Authors Answer 3 – Character Beliefs

I have to let you know that this is the 666th post on this blog.  And what a wonderful coincidence that there is something that matches this week’s question very well.  Common in fantasy fiction, we often have an all powerful antagonist, and sometimes they are demons.

Codex_Gigas_devil

Question 3: How difficult do you find it to write characters who have vastly different beliefs than you?

Amy Morris-Jones

Okay, so in full disclosure, I’m not sure I’ve really written a character yet who has a vastly different belief system than I do. I’ve written characters with different genders, ages, educations, and socioeconomic classes, but those characters still bear my own Midwest sensibilities.

The closest I can come to answering this question is with regard to a short story project that I’m currently researching. Several years ago, an event happened in my small town in which people’s values were challenged by a family who “saw things differently” (how’s that for vague?!). My goal is to fictionalize the events, but I still want to explore  how these issues of difference, “us” versus “them,” permeate everything we do.

The challenge I face in writing this piece is more of an external one than an internal one. I believe I can write this story with an open mind, but I am very much a product of that same small town where the events occurred and I feel a sense of obligation to that community to be respectful of their position, too.

Wish me luck!

Caren Rich

Depends.  I haven’t written any characters with different religious beliefs.  Or rather I haven’t dug deep into those beliefs yet.  I have written characters with different morals and values before.  Quite a bit actually.  It’s not too difficult.  I’m not writing myself, I’m writing about a character I created.  I have stopped mid sentence and wondered if people will think I’m writing about myself, I think that’s a risk most writers take.

What I try to do is make sure the character stays true.  I have a character who’s controlling and a bully.  I have another one who’s an adulterer and one that’s a drug addict.  I am none of those things and would rather die than be a party to it.  But I really enjoy writing those characters.

I will admit that writing allows me to investigate different lifestyles.  Similar to role playing or acting.  The characters are real, in my head.  They are closer to friends or family and I want them to be true to who they are.  Writing allows them to do that.  In a way, it’s a little freeing for me, I can live darker fantasies through my characters.  I can write about a controlling psychopath without getting my hands dirty.

I don’t write about different religious beliefs.  I purposely hang back from that.  There are other things I refuse to write about because I don’t want my name attached to it and because I wouldn’t want to read it.  Basically, I write what I want to write.

D. T. Nova

Now this is a good question. And one that any author writing a story where a character’s beliefs change should make sure they take into consideration.

Strictly sticking to the word “belief” as I would use it, what a character considers to be true or false (and let’s also include what they think about the nature of truth itself and how important it is, because there are things someone couldn’t believe without disagreeing with me on that), my answer is “not difficult at all”.

Religion is not an exception. I don’t have any difficulty writing characters who believe things I don’t about gods, miracles, or prophets, precisely because I don’t make any important character a stereotype of their religion. I know that stereotypes are a kind of laziness themselves, but making a main character a stereotype would require getting into the head of a very specific mindset, while recognizing that every person is an individual means less time spent on avoiding a type of “inaccuracy” that isn’t actually any kind of problem.

But some people use “belief” to mean all the practices and rules associated with a religion, as in “telling me to not discriminate against gay people is disrespectful to my beliefs”. And based on my experience, I do tend to mostly associate this usage with people like that example; people who are looking for an excuse to claim that their own intolerance is itself something that people are unfairly intolerant of. Anyway, I don’t like using the word “belief” to mean this, but what little I’ve written that involved religious practices or restrictions wasn’t particularly hard either.

As for things like actually hating gay people, antagonists like that probably are the hardest kind of character I’ve tried to write.

Elizabeth Rhodes

In the past, I had trouble with this.  I was just starting out as a writer in high school, and began fleshing out characters and ideas with a friend through role-plays that turned into multiple novellas.  After a while she pointed out that I had a tendency to be too “uptight” with my characters – I didn’t want them to do anything wrong, or at least anything that I didn’t personally agree with.  Meanwhile, she wrote about demons who quite literally tore my characters to shreds.  It was a big wake up call for me.  Now, with my tendency to write with religious themes and shades-of-gray morality, it would be hard for me not to make my characters do or think things I didn’t agree with.

