The Separation of Character and Self

As a hobbyist writer who often speaks with other hobbyist writers, I find that one of the easiest traps to fall into when writing is that of making a character behave too much like one’s self when it makes no sense for them to be doing so.

This can be as wide an issue as a character being a self-insert who only exists to gratify the creator, to as narrow an issue as a character’s diction being too much like one’s own. A character’s origin often tells you most of what you need to know about them, and if their origin contains a detail that contradicts their current actions, an audience will notice.

I’m sure everyone with a brain realizes when writing a character that they shouldn’t behave like their author, but I’d like to take a closer look anyway.

The easiest way to spot this is a character contradicting their core values to behave in a way the author would. Say you have a character whose internal monologue often gives a great deal of respect to tradition, they’re a traditionalist. If they then act in a way that goes against their culture’s traditions (Say a character, who is part of a xenophobic culture, behaves kindly to outsiders), then the audience will feel that something is wrong.

Of course if a character develops in a way that goes against their beliefs, then so long as their development makes sense, it won’t go against the audience’s expectations.

So that’s simple, right? Everyone understands that, but the more difficult issues to notice are those of diction and subtle actions.

A person’s diction is built by a great number of things, their social class, ethnicity, upbringing, and their place of residence. A character’s diction is often hard to decide upon, and novice writers often just don’t concern themselves with it. The issue with this is twofold:

  1. Diction not matching backstory
  2. Characters talking too similarly.

To elaborate on the first point, a character’s origin, as mentioned earlier, often decides most of their personality, at least before a story develops them. So a character’s origin should influence their diction, right? If a character is poor and grew up in an environment where politeness is seen as unimportant, then they would probably talk in slang and use profanities with impunity, but if they then spoke extremely politely and properly, then there would be an amount of dissonance.

In terms of the second point, it’s really an elaboration on the first, if character diction doesn’t take into account their backstory as a rule, then a lot of characters will end up speaking in very similar ways, creating text that is uninteresting to read, and characters who don’t feel quite real, feeling more like personas of the same single omnicharacter who provides the narration.

So how do you avoid these problems?

Set rules for yourself. Setting rules for writing each character helps immensely with distinguishing them, as well as aiding you in getting a handle on your characterization. An example of a rule would be for a character to consistently speak loudly, represented by adding an exclamation point at the end of their statements. This is a simple rule, but more complex ones aren’t much more difficult to follow if an author is consistent. A more complex rule would be to ensure that a character uses more than one uncommon and multi-syllabic word every sentence. This also helps with differentiating a character from one’s self as a whole, establish how a character would react to one situation, and use that as a rule for any similar situations.

Playing around with these types of rules can really help differentiate a character from one’s self, and can uplift one’s work to a surprising extent.