Literary Q&A: Relatability in Your Writing (Series #2)

Today’s Question:

How do I write different characters in different ages and races that people identify with?

I was thinking about this question as I was staring at a wrinkle in my mirror this morning. I immediately thought about an infomercial I’d seen lately that said most of the cause of aging comes from more sugar intake and the lack of whole fruits and veggies. Basically, we all get older and just stop giving a s*!t and decide that even those people who do everything “right” and stay fit and healthy, sometimes get sick and die anyway, so it all comes down to, “How do you want to live your life?”

And that got me to thinking about aging and the differences between ages and how we depict them when we’re writing. Sometimes we aren’t sure how to write a person from a vastly different age group than our own. Sometimes we use stereotypes that are largely indicative of age groups.

Like, if you’re talking about giving a person a sum of money, a child might think in terms of how much candy/video gaming time/music will that buy me?

A late teen might be thinking about using it for a new car, education, or traveling, while a young twenties, married couple might be thinking of buying a house, education, or planning for kids. A couple in their thirties to forties might be thinking of using it on car/house/pet payments, children’s needs, and saving, and those in their forties and fifties are thinking about college educations and paying off loans. In their fifties and sixties, they are preparing for retirement and saving for future travel. In their seventies, they likely have medical bills and possibly assisted living.

People who choose to never marry, have children, or settle down are often characterized as lonely, hardened, nomadic and wise, or rich and powerful.

Of course these are generalizations. And no one is the same. So how do you get into that mindset? I want to know in the comments what you do. I am a person who doesn’t have a problem putting myself into the shoes of another, or seeing something from more than one perspective. In writing, that’s all you’re doing–saying, What would she think? People of all ages, no matter their focus, or color, or beliefs, are all the same and all unique, meaning that we all hurt, we all love, and we all know how to make each other feel, whether by choice, or not. I need a hashtag for that. Lol. Yeah, somebody Tweet it.

Anyway, use what you know about people to make up your characters. Don’t write biographical characters. Everyone does at least once. In some fashion, you can’t help but ask, what would I do in that situation? But we also tend to have a blown up opinion of what we think we’d do in a situation, versus what we would actually do. Don’t make character decisions based on what you’d do, write what that character would do. Hopefully you haven’t made a character exactly like yourself, or your best, most exciting version of yourself (We all do it at some point, don’t feel bad), but you’ve made an interesting character with likes, dislikes, talents, and flaws, who has a unique-to-them personality. You are the only person in the world who knows this individual this well. You are the writer qualified to give this character’s opinion. So give it to us. What would they say? What would they do?

A couple of posts ago, I gave you all an extensive character description sheet. It’s in here. But feel free to make up your own with the traits you feel are important to your story.

Whether you write in first person (I am), second person (you are), or third person (she is) which are present tense, or in past tense (I was, you were, she was), you write character feelings from the same place–understanding. You must understand that even though there are cultural differences, and people behave differently, we generally react to the same hurtful words with the same pain, feel the same passion when we meet the one of our dreams. In those cases, use all your own bloody pain, and show us all your deepest joy. In those universal moments of relatability, you will capture your readers and give them that emotional response they desire from a great story.

You, my writer friend, are a storyteller–but not merely a story-teller. Tell us every detail that advances the plot and not a bit more. That’s what I always say about details, but I want to add a second part to that: then go back and make us feel every bit of it. Is your writing strong? Great. Are you telling a great story? Wonderful. Can your reader feel every emotion the main character is feeling? Why or why not? Where do you need to add?

It takes skill to do all of that in the same book–but it’s a learnable skill. I read in a book by a famous author that “you are either born with the ability to write, or you’re not.” I completely disagree. If you want it badly enough, you can learn concept and voice, and grammar and punctuation, being concise and descriptive, plot elements and story structure, and relatability.

If you want to make relatable characters, read a lot of books, talk to a lot of different people. Get other perspectives, read of conditions around the world and understand the lives they lead. Research this for your stories. Even if you make everything else up, your characters have to become real people. To make them relatable, give them emotions that the reader can relate to–whether the scene is fantastical, or ordinary–and match their emotions realistically to the situation. You might make a character feel deep, inescapable fear that the reader relates to, if they’re in a dark and stormy cemetery; however, if the scene takes place in daylight at the mall, the reader may not relate to the fear. They have to believe that they would be afraid if they were in the character’s shoes. If you played it right, that situation could indeed work, but be sure you want it there.

I mentioned recently that scenes of action, need the release of tension before beginning new action. But that doesn’t necessarily relate to emotion. The tension that action brings is a fight or flight response that gets triggered and the reader needs a break from that as the character plans their next move, or hides out. But the emotions of relating, and love, and feelings of fear and dread can all build throughout the story to make an amazing crescendo with your climax.

A relatable character relates to the largest groups of people. It’s a fine line not to be stereotypical and yet create characters that have qualities that attract a great audience of understanding readers. Knowing your audience helps. Write to them, in terms and word pictures that are familiar to them.

That was a roundabout way to answer the question, but I hope I made enough sense to help. Send me your next questions through the contact page and I’ll be happy to answer them for the next month or two.

~jenn

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