H. Anthe Davis

So far, I don’t feel like I’ve had much difficulty in writing characters who don’t share my beliefs.  In fact, I’m pretty sure none of my characters share my beliefs!  For me, it comes down to understanding how a character got those beliefs and why they hold on to them, and then letting them clash naturally with those who think differently.  Most everyone wants to be doing the good-and-right thing; even selfish people are selfish for a reason, whether it be out of self-defense or a feeling that others are deficient and undeserving.  So it’s just a matter of figuring out what ‘good-and-right’ means to each character.

Jean Davis

I enjoy exploring other ways of thinking through characters. It’s interesting to think outside yourself, discover how a character might respond very differently than myself based on the beliefs I’ve outlined for them.

Coming up with that belief system and understanding how a character would act based upon it does take more thought and time than one based on a system similar to what I am familiar with. As long as the story calls for it, that time is worth the effort to attempt to create a thought-provoking character.

Linda G. Hill

I absolutely love writing characters with opposing beliefs to mine. It allows me to delve into different ways of thinking that I wouldn’t otherwise even contemplate. Psychology intrigues me like nothing else. Discovering and uncovering what makes people tick is a constant occupation of mine – beliefs are part of what make people do the things they do.

Paul B. Spence

I usually don’t find it difficult at all.  As an anthropologist, I’m trained in cultural relativism, which is another way of saying “It’s all good.”  The only time I have difficulty is in the occasional scene from the point of view of the antagonists because I do believe that there is such a thing as evil.  You don’t have to be religious to know right from wrong, and characters who do bad things for the wrong reasons are difficult to write.

S. R. Carrillo

Pretty difficult in the beginning, but as I begin to flesh out their design and their background, etc., they come to life on their own. When I work to have a character think things differently than I do, it’s a work in progress that I draw on outside sources for – how someone I know reacted and what they believed comes into play a lot.

Tracey Lynn Tobin

Extremely. I find it extremely difficult.

When I was a kid I used to write stories about my friends and I going on grand adventures and the like. I was always the main character, so of course the story always reflected myself, my dreams, my beliefs. As I got older I began to realize that I was turning myself into a “Mary Sue” character and that maybe, just maybe, I should try making up some characters instead. My writing got better instantaneously, but there was still always that problem of separating myself from the character. I regularly (by accident, of course) infuse my characters with my own opinions, have them follow a thought process that is very clearly mine, and design them to hold similar beliefs and values to myself. Often, the editing process for me involves a total overhaul of my main character to make sure that they are themselves instead of me with a different face.

The hardest part for me is religious belief. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to write a religious character as my main character because I’m atheist. I grew up in a Catholic family and I know enough about religion to be capable of writing someone with religious beliefs, but I think I would wind up disliking the character so much that I wouldn’t be able to continue.

(As an aside, it’s not that I dislike religious people; I’m actually very tolerant of other people’s beliefs. But I think you have to have a connection with your main character, and I would have a hard time connecting with a character who thought the exact opposite of what I think.)

Jay Dee Archer

It’s pretty easy to write characters that have the same beliefs as me, but then they’d all sound like clones of me.  But I find it interesting to write characters that are vastly different than I am.  But it’s not the easiest thing to do.  I think the biggest problem is making that character’s behaviour and beliefs exaggerated or stereotyped.  That’s the kind of thing that needs to be avoided.

I’m not religious, but I find religions fascinating.  Politically, I’m quite liberal, but I find it interesting to write a conservative character.  It seems that with fantasy, it’s easier to write characters that have different beliefs than I do, because they live in societies that are vastly different.  I can make everything up.  However, if it takes place around our time on Earth, it’s more difficult.  They have to be believable.

How about you?

What do you think about writing characters with different beliefs than you?  Do you find it difficult or easy?  And who do you agree with the most?  Leave your answer in the comments below.

