Every writer ends up writing about someone who isn’t exactly like them sooner or later – and it’s nearly always sooner, given the number of characters in the average novel. The minor characters, walk-ons, and even the important secondary characters can usually be fudged, but the main viewpoint character is another story.
As a slight aside, this is one of the main reasons why beginning writers are so often urged NOT to write in first person: because many find it extra-difficult to get into someone else’s head when they’re writing “I” and for so many years “I” has meant them, the author, and not some totally different character. More on this in a minute.
Characters can be unlike their authors in a whole variety of ways, from relatively minor aspects of physical appearance (height, hair length, eye color), to their personality, to the moral and political views they hold, to more substantial things like race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, cultural background, etc. And the first step toward writing somebody different is to notice that they are.
This may sound obvious, but it always surprises me how often people attribute their own life experience to characters without thinking. I ran across a twenty-something writer whose sixty-ish hero made a comment that as a teenager, he’d gotten an eyebrow piercing to freak out his parents. I could only shake my head. Any guy who grew up in 1960s suburbia did not get an eyebrow piercing or a tattoo; if he wanted to rebel, all he did was grow his hair to chin length. Shoulder length or longer, if he really wanted to freak out the grownups.
Even the little things like height and hair length affect your character’s actions. The greater the differences between the writer and the character, the more aware the writer has to be of how the differences affect everything else in the character’s life. Really big differences (like race or a significant difference in age or ability) often require research, even if the writer is working in a completely imaginary world with a made-up history and culture.
What with all those problems, it almost seems as if it would be easier for authors to write about people who are exactly like themselves. Unfortunately, most of us find it far more interesting to write about folks who are different from us (and besides, most of the authors I know have fairly ordinary lives, no matter what all those intriguing author bios say, which means that writing about somebody different makes for a much more interesting story).
So how do you write about somebody different?
It starts by thinking about him/her, and noticing the differences. All the differences, not just the large ones, because not only do all of the differences make a difference, they all interact and affect one another. A 6’7” teenaged boy is probably going to attract interest from the school basketball coach, whether he’s into sports or not; a 6’7” senior citizen is not (though basketball may have been his sport when he was young).
Then you think hard about all the ways in which those differences, and the interaction of those differences, might affect that character’s life experiences and about how they would react to both their past experiences and to the ones they’re going to have in your story. Not how you would react, because for you, suddenly being a different height, age, sex, race, etc. would be a change. For your character, it’s how things are in their life, and the difference that makes in their life experience ripples through everything else.
From the character’s goals, motivations, and aspirations, to their reactions to other characters, to their speech patterns, anything can be different from your personal baseline, and all of those will be affected by their life experiences, which in turn will be affected by their physical, mental, and personality differences from the writer, so all of it has to be at least looked at and decided about. Even small things make for differences in behavior. The character who’s shorter than I am will have a step-stool handy for getting to the top shelf and use it without thinking; the one who’s a lot taller than me will see things on the top shelf and reach them easily, but might miss important clues that are lower down, and may have trouble banging into low doorways, slanted ceilings, etc.
It’s also important, especially with secondary and minor characters, to think at least briefly about your own reaction to them, where and how that reaction relies on stereotypes, and how you can change things up. Perhaps your first impulse is to make that minor bartender character a middle-aged, beer-bellied, balding dispenser of wise advice; if you stop to think about it, you can instead make the bartender a young woman working her way through college or a middle-aged character actor doing research for a part. It can help to remember that everyone has his or her own story…or it can be a distraction, depending on the writer.
Integrating all this into actually writing the character is another matter. For me, writing characters is a kind of cross between method acting and playing “let’s pretend” from when I was five. There’s always a little part of my brain that’s trying to pretend to be the character, warts and all. There’s another, more analytical part that’s always checking the character’s actions and dialog and reminding myself “This isn’t me here, is it? This is Jennie, or George, or Herman.” It can feel more than a little odd because in some scenes I have to stop every couple of lines to check on a different character’s actions/reactions. And then I do it all again during the revisions.
Some writers find it easiest to learn how to write different characters by writing someone who is very different from themselves right off the bat, because it’s easier for them to spot the places where they get off track. The big difference between them and the character makes it obvious when they slip and start writing their own reactions and opinions, rather than the character’s. For other writers, it’s easier to keep their characters consistent if they start with something closer to autobiographical and work up to the seriously-different characters in small steps. Some writers have to lay everything out in advance; others immerse themselves in research and reading and then wing it.
The exact process by which you get into your characters’ heads isn’t terribly important; as usual, every writer does it a bit differently, and whatever works for you is what you should do (though be aware that it may take a few tries to figure out what that is).