Staying in Your Character’s Shoes

Grasping the outlook of a character is difficult for any storyteller, but it can be especially difficult in speculative fiction. If your hero is an alien living on another planet, her perspective will be vastly different from yours, and there won’t be any aliens from her planet you can interview. In these cases, it’s easy to slip back into your own shoes without realizing it, and that can damage your story’s credibility.

But by carefully reviewing your story, you can catch those breaks and patch them up. Here’s four things to look out for:

1. Treating Something Ordinary Like It’s Novel

Your character’s lifestyle and surroundings might seem exotic, wonderful, vile, or terrifying to you. You probably also want it to feel that way to your audience. So it’s easy to forget that to your character, it’s ordinary. He’ll know how to survive the hungry beasts that live on his home world, operate efficiently with a lost arm or a clunky tail, and stay sane under the oppressive management of killer robots. He will take luxuries for granted, and think common tragedies are just a part of life.

But you can still use your character to give these “ordinary” things more impact. Instead of focusing on how she responds to a specific event, think about how she has rearranged her entire life to fit her circumstances. If the worker who’s mined the least uranium is flogged every day, she might have twenty ways to cut corners and ten ways to sabotage a competitor when necessary.

The same goes for the entire society. If a significant number of people have horns on their head, there will be hats with holes designed for them.

2. Acting on Different Cultural Values

Different cultures have different priorities. If your character’s society has a rigid class structure, he won’t be romantically interested in someone two castes down from him. If the society has arranged marriages, he won’t run away just to avoid one. In cultures with strong families, taking a dream job at the cost of the family business would be very selfish behavior.

That doesn’t mean your hero can’t have a different perspective than the people around her. But unless her circumstances are unique, you’ll need to use the story, or at least her back story, to teach her different values. Make your high class character fall from grace, and have a family of a low caste take him in. Then use the conflicts of your story to slowly remove his sense of superiority. Don’t try to convert him overnight.

While you’re at it, look for other culture deviations that have slipped by unnoticed. If your culture doesn’t have gender roles, the women shouldn’t have feminine names and the men masculine ones. If feet are considered disgusting, your characters shouldn’t remove their shoes in front of someone they aren’t intimate with.

3. Neglecting Diversity

While you should avoid cultural anomalies, that doesn’t mean all of the characters should be identical in their behavior and outlook. It’s easy to stereotype other cultures. Fight back by listing ways your characters differ from each other. Even if your theocracy punishes heretics with death, there will be a small population with different religious practices – in hiding.

Remember, while there will be diversity in your fictional world, your characters won’t think about it in the same ways you do. Differences in skin color might be a matter of personal variation, rather than an indicator of race. Instead, your character’s identity might be determined by whether her family immigrated as followers of a revered prophet or in the employ of a notorious conquering army – even if 400 years have passed since then.

4. Revolving Around the Central Hero or Plot

If you’re like most storytellers, you’ve chosen this story because it’s compelling to you. You know that your main character and his epic struggle against the antagonist are more important than the humdrum lives of the side characters. But those side characters beg to differ. So if you want them to help with your plot, you’ll need to give them a personal incentive for doing so. If nothing else, pay them.

Unless your protagonist is incredibly famous, most of the NPCs won’t realize they’re speaking to the chosen one. They’ll see your hero as just another girl/boy/dragon out of many. If you want them to feel strongly about her, she’ll need to do something to create a strong impression.

It’s important to keep this in mind when you move onto new stories in the same world. Your audience will be bewildered if your new hero worships at the feet of your old one – even if they’ve consumed your previous stories.

You can avoid these problems and more just by thinking critically about your story. Examine the effects of the pieces you already have in place. Think about why things are the way they are. Compare what you have to similar situations in real life. Before long, your character’s shoes will feel like a natural fit.

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  1. Aliyah

    This article doesn’t really make a lot of sense because all these stories are sci-fi and fantasy. Its okay to b unrealistic in a sci-fi or a fantasy. They were given those names for a reason.

    • Cay Reet

      But that’s not the point. It’s not about unrealistic worlds, magic, or winging it with science. It’s about making a character for your story who feels like they’re the main character for a reason. So, to go over the points:

      #1: if your character has grown up on an enormous space ship, that world is new and wondrous to the reader (and probably the writer, too), but ordinary to the character. You can still describe their world, but you need to do it in a way which shows it’s normal for them. They’re not going to walk through the space ship with wide-open eyes, marvelling at everything. They’re crossing it to get to their job, which they’ve already done for a few years. And they’re crossing an area they’ve walked around in since they actually learned to walk.

      #2: If you want a story where a character inflicts change, because they have different values or morals, you need to explain where those come from. That doesn’t just happen overnight, but usually has its root in the character’s past. In their upbringing or in some event which made them see that the normal take of the society they live in on something is wrong. Perhaps their best friend was imprisoned or even executed for saying something the government or the ruling class didn’t like and they have realized that not even having the right to their own opinion is wrong because of that.

      #3: By neglecting diversity in the story, you get the ‘planet of the hats’ problem where you have a whole world filled with the same people over and over again, which is unlikely. Humans are very diverse both in looks and character. The same, by all logic, should go for other sentient beings. So it’s highly unlikely all your elves are ethereal beauties with the same blond hair and blue eyes. If nothing else, the climates (and every inhabitable world does have climate zones) should give them different looks. Elfquest did that wonderfully with their different elf tribes, from the mortal Wolfriders over the peaceful and dark-skinned Sun Folk and the stagnant Gliders to the Go Backs who once split off from the Wolfriders, but regained their immortality. Even the original elves, the High Ones are a relatively diverse group.

      #4: Unless it’s an order from an absolute government or monarch, not everything will revolve around your hero. You need to give a likely motivation for other characters to help them – pay, if nothing else, but you can also have them have an agenda which aligns well with the hero’s agenda. A strong warrior could decide to come with your hero, because they’re after one of the villain’s main minions, so their agenda aligns with the hero’s. Or a sorcerer can be motivated to come along by the promise of a position at the court afterwards (with good pay, few hours, and a lot of privileges).

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