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The Author: A Jack (and Jill) of all Trades

As authors, we not only have to wear multiple hats, but we have to wear them well. A female child psychologist’s story cannot be effectively told by a man who spent his life in the military unless he takes on her character as if he was writing from personal experience. In this article, I will tell you how to create dynamic and well-rounded characters from all walks of life who come off as relatable and authentic.

The ability to empathize is crucial for any author who wants to create believable characters.

You must be able to walk a mile in the shoes of your characters. This is a learned skill, but the good news is that we are learning it every day from those around us. Be cognizant of your surroundings and you will understand what I mean.

When the garbage collector goes by whistling a tune as he tosses your trash in the back of the truck, take note. When your cab driver verbally attacks the man who cut him off, take note. When the young woman at the register thanks you for shopping with a warm smile, take note. When your family practitioner seems a thousand miles away while you recount your symptoms, take note. When the bartender flirts with the waitress, take note.

None of those things are necessarily bad, but they are telling. As you observe others in daily life, you will pick up tidbits that can bring your characters to life.

How, as an author, can you wear so many hats from different age groups, cultural backgrounds, and varied professions?

1. Research, research, research!

I’m listing this one first as it is by far the most important. Google is a powerful tool, but I recommend interviews as they are more personal. Whatever methods you use, familiarize yourself with your characters’ cultures and professions before writing about them. Learn their style of speaking, the terminology they use, and the things that make them who they are as a person and a professional. Use those insights to develop realistic characters, dialogue, and scenes.

2. Always be observant and take notes!

As I mentioned above, we are inundated with characters on a daily basis. Look around and take notes. It is the little things that can really set your characters apart. Try to use those little things to create characters that go beyond the stereotype. For example, we all know police officers protect and serve, but there is so much more underneath the shield. I once met an officer who spent his free time playing ball with at-risk kids in a Chicago park. That is much more interesting than saying he wrote traffic tickets for a living.

3. Keep it simple.

Developing a character is not your opportunity to show off how much research you did on her profession or heritage. Use what you have learned thoughtfully and sparingly. Unless you are writing a non-fiction instructional manual, it shouldn’t take you an entire chapter to describe how a surgeon stitches a wound.

4. Search for the color, not the content.

Taking the surgeon as an example, I would be less interested in reading how her stitches were perfectly placed two centimeters apart than I would in hearing how she sang show tunes while she worked. It is the person that we are interested in, not the job.

5. Challenge yourself often.

If you are a man, try to write a female lead. If you are German, try to write about an Italian or Asian lead. In these challenges, seek feedback from those in the know. If you wrote about the life of a biker, have a biker give you his take on the authenticity. Practice makes perfect.

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