Writing Characters With Different Personalities From Your Own

3 years ago | unice5656 (Moderator)

Hi everyone! I haven't introduced myself yet (due to being an awkward penguin), but I've been lurking in these forums for a couple of weeks.

A little about me: I've been writing a web serial as a hobby for about three years now. I'm not looking to become a professional author, but still try to publish high-quality, enjoyable writing. Due to school (but mostly procrastination), I only publish a chapter a month on average. I write mostly light-hearted stuff. The main project I work on is an episodic comedic adventure, while I frequently work on side projects that end up being fantasy adventure with an extra-heavy dose of non-mature-sickeningly-sweet romance.

I've been quite impressed with the thoughtful and helpful responses people have posted to other people's questions, so when I encountered a problem in my own writing, I thought I'd post it here:

How do you write realistic characters whose personalities are significantly different from your own?

I'm not asking for a simple 1-2-3 set of instructions, of course. I'd just like to know if people have ways they approach this problem or any tricks they can share.

To specify the exact problem I've run into:
Most of my characters are patterned after facets of my own personality, sometimes mixed with those of people I know very well. This generally works out pretty well, as my characters have strongly rooted thought patterns and traits that are consistent with their behaviour throughout the story. I generally have enough to work with that my characters aren't all identical, though one of my more insightful readers did leave a complaint that all my characters are variations on the standard good guy.

The main kind of character that I can't write is the socially skilled extrovert (because I'm an awkward penguin). You know, the kind of person that can strike up a conversation with a stranger and have that person relaxed and smiling within a few minutes.

The main ways I pick up insight into characters who are different from me are from reading tons of books by authors who are skilled at such characterization, observing people (in a non-creepy way) in real life, and reading Psychology Today (though that's mostly just for fun, not research).
The first way is out because socially competent extroverts are never the main character in books that I've read. Observing such people and reading Psychology today has allowed me to somewhat understand how extroverts differ from introverts. However, this understanding is insufficient to get me through a dialogue scene where I have to generate small talk.

I'm definitely not the kind of person who initiates small talk in real life. I'm not satisfied with generic topics such as the weather because the people who are truly good at conversation don't bring those up. Someone who's truly good with people will create a naturally flowing conversation that sensitively mixes observations and insightful questions in a way that allows them to learn about their conversational partner without ever feeling intrusive. Like an idiot, I stuck a character like that into one of my projects; I've been stuck on a dialogue scene for that project for weeks now.

I tried asking my sister about this, because she's almost my exact opposite and is very socially competent. She said, "They share things about themselves and ask questions to try to find a common point and make people feel more comfortable." That seems about right. I feel like I'm about 60% of the way there to being able to write the scene.

Wow, this was a long post. If anyone has any tips on how they approach the psychology of characters not based on themselves, or is actually really good at small talk, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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Responses

  1. Scott Scherr (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    Hello, nice to meet you. I've not been on these forums long myself (but I'm trying). In regards to your character question, I think your sister is spot on. I'm not much for small talk myself. I'm a late-night, 'small crowd over coffee at Dennys' guy myself, where the conversations tend to run deep (or at least, I used to be when I had more time). But I'm fortunate to have a job which requires me to converse with all sorts of people with diverse personalities and I know the type you are referring to. They always have something to say and are the first to confidently 'break the ice' and start the conversation (and they can usually say more in one hour than I can manage before noon... lol). But the good ones ask the right questions, probing for common ground to get you talking about what interests you, where as, the shallow ones just want to fill the air with words and don't really talk about anything (and these are the ones usually unnerved by silence). As far as developing characters that are opposite yourself, I would suggest engaging in conversations (on purpose) even with people who don't initially seem to have anything in common with you. You may be surprised to discover that they have more depth than it appears, once you get past the 'weather'. But that's what I do. I make myself readily available to converse with diverse types of people and make mental notes of the various personalities I come across. If you don't have a job that readily places you around people, take advantage of all those small opportunities to engage with people when you're out and about running errands. I've created some of my most enjoyable characters based on fragments of conversations I've had with people that I'm nothing like. It's those little quirks that make us who we are and our characters different and relatable on some level. Just my two cents. Hope it helps ;)

    Author of the apocalyptic series, Don't Feed The Dark. http://freezombienovel.wordpress.com
  2. Psycho Gecko (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    When it comes to villains specifically, people often point to the idea that villains think they're right. Which is true, because everyone thinks they're right. So no matter what someone's doing, even if anyone else can tell it's clearly stupid or a bad move, has to be right to them. If you start from there, you can work on the mental gymnastics that someone has to go through to think they are doing the right thing in that situation.

    I've also recently learned that some people have these simplistic personality types in mind that could be handy to use when making people. It's called the DOPE test, or DOPE Bird 4 Personality Test, something like that. Here's an idea what it's like: http://richardstep.com/self-tests-quizzes/dope-bird-personality-test-printable/

    Like I said, it's simplistic. Plus, even the test acknowledges that a person may not be one thing to the exclusion of all others, and might have scores that are close to equal in 2 or 3 of the areas. It might provide you a little bit of inspiration for figuring all that stuff out.

    Also, when it comes to small talk, sharing a little bit can be a way to elicit a response from someone, just don't overdo it. I don't just mean by discussing your favorite brand of lace panties with a total stranger, either. Just don't do it enough where the conversation is all about you, not if you want to actively engage the other person. Some people will go ahead and talk like that anyway, but trying to get the other person to participate is better for small talk. Also, try and read whatever context clues you're given in the situation. Clothes can indicate interests like hunting, sports, games, comics, TV shows, and so on. If you're talking to someone over the phone and you hear a dog barking, ask them about the dog. Fish for info with questions like "How is your day going?" If it's near the end of the week, ask if they're excited about the weekend and have any plans in mind. If it's a Monday, ask them how their weekend went. Holidays are useful for that, too. A couple days before, the day of, and the day after a holiday all are good times to ask someone about what they are going to do/doing/did on that day.

    I know I'm getting carried away there with examples, but I'll drop one last one that can be handy: try not to ask them yes or no questions. Some people might be more strict on that, but I know that sometimes a question like that will provoke more than a yes or no answer.

  3. TanaNari (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    I like to believe I'm good at writing different voices, and by the opinions of my readers and every empirical measure I appear to be right. I even have word apps that track phrases and language, and use them to make sure I get different voices. Capturing different personalities seems to be what I'm best at.

    First Rule: all human beings are the same. The worst of us, the best of us, we're all *people* and made of the same stuff, our only differences being ones of nuance and extremes. Everyone knows love and hate... it's just a question of how much time we dedicate to one or the other...

    Second Rule: that first rule? Is like saying every song is the same because all music comes from roughly the same notes, used in different patterns and with different intensities. Embrace differences, focus on them where it's useful, but remember to show that everyone is capable of every feeling.

    Third Rule: Steal shamelessly from your personal life. Watch other people and their behavior, then repeat that on paper.

    Fourth Rule: I have no idea how to write other peoples' senses of humor. Seriously. Not a damn clue. All jokes I use are either things *I* find funny... or stuff I've, again, stolen outright. As such, I try to stick to serious stories, drama, and questions of self. Everyone hurts when things are taken from them. A knife will always make someone bleed (used as a weapon, at least). Not everyone will find a given joke funny.

    I have every respect for comedians- because I can't do what they do- so I don't try.

    Author of Price.
  4. David Whitechapel (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    Something you can do, which seems a slightly odd thing to do, I'll admit, is use a phone or somesuch to record a conversation involving your sister, or someone else who's conversationally competent like you want your char to be, and then study the sorts of manners of speech and techniques they use at your leisure. It's an interesting study in dialogue to do this with anyone - we speak very differently in voice than in text, full of little hesitations, fragments, and other oddities - but may help you nail down the manner of the socially skillful person you want to portray.

    OK, but to answer your question more directly, I happen to be something of a social butterfly myself - have been ever since I escaped the chrysalis of my school days. And, since I'm a writer, I have also thought a little bit about what exactly I'm doing and saying in social situations. So I can tell you a few things I've observed in myself that might be of interest. This in addition to everything said above, and what your sis said, which all seem spot on. Also note that I've a certain kind of social competence, and there are many others.

    I'm almost always ready to icebreak, and do it fearlessly, in part because I enjoy the novelty of 'awkward' situations just as much as having a nice conversation. I tend to ask people about themselves and hone in on stuff they seem keen to talk more about. I don't do this in a sneaky way either (although one totally could to 'affect' easy conversation) - I do it because I genuinely enjoy hearing people talk about things they care about. Up to a point, of course - no-one likes a bore.

    I tend to manage conversations when I see them going awry, or just requiring a bit of course correction, sometimes even when I'm not directly involved. This is a bit hard to explain, cause many things are going on at once. I think it's a combination of a good ear for conversational flow, a sense of empathy for how people are taking things and how comfortable people are that not everyone shares, and an easy way with words (I don't really get tongue-tied, or nervous, or anything). I tend to invite people into conversation when they are being accidentally left out, I tend to ask the questions that no-one's asking but someone should ask. This is really, really hard to explain in text, agh!

    OK, a specific example of a weird thing I might do, which is pretty much a kind of lie but is fine in context. Let's say I'm at a party and I see two people standing near each other, not talking, and in such a way that I know they don't know each other. Then I might walk up and ask: "Hey, so how do you guys know each other?" Which, of course they don't, and I know that. But now we're talking. So weird little 'lies' like that just to open things up happen.

    Wow, it's pretty awful to list this stuff out, and makes me sound like some kind of social sociopath: at the time, I'm doing it naturally. At least I think I am. o_o

    As you can see, I can ramble on and on and on as well, though I'm far better at not doing this in person because I place a high premium on letting others speak - in fact irl I'll shut down others who might be conversationally dominating others if I feel they're getting too much. Honestly, I could keep going, but I'll stop for now unless you want to know more or anything specific. This is clearly something I've thought about too much!

  5. David Whitechapel (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    Oh, actually, I did want to say one more thing that isn't just rabbiting about how I talk. I'd be a little wary of the psychological route of creating a character. It can feel false and forced to try and reproduce a specific psychological profile. Not to say psychology's not useful to study (it absolutely is), just that it's something that imo should be generated from strong characterisation, rather than used to generate a character.

  6. unice5656 (Moderator)

    Posted 3 years ago

    Thanks for all your input!

    @Scott: That seems like a good idea. I'm the kind of person that assiduously avoids talking to strangers outside of extremely structured settings because I find it awkward and uncomfortable, but that's something I'll work on.

    @PsychoGecko: The psychological models I use to type personalities are the Meyers-Briggs Pesonality Inventory (I/E-N/S-T/F-P/J) and Big Five personality traits (Openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion-introversion, agreeability, and neuroticism).

    @TanaNari: It seems like our approaches might be quite similar in characterization. People are almost universally driven by deep motivations like survival/self-interest, need for social connectedness, and ambition, but the ways they go about achieving their goals vary infinitely.
    As for the humour thing, I think it's all about seeing normal things from unique perspectives. If you look at the stories stand-up comedians tell, I would say half of them are funny in and of themselves, but the other half are neutral, serious, or even unhappy stories that the comedians reframe into a humorous context. Not that I'm particularly good at this; my own sense of humour tends towards puns, situational comedy, and silliness.

    @David: Haha, I don't think you're a sociopath. The kind of behaviour you're describing sounds a lot like what my sister would do. The ability to read people and respond accordingly is pretty much the same between sociopaths and socially skilled people, but the motivation behind your sneaky behaviour is different, hahaha.
    The problem for me is that socially skilled people do what they do quite intuitively. They can't lay out the process of small talk into concrete steps, because there aren't any. Conversation can go in so many different directions, it's like a chess match. The way you analyzed some of the behaviours you do is quite helpful, so thanks :)
    I don't actually create psychological profiles of my characters; the sociological and psychological models I learn about are just ways of enhancing my understanding of people in general, in addition to my real-life observations. They obviously can't quantify a person perfectly, or else there would only be one model, but they help me identify patterns of behaviour and groups of traits that often cluster together.

  7. Sten Düring (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    Being an extrovert myself I know of at least one archetypical difference from the introverts.

    In a social situation we tend to say what the introverts think -- sometimes with awkward results... Basically it's a matter of running your mouth before you turn on your brain. It helps that life isn't fair. When you're outgoing you get away easier with crap comments compared to if you're shy. I guess people either just expect those 'accidents' or it just gets drowned by the white-noise created by our incessant talking.

    One useful result of our 'accidents' is we DO learn from mistakes. Trust me, it's not all that fun when you blow the mood with an idiot comment, and eventually the extrovert learn to read the mood better. That's what's usually called 'empathy', but really has more to do with survival instinct than anything else. I spew out less moronicity now than when I was younger -- not because I'm a nice guy but because I feel bad when I ruin a conversation.

    Another common trait for extroverts is an overblown selfconfidence. At least when we're in company. Alone we get far too much time to think about what the **** we're doing :D

  8. Sharkerbob (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    I have a really bad habit, especially during co-writes, of a lot of my characters being pretty bland. I'm put off by overly dramatic or excitable characters, so I go the opposite route and make them more reserved and subtle. Unfortunately, this tends to go too far the other way at times, leading to very dull characters if I'm not careful.

    However, one of the best things that helps me create distinct character voices is having several characters talking to each other. This will usually happen naturally as I write, but you can do this with practice exercises as well. As the characters talk, to make the conversation interesting, I'll find there needs to be some variation of character types. In the beginning this may come off a little cliche, but the more you write them, the more they'll settle into the role and grow organically from it.

    What I mean is, as I write the characters in a situation, one character might be the bland, straight one who speaks to the point. One character will start talking more playfully or flirty to make the conversation more interesting. Someone else might be annoyed at this and grumble a complaint. This may lead someone to be a smart-ass for some added levity. If everyone is in a tense or confusing situation, someone is going to end up taking the role of the leader to try and get everyone through.

    Before I know it, even if I initially had the impression that the characters all sounded the same in my head, once I started writing them, the demands of the story to make the scenes interesting and entertaining necessitate the characters to start varying their character voices and cause chemistry to develop.

    I'm not sure how much it will help, but you may want to try writing exercises of this nature. Take several characters and throw them in a situation, be it arguing over toppings on a pizza, having a political debate, fighting a giant robot, whatever. Or take one character, and throw them in a situation that forces them to act in the way you need. If you really need to work on an extrovert, force the character into a position where they have to be extroverted to accomplish their goal. This can at least give you a base to work from.

  9. Psycho Gecko (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    I suppose if you really wanted to get to know a character, you could just ask them who they are: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2ufC2OtH28

    Or perhaps what they want: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0n2vurSBIQ

    As for Sharkerbob's suggestion about arguments, well, it has some merit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZfgWdsppVM

    And don't just think about their arguments. Don't forget to see how they fit with friends: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTJ6KDJSma0

    Ok, so this entry was heavy on the entertainment, but maybe some of those will be handy in reading different characters, particularly one very outgoing person who shows up in a couple.

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