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20 thoughts on “Authors Answer 3 – Character Beliefs”

  1. Reblogged this on The War of Memory Project and commented:
    Another edition of Authors Answer, in which we tackle the topic of writing characters with beliefs that don’t coincide with ours. Personally, if I was to pick the character of mine who most agreed with my beliefs, I’d probably pick a villain. So let’s just leave it at that…

  2. I find it quite easy to write characters who are very different in nature and character from myself. I have held a great number of different types of jobs over my life and have encountered a great variety of character and personality types. Plus my work as a PI trained me to make careful observations of others, including both their overt behavior and their (often) covert motivations. As a matter of fact it also taught me the importance of thinking like another person, since often only in this way was I able to successfully investigate the behaviors and situations surrounding these individuals.

    So I can very often write about people whose character and nature and behavior would be either diametrically opposed to my own, or whose conduct and motivations would be entirely alien to my own.

    That being said, however, I also learned an interview and interrogation technique which gives me an advantage in this respect.

    I used to often “walk” criminals (or their associates) through an interview (regardless of whether they knew they were being interviewed, interrogated, or investigated – or not) by describing their probable behavior in terms that I might be able to justify in my own conduct. That is I would begin with small and innocuous behaviors and describe to the other person how I might do the same thing under the same circumstance (regardless of whether I would or not) and then ask them something to the effect of, “is that how you would do it?”

    To which they would often reply, “Yeah man, I’d do that too (establishing rapport), but.. you know, I might also do that.” (This is hardly an original trick, but there are original and unique ways of pulling this trick.)

    At that point I would draw out their, “but… that.” Which often led to a cache of new investigative leads without the suspect even knowing what they were truly disclosing. (Depended on how well-practiced or naturally suspicious a criminal they were.)

    I practice this same technique in character development. I pretend in my mind that I am covertly interviewing a character (they don’t realize they are being interviewed) and then in the course of the conversation I say, “yeah, I’ve been there… I did that.” Then I listen to them and if they expound upon my statements with a response like, “yeah, I might do that too, but I think the best way to do that is…” Then you listen to what they say. Because they will tell you what they would do differently from you and often they’ll tell you why.

    And often they won’t even realize why they said that or even really understand what they said. But f you become practiced at listening then you’ll see how really different they are from you and why and in what distinct ways.

    Now, all of that being said I still prefer (as protagonists in any case) to develop characters who have at least some character or nature or at least personality traits in common with me. Because even when you understand that another individual has motives entirely different from your own it is not always easy to understand why they have those motives.

    I (and I am hardly alone in this position) used to say all of the time, “You can know precisely when, and where, and how, and what a guy did, but you can never know exactly why. Only he and God know that. And maybe even God don’t really wanna know. But I’ll never know. Thank God.”

    But if I can write a character who would do something totally different from me, who would behave in a manner totally alien to my own behavior, then I know I’ve got a guy whose motivations and nature and personality will be totally different than my own. That guy will usually be an antagonist, but you never know.

    One thing will be certain – he won’t care what I or anyone else thinks of him. Neither do I to be honest. That is to say, I don’t care what others think of me.

    The difference will come in the fact that he won’t care what others think of his behavior either, whereas I do care about how I behave.

    And I think that is the real point of departure.

    1. Thanks for the very detailed comment. And very interesting, as well. I work in an industry where I meet many different kinds of people, and I’m able to learn to handle different personalities. I was also a supervisor in a call centre once, and I had to be able to understand different personalities when giving them feedback. That’s very helpful with developing characters.

  3. Reblogged this on Wyrdwend and commented:
    THE REAL POINT OF DEPARTURE

    I find it quite easy to write characters who are very different in nature and character from myself. I have held a great number of different types of jobs over my life and have encountered a great variety of character and personality types. Plus my work as a PI trained me to make careful observations of others, including both their overt behavior and their (often) covert motivations. As a matter of fact it also taught me the importance of thinking like another person, since often only in this way was I able to successfully investigate the behaviors and situations surrounding these individuals.

    So I can very often write about people whose character and nature and behavior would be either diametrically opposed to my own, or whose conduct and motivations would be entirely alien to my own.

    That being said, however, I also learned an interview and interrogation technique which gives me an advantage in this respect.

    I used to often “walk” criminals (or their associates) through an interview (regardless of whether they knew they were being interviewed, interrogated, or investigated – or not) by describing their probable behavior in terms that I might be able to justify in my own conduct. That is I would begin with small and innocuous behaviors and describe to the other person how I might do the same thing under the same circumstance (regardless of whether I would or not) and then ask them something to the effect of, “is that how you would do it?”

    To which they would often reply, “Yeah man, I’d do that too (establishing rapport), but.. you know, I might also do that.” (This is hardly an original trick, but there are original and unique ways of pulling this trick.)

    At that point I would draw out their, “but… that.” Which often led to a cache of new investigative leads without the suspect even knowing what they were truly disclosing. (Depended on how well-practiced or naturally suspicious a criminal they were.)

    I practice this same technique in character development. I pretend in my mind that I am covertly interviewing a character (they don’t realize they are being interviewed) and then in the course of the conversation I say, “yeah, I’ve been there… I did that.” Then I listen to them and if they expound upon my statements with a response like, “yeah, I might do that too, but I think the best way to do that is…” Then you listen to what they say. Because they will tell you what they would do differently from you and often they’ll tell you why.

    And often they won’t even realize why they said that or even really understand what they said. But f you become practiced at listening then you’ll see how really different they are from you and why and in what distinct ways.

    Now, all of that being said I still prefer (as protagonists in any case) to develop characters who have at least some character or nature or at least personality traits in common with me. Because even when you understand that another individual has motives entirely different from your own it is not always easy to understand why they have those motives.

    I (and I am hardly alone in this position) used to say all of the time, “You can know precisely when, and where, and how, and what a guy did, but you can never know exactly why. Only he and God know that. And maybe even God don’t really wanna know. But I’ll never know. Thank God.”

    But if I can write a character who would do something totally different from me, who would behave in a manner totally alien to my own behavior, then I know I’ve got a guy whose motivations and nature and personality will be totally different than my own. That guy will usually be an antagonist, but you never know.

    One thing will be certain – he won’t care what I or anyone else thinks of him. Neither do I to be honest. That is to say, I don’t care what others think of me.

    The difference will come in the fact that he won’t care what others think of his behavior either, whereas I do care about how I behave.

    And I think that is the real point of departure…

  4. Great question. I seek out characters who are vastly different from me. It’s just a lot of fun and a wonderful writing exercise. I wrote a short story from the point of view of a meth addict, one from the POV of a high school student with cerebral palsy, and right now I’m struggling to write a sympathetic character who’s an intelligent college girl struggling to find a cosmopolitan identity with her roots as a fundamentalist Christian (and she’s just a side character).

    It’s not hard to get the main aspects of the character down, to get that voice started. The hard part is staying in it and remaining consistent. For each story I have many, many people read it. When I got back comments for the story about the meth head, they were: “I don’t think he’d say boobs. How about tits?” Things like that. Another reader pointed out that at times he sounded professorial, so I had to take out the Freud reference. It’s impossible to avoid those little clues that give the author away unless you revise a million times and have everyone you know read it.

    1. Good point. Consistency is a difficult thing to maintain. I read a book recently where a character’s personality changed far too much over the course of only a month. Not very convincing, and I ended up really disliking the character.

  5. Excellent question and amazing straightforward answers from your authors!

    I still struggle with creating believable characters – being new to fiction writing. Had an AHA moment a couple months back as I was using a “worksheet” for character development to help my paper cutout and wooden stick characters become more lifelike.

    When I read, I really get into the characters in a well written story. When I TRY to develop a character, I tried to emulate what I had read, instead of tapping into what I know and feel and believe.

    The AHA: Letting my own beliefs and spiritual and religious experience out of the “politically correct” or “protected” area much of the professional world required me to stuff them for most of my adult life is a necessary first step to writing believably about others beliefs and experiences.

    So, I’m more than just a few steps behind your authors still, struggling with expressing MY OWN beliefs first. Sigh.

    I’m guessing once I can uncork that genie, writing other people’s beliefs will be much easier…

    Am loving growing-through-writing in the process…

    Thanks again, Jay. Great post and awesome responses.

    1. Getting away from being politically correct can be a difficult thing, I think. But I read so many books where the characters are far from politically correct, and often do some pretty offensive things. That’s one thing that goes through my mind while I’m developing characters. I want them to do shocking things.

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