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Robert's Rules of Writing #62: Go Inside

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

One of the most difficult things for any human being to do is to get inside the mind of another human being. We all live our lives from one perspective, our own. We all experience the world from within our fragile shells, and with our own personal biases. Entire professions exist to try to delve inside other people's minds, a task which sometimes seems impossible for the average person.

But writers have to try to get into other people's minds. And not just into the minds of friendly, good, and wholesome people like yourself. To create complete, complex, and well-rounded characters, writers need to get inside the heads of some of the most vile people imaginable.

I am in complete agreement with Masello's rule #62, and in fact I've seen it mentioned in other forms by many other writers before. For example, Orson Scott Card, in his book Character and Viewpoint, discusses the way Michael Bishop managed to get into the mind of a character who was dying of AIDS. Another book I read, whose title I can't recall at the moment, advised writers to get into the minds of murderers by asking ourselves what might cause us to feel murderous rage. Just because we're not such people ourselves doesn't mean we can't figure out what makes them tick, at least well enough to write a story about them.

But although I agree with this rule, I also often find it the hardest one to follow. Many writers will say that all their characters are extensions of themselves, and I'm afraid that I am no exception. Often I will find my characters reacting the way I would, even if I'm trying to write someone who is worlds apart from myself. So I've used a few tricks to stop myself, tricks that many others have used. Those tricks include creating characters with belief systems totally anathema to my own, and having characters do the opposite of what I would do in any given situation.

I welcome other suggestions.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein


Honestly, and as stupid as this might sound, I think that roleplaying games -- particularly where you play a character that is very unlike yourself (and not just "me with magic" or "me except evil", but truly different in aspect from your own personality, motivations, abilities, etc.) -- is good practice for thinking outside your own head. I've been playing various RPGs for 25 years or so now, and for the last 20 I've always very deliberatly picked characters that were very much Not Me, and a challenge to get my head into.
That sound you hear is me hitting myself on the head for not mentioning RPGs. I started playing D&D in 4th grade, if I recall correctly.
It doesn't work for all people, though. Over the years I've roleplayed with people who were absolutely incapable of playing a character that wasn't an idealized version of how they saw themselves. Worse, in one case I was in a run with a woman who was not only incapable of roleplaying anything except the beautiful and wise elf druid/ranger, but could not seem to accept the idea that other players' characters weren't, somehow, just as much a reflection of who they were. As I was playing a fairly cruel chaotic evil character, she banned me from being in her house (she was the wife of the DM) because I was "a bad person".

So although RPGs can be a really useful practice for getting into the heads of characters, it won't work for everybody. Sadly, I expect that those people who just can't put themselves in the mindspace of a character unlike themselves, in the context of either a game or a story, are probably never going to excel at either.
One of the characters in the new novel is a terrorist leader who's brought to an otherwise terrorist-less future; my biggest debate about whether or not to make him a POV character has actually been how realistically I could get into his mind. Or rather, how realistic (and non-wooden) my portrayals of his thought processes would be.
I find it pretty easy to get into the heads of my sympathetic characters, who are generally unlike me. (I did start out by assigning different of my own traits to different characters, though.) What I have trouble doing is getting into the heads of the unsympathetic characters, generally my characters' antagonists, in order to make them remotely believable. I know people are greedy, or vain, or bigoted ... but it's really hard to get into that headspace!
I tend to assume that everyone sees him/herself as basically good, and at the worst, forced to do unkind things by the horrible things people do to him/her. This is not necessarily true, but it's the best I've been able to think of so far...
So pretty much, if I've got a cold, vain, manipulative character, my best bet is to try and see what she resents, what 'horrors' people have visited on her, and to try to figure out in what light she sees herself as a hero.
Read the first book of a series one time, possibly by Terry Brooks? The archvillain, it was pretty clear, saw himself as a true hero, and I thought that was rather well done. I never wound up reading more of the series, but having a bad guy who sees himself as a good guy is an interesting concept.

December 2016

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