Can I Create Emotionally Complex Characters if I Don't "Get" People?
Hey there, community. Recently we received an anon message asking an extremely important question: could they, a person who is terrible at understanding people, still create emotional depth in characters? The more I thought about it, the more I realized this anon couldn’t be the only person worrying the same thing: is the development of my story dependent on my interpersonal skills? If I don’t understand people, am I bound to create shallow characters? With that on my mind, I decided to answer by speaking to you all in article form, since this is a widely-applicable concern. Anon, I hope this is helpful to you.
I’ll be speaking from the perspective of my own autism and the struggles I sometimes have with empathy. Bear in mind, followers, that there are many, many reasons people might struggle with interpersonal empathy and that everyone’s experience is vastly different, so take what you will from this and run with it. I mean to speak to as broad an audience as possible.
Character Development as a Codependent Process
So: Is it possible to improve your own understanding of people to improve your character development, and does the development of characters depend on this? Or is characterization a separate process entirely? The answer to both of those questions is yes. It is possible to improve interpersonal skills and learn how to understand people; there are a variety of ways to go about it. Often, you can use your character development as an exercise in teaching yourself how to understand people in real life. For me, a highly analytical person, that process has involved lots of reading, lots of thinking about why I love the characters I love, lots of character meta from other people talking about the characters they love (thanks, Tumblr), and a lot of long dinner conversations with my writing partner about how our characters respond to the environments we put them in. You’ll notice that most of those things have highly constructive elements. For me, the key to deepening my understanding of my characters - and therefore to creating emotional landscapes inside and between them - lies in treating them as complex, 3-D puzzles where every piece affects several other pieces and chain reactions are part of the norm.
It may seem contradictory, but the more I treat them objectively in terms of cause and effect - in other words, the more I think of them as intricate machines - the more organic my understanding becomes of how they think and feel, and why it matters.
So on one hand: yes, you can improve those skills, and you can even use your craft to help yourself do that. On the other hand, the mindset of using character development as a tool in that way necessitates a pre-existing mindset that character development, like our anon suggested, is its own process entirely.
Character Development as an Independent Phenomenon
Here’s what I mean: I spend a lot of time thinking about character development, psychology and interaction. I spend a lot of time talking about it. I’ve learned a lot about how to piece those things together to a) understand what makes my favorite characters tick and b) create realistic human impressions when I write about my own. In theory, I have emotional connections to those characters and an intimate understanding of how they work. Yet at the same time, I do not understand people in real life. I struggle to find empathy for people around me unless they’re already very, very close to me. My first reaction to other people is usually a negative one - I see only the very shallow, the very obvious, and the very stereotypical assumptions that are often made during flash judgements, and for me that’s usually as far as I get. That says nothing about my desire to get to know people or to show compassion for them; it just means that in day-to-day life, I don’t really understand them.
Does that affect my ability to create sympathetic, relatable, fascinating characters? Not really. The reason is because there is a fundamental difference