it? How do you make up these characters, get in their heads, make a voice (which is extremely important in first person POV since the voice is what really makes the story and is pretty much the point of writing in first-person POV).
I pick a characteristic that is nothing like me and go from there. You’d be surprised how easily a character is built once you have one thing you can grab and say, “this isn’t me, so I’ll build from that.”
My main characters who are out right now are Cassandra, Evie, and Ariana. They all are strong women who mess with magic and solve crimes/get into magical mischief, but they are different, they are their own people.
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Cassandra was an experiment years ago where I started with a Catholic girl who was very good vs. evil, black and white, and the good and just will always triumph. I am not a religious person. I have a very hard time believing in an absolute morality. So I made a character who did.
Now, this was just the basis, her religion doesn’t come out a lot in the story and hit you over the head, but it is the basis of her morality and thus, a lot of her decisions, and she turned into a well rounded, if sometimes judgmental and goody-two-shoes, character.
For Evie, I picked someone who identified herself as part of an ethnic group. Evie is a strong, proud Jewish woman. For her, I got a lot of her personality from my bf and from a friend who is a strong, proud Jewish woman. I don’t identify as any ethnicity or really connect to my roots since I’m kind of a general mutt. I have Irish, Scottish, British, Jewish and Nordic in me, and I didn’t come from a family that identified as anything in particular besides American. So pulling on that ethnic pride and humor makes Evie a distinct and real person.
And then there’s Ariana. I am not an extrovert. I am so much not an extrovert that just standing in a room with people at work exhausts me, even if I don’t have to talk to them. It takes energy for me to be with people. Sometimes I have it. Sometimes I don’t. Ariana is an extrovert.
She is a perky, blonde cheerleader who is ever optimistic and everything will come out sunny side up and gets depressed if she’s alone too long. She’s so sweet and effervescent sometimes she annoys me when I’m writing her. She has a strong voice because of this. Because she is sooooo not me.
So if you’re trying to shape a character, or going back and editing and wondering why the character doesn’t ring true or particularly original, maybe try giving them some characteristics that are so not you, and see what comes of it.