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How do you develop realistic characters who are different from yourself?

It’s time for another of our authors’ Round Robins, and this month the topic is…

helena fairfax, freelance editor, fiction editor
How do you develop a character who is different in personality from all the other characters you have developed, or from yourself?

If you’ve followed my blog for a while you’ll know I’m a big fan of Georgette Heyer and her Regency romances. Heyer is often written off by many as a writer of ‘romantic fluff’, but she wrote 32 novels in this genre, and one of the things I most admire about her is her ability to keep on creating different heroes and heroines for each new book.

The hero of Heyer’s These Old Shades, for example, is ‘Lord Justin Alastair, the notorious Duke of Avon, known for his coldness of manner, his remarkable omniscience, and his debauched lifestyle.’ The hero of Cotillion, in complete contrast, is ‘the kind-hearted and chivalrous Freddy Standen’, who is self-effacing and loves nothing more than a quiet life.

These are just a couple of examples, but Heyer’s heroes’ and heroines’ personalities vary widely throughout her novels.

helena fairfax, freelance editor

Georgette Heyer has been an inspiration to me, and I do try in my own novels not to keep writing the same characters over and over again. I advise other writers on character creation in my job as an editor, but in writing this post I’ve found it really difficult to explain how I go about it myself!

Perhaps the best way to explain is to explore one of my books, and so I’ve chosen Felicity at the Cross Hotel as an example.

Creating character tip one: inspiration

Everything starts with an idea, and I had the inspiration for my heroine, Felicity, after watching a Bollywood film called Jab We Met. The heroine of the film is happy-go-lucky, a chatterbox, sociable and loves to smile. I hadn’t written a character like this before. I loved Geet in the film, and she was my inspiration.

helena fairfax, freelance editor

I’m not like this person at all, by the way! I’m quiet, an introvert, and would never dream of engaging every single person in a railway carriage in conversation, as Geet does, but that’s the fun of creating new characters. You can be someone you aren’t!

And so I went a step further with my heroine. My first ever heroine, Sophie in The Silk Romance, had very little money. This is something I can relate to, as I’ve experienced lots of times when money was a constant source of worry. So, in my quest to copy Georgette Heyer and have all my characters different, I consciously made Felicity the daughter of a millionaire, and someone who has no worries about money at all.

A character with no worries about money sounds like they may not be sympathetic. We all love an underdog. But I made sure Felicity had very real problems of a different sort, so that readers would feel for her.

Creating character tip two: what’s the point of your character?

I don’t find it too hard to find an idea for a character. I have lots of them! But it’s no good populating your story with random ideas, just because you like them. Your characters have to have a purpose. Since I write contemporary romance, you may say my heroine’s purpose is clear: she will meet and fall in love with my hero.

helena fairfax, the silk romance, contemporary romance

But why this particular heroine in this particular book? Why gregarious, happy-go-lucky Felicity, and not the quieter and more contemplative Sophie from The Silk Romance?

Every writer works out the basics of their story in a different way. I like to work out the cause of the romantic conflict right from the start, and for me it’s the cornerstone of my book.

So now I had a cheerful millionaire heroine. And so I made my hero, Patrick, the opposite. Unlike Felicity, he has money worries. In fact, he has a lot of worries that make him seem curmudgeonly and not in the mood to listen to what he feels is rambling chatter.

How to write a character who is different from yourself?

So with Felicity at the Cross Hotel I had two characters who are different from myself. My heroine has a different personality to mine, and my hero is different because, well – he’s a man!

Here is where I find it difficult to describe how I can begin to write these characters. The short answer is ’empathy’. Like a lot of writers, I actually enjoy putting myself in the shoes of my imaginary characters, and to be honest, the more different they are from me, the better. It’s actually fun, and interesting and exciting to be someone else.

helena fairfax fiction set in hotels

It’s only other readers who can say if I’ve succeeded in creating realistic characters in Felicity and Patrick. Sometimes it’s hard as a writer to step outside your own story and judge if your characters are believable, and that’s where a good editor can help.

A literary agent did tell me once that she thought I’d made an excellent job of writing from a male character’s point of view in my hero, Patrick, and that she couldn’t imagine how I’d gone about it. I was really pleased she’d said this!

I enjoy picturing myself in my characters’ worlds, looking out of their eyes; I feel sympathy for their cares and problems, as well as all their joy and happiness on reaching their happy ending.

I’ve really enjoyed this month’s Round Robin. If you’d like to find out what the other authors’ take is on this topic, please click on the links below.

And if you’d like to find out more about my two characters, Felicity and Patrick, you may like to know that Felicity at the Cross Hotel is only 99p/99c on Amazon Kindle at the moment, until 30th July.

20 thoughts on “How do you develop realistic characters who are different from yourself?

  1. Hi Helena, another Georgette Heyer fan here and you’re so right, her ability to create different characters every time is inspiring. Interesting to hear of your practice, too. Empathy – a good tool to have in the box. anne

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    1. I couldn’t think of any other way to describe it, Anne, apart from using empathy. I guess it’s like being an actor, and pretending to be someone else, except you’re acting out your characters on a blank page.
      I’ve enjoyed this topic again. Good to hear from a fellow Georgette Heyer fan. Thanks for dropping in!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have to admit that, since one of my books was biographical, I haven’t had to create that many characters. However, I’d originally thought my other surprise success (THE LEGEND OF JOHN MACNAB) would be an unpublished failure, partly because I didn’t feel like I cared about my characters. I’d have thrown them headlong into a volcano filled to the brim with molten magma if it would have served the plot better! When MACNAB overcame all odds and succeeded, I was VERY surprised to find one kind reviewer had stated I’d created “wonderfully atmospheric and vivid characters.” I suppose if you’re trying to create a character different from yourself, one idea is to find different character traits and work backwards to make them sympathetic on that basis. I gave one guy an antisocial personality disorder…

