In today’s article, Eric Kuentz gives us advice on creating well-rounded and interesting characters, by writing ourselves into them.
Just Like Everyone Else
You are universal. Your life is universal. Your life happens just like everyone else’s. Your feelings are just like mine. Well, not exactly like mine, that’s what makes us individuals; but your ‘happy’ is very similar to my ‘happy’. The things that happen to you, happen to us all… just from a different perspective. We all have pleasure, we all have pain, we all relate emotionally to similar events or stimuli.
This is the basis for writing a relatable character.
Noted psychologist, Carl Jung, postulated the idea of archetypes, “innate universal psychic dispositions that form the substrate from which the basic symbols or representations of unconscious experience emerge.” Basically, there are types of characters and events that we can all immediately recognize and relate to. This was an extension of his theory of the collective unconscious, universal ideas that we are all born inherently knowing and recognizing. They are universally recognizable because we all experience these traits similarly, across cultures and across time.
Harnessing the Universal
If you haven’t yet seen “George Lucas in Love”, I highly recommend it. It is probably the best 9 minutes you will spend on a film about writing. Following the process of a young college student desperate to find an idea for his thesis film, a budding George Lucas, as played by Martin Hynes, learns that the best characters and situations are based on real life.
Which of us hasn’t been that struggling young writer at the daunting blank page? Who hasn’t sought the muse out of desperation or deadline? What writer hasn’t struggled to find how to make a character feel more… relatable?
Charlie Kaufman experienced this when he wrote “Adaptation”. While adapting a novel into a screenplay, Kaufman experienced a heavy case of writer’s block. He ended up writing a film about a writer trying to adapt a novel into a screenplay. Not only that, but he wrote himself in as the writer… twice: once as Charlie Kaufman, the struggling writer, and once as his twin brother, Donald (who is ironically also given a writing credit on the film despite being completely fictitious). Life imitates art imitating life imitating art.
But drawing on that personal struggle worked, and earned both Kaufmans (yes, even the fictitious Donald) an Oscar nomination.
“Write What You Know”
Shakespeare famously wrote that “all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” What he was referencing was that each of us plays a character in life.
This character that we play is no different than a character that we may write. There is a back-story in our history and our memories; there are quirks and personality traits; there are goals and ambitions for the future. You are a perfect example of a character. So how do you go about using that as inspiration?
Let’s say I’m writing a story about a deranged madman with a predilection for explosives and a police detective trying to stop him. I certainly have no police training, I know very little about explosives other than they blow up, and I would hope that I don’t meet the criteria to be considered a deranged madman… though some of my friends might disagree. How am I to write this story?
For those detailed elements of the story I will need to do some research. However, the madman’s disgust with society and his obsessive tendencies I can draw from my own life. While I may not be predisposed to explosives, I can draw on my minor OCD tendencies for his explosive fixation. I am not an angry or deranged person, but I have felt the sting of disappointment at times, be it from a bad breakup or not getting the job I really wanted, and I can imagine what it would be like to be stuck feeling that pain all the time.
Boil It Down
Self-inventory in this manner acts as a crucible in which to boil down elements of our life, isolating them and concentrating them to their purest form. Using that concentrated element as a trait for a character makes them universally understandable.
All good stories are filled with extreme versions of humanity: heroics are larger than everyday good deeds, and villainy is the downside of society taken to the Nth degree. When we read a story we often relate these larger-than-life events to occurrences in our own life, this makes them relatable. As a writer we must reverse that process. Magnifying the events and traits that make up your life, boiling them down to a concentrated, basic form makes them pure, makes them relatable, and makes your life – in general terms – just like mine. We are the same, you and I. In these general terms I can relate to you, and you can relate to me. We are universal.
“You are unique… just like everyone else.”
The wise words of Margaret Mead. Remember them, and they will help your writing.
How have you used yourself in your writing? Do your characters reflect the person you are? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Between his job as a video editor and his hobby as a digital creative, Eric Kuentz thrives on the continuous quest for self-improvement.