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Writing Advice: How To Write Unrelatable Characters
I’m sure I’ve written about this before, but it seems to come up a lot, and in my Writing Effective Characters panel at TFF (which went very well!), a variation of this question came up three separate times. So here goes: How do you convincingly write a character that you do not relate to?
There’s two main parts to my answer. The first is that you may not relate to a character—meaning you don’t agree with their decisions or actions, you don’t perceive the world in the same way—but that doesn’t mean you can’t understand them.
As an illustration, I’ll use the example I used in my panel. Let’s say there’s a billionaire, we’ll call him E.M., and he grew up in a foreign country and is now in the news constantly because his bets on his own intellect and judgment, which paid off early on in his life, now seem to be, let’s say, not going so well. You can and probably should look at every decision he makes and think, “Wow, I would not do that.” But if you examine the pattern of them and learn his history, you can start to put together what drives those decisions. Oh, you’ll say, this is someone who is desperate for people to think he’s smart and cool. There is good and bad to this! Someone who wants people to think he’s smart will have to learn at least enough to be able to fake it in some areas. If he wants people to think he’s cool, he will have to do cool things. Some of those things might turn out to be good and useful, or have good and useful by-products (for example, he might push an electric car that, by itself, is not that good, but in so doing he might motivate other car manufacturers to put out electric cars, revitalizing a segment of the industry that had been going nowhere). But the drive to be seen as cool can be a frustrating one if you lose sight of who the “cool kids” are that you’re supposed to be impressing. It can drive you to do things like overreach yourself, think you’re smarter or more prepared than you are, and refuse to acknowledge your failures.
Ahem. The point of this is not to scrutinize a particular hypothetical person’s accomplishments or lack thereof. It’s to give you a concrete example of someone you probably can’t relate to, and a window into understanding why that person acts the way they do. You’re not a billionaire and you (probably) haven’t designed an electric car, but you have probably (if not, good for you) at some point in your life wanted to impress someone and worked hard to figure out how to do that. Maybe you had a crush and you learned a sport or took up a hobby so that you could share an interest. If you can access that feeling again, you can write a character motivated by that feeling.
I am going to assume that villains are the hardest for people to write, because most of my lovely readers are not very villainous, and also because so many villains are cardboard cutouts of Bad. “Because they’re evil!” is not a very good motivation for a villain. “Because they want power!” is not much better. Why do they want power? What do they think it will bring them? Validation? Satisfaction? Love? The best villains have motivations that we understand and, on some level, relate to, because they match feelings that we’ve had from time to time—we just don’t let them dominate or dictate our actions.
And this is the second part of my answer: once you understand a character, you can almost always find a way to relate to them. Even if you would never do the things they did, there’s a small part of you that gets it. I don’t fully relate to all my characters, not by a long shot, but for all of them there’s at least a small piece of me that gets why they do what they do. Find that piece in yourself, and your characters will be more rounded and believable.
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