A Writer’s Guide to Understanding People by K.M. Weiland - Usa
“Write three-dimensional characters.” “Bring your characters to life.” “Create realistic human experiences.” These ditties of writing advice are so common they’re almost clichés. But how can you fulfill these dictums to write “real characters” without first mastering the even more foundational principle of understanding people?
Recently, I received an email from a reader, which raised a question so pertinent, so obvious, and yet so overlooked that I felt it worthwhile to answer it in a blog post. He wrote:
After searching though your archives, I have been unable to find an article on the subject of people. Chief among the advice given to fiction writers is to have well-developed characters, and often included is the suggestion that one should listen to people, learn how they speak, act, and react.
I do not understand people. Why they react the way they do, why they say what they say—these are not things that I have been able to measure or bottle. Oh, I have listened to plenty of strangers speak in quiet coffee shops, true enough. Psychology offers interesting material to sift through, but I have found that it is only helpful to a point.
My question then, after the less than concise outpouring of words above, is this:
How did you learn about people and their behavior thoroughly enough to craft believable characters? Is there advice you would give to any of us struggling in this area?
The theories and techniques of writing fiction offer many refined ideas about how to convey realistic and charismatic characters on the page. All of these approaches necessarily reflect certain understandings of how people “work.” Because all stories, even the most fantastic, seek to provide a simulacrum of reality, every technique is at least nominally founded on the idea of, first, understanding people and, second, conveying that understanding with accuracy.
But as the email points out, it’s easy (maybe even inevitable) for us to get the cart confused with the horse. In part, this is because as humans ourselves, most of us take for granted that we understand people far more than we actually do. In even larger part, I think it is because most of us are using our writing, whether consciously or unconsciously, not so much as a way to reveal what we understand about people, but rather as a way to figure out ourselves, our fellows, and our existence as a whole.
Today, let’s take a more conscious approach to investigating how we can enhance our ability to understand people on our way to writing better and more realistic characters.
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