    Thank God Felicity never met HIM…

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  3. Haha! I like your comment about Felicity and the antisocial guy. One thing about writing my genre is I don’t have to write completely unpleasant characters. My heroes and heroines are all basically likeable people – otherwise, why would anyone fall in love with them? Of course I do have secondary characters who aren’t likeable, but none in the serial killer mode :) I would hate to be inside the head of a thoroughly nasty piece of work throughout an entire novel.
    Thanks for your interesting comment. I love how you would have thrown your characters into a volcano :D

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  4. I started my “reading” career with Georgette Heyer when I first graduated to adult books and she is still one of my favorites. I think she stands out from the Regency Crowd and always has because of the depth of her characters and the reality of their conflicts. My favorite was the Duke in Friday’s Child – all his life overshadowed by his bigger, stronger, more impressive cousin Gideon, yet he manages to step out of that shadow in that story. I’ve also read her six historicals and her portrayal of William the Conqueror was what started my next life long interest in history (which in school was a total drag of memorizing dates and names but the people never seemed real.)

    I’ve been told I do a great job of being in the male POV and I attribute that to a few things: reading dozens of books written BY men and paying attention to the thoughts the put in the characters’ heads, and by just coming out and asking a guy (often my son or brother) what they would think, say, do.And of course, people watching – watch how the men you regularly spend time with behave, listen and pay attention to the way they speak (usually short to the point sentences and nothing like a woman who tends to embellish everything.

    Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Skye, Georgette Heyer’s historical research was excellent, and another thing I love about her is that she doesn’t let it intrude on her stories. You mention her characters’ conflicts, and again, these are really well thought through and they vary from book to book. Coming up with different forms of conflict is not an easy task when writing romance, but she made it look easy.
    I totally agree with you about people watching. It helped me in writing from the male pov that I grew up with four brothers, and I also worked in a male-dominated environment. I was going to write more on my post – about how I think women authors are better at writing male characters than men are at writing from a woman’s point of view – but I ran out of space. So much more to be said!
    It’s been an interesting topic again. Thanks for dropping in, and for your thoughtful comment.

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  6. Yes! Characters are human (unless they’re bunny rabbits or little blue aliens or whatever…!) so there has to be something in them that any other human, including, of course, their author, can relate to and work from. And then we have to have the humility to ask someone who knows more about being that particular kind of human than we do to tell us where we’ve got it wrong.

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    1. Kathleen, my hero in this book is a diver – not something I know anything about! I struggled with my research here, and felt a bit shy about asking people, but I learned something with this book – that people in general are more than happy to help and love to talk about their area of expertise. The divers I spoke to were really helpful, and I gained a lot of confidence about just getting in touch with random people with questions.
      Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that’s true, too, Rhobin. Perfect people don’t exist in real life, and a character with no flaws at all is one-dimensional and hard to believe in.
      Thanks for setting another great topic!

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  7. You know, if your Felicity and Patrick migrated to my computer, there would be immediate conflict with Felicity’s parents. “Obviously dear, he is after your money!”
    :)

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  8. Aha! That would provide some conflict, but in fact, Patrick thinks the family is after buying up his hotel, which twists the idea round. And that raises a good point about romantic conflict. Ideally, the romantic conflict comes from something within the characters themselves, rather than externally. The parents’ disapproval is an external factor – and I’d like to hope my heroines would rise above that in matters of love!
    Thanks for your comment and the twist on my story. You’ve made me revisit how I plotted out the conflict.This has been an interesting topic again!

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  9. An interesting post, Helena.I’m not a Georgette Heyer fan. I’ve only read one or two of her book and that was a long time ago. I think I need to go back and read a few more and observe how she writes her characters. And Felicity and Patrick sounds like a fun couple to read about.. Beverley

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    1. There are one or two of her books I didn’t enjoy as much, Beverley, but that’s not bad out of 32! If you do read her again, I’d be interested to know what you think. Thanks very much for dropping in. I’ve enjoyed this topic again!

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  10. Hey, Helena. I love how analytical you are about your process. I’m really not. I start with a location and a problem and go from there. I do some basic character sketch building, and have the gist of the conflict. TAINTED, coming out in the fall was almost all pantsed. I don’t even have dates for chapters. All my other books have those. For my next book, I should make an attempt to dig deeper, the way you have. Really excellent thought provoking post. I’ve shared. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Marsha, it sounds like you do have a plan for the core of your story at the start, even if it’s only the ‘gist’. This is enough to build on, and I know many writers who work like this. I don’t plan out every stage. I tried that once, and I was bored during the writing process, because I knew everything that was going to happen! I like to have a bit of both planning and pantsing. I’m really looking forward to reading Tainted.
      Thanks so much for dropping in, and for sharing. I appreciate it!

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  11. There have been studies that prove that readers have more empathy–because as we read, we “become” the main characters, and experience their trials and tribulations along with them. I even have characters quoting that fact in my next new book coming out–Worth the Wait. How much more so must the experience be for those of us who create the characters!

    Mom never liked Heyer, so I didn’t read much of her stuff. Mom was always upset when there wasn’t any sex in the romances, and I think Heyer wrote sweet romance, correct? As for me, the idea of having sex pre-birth-control is way too scary to even contemplate, so I’d have to say “No thanks.”

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    1. Hi Fiona, that’s really interesting about the study. Another reason to introduce children early to the pleasure of reading!
      Yes, you’re right, there is no sex in Heyer’s novels. And the idea of having sex in those days, before there was effective treatment for STDs, is very scary, too!
      Thanks for dropping in, and for your interesting comment. I’ve enjoyed this month’s topic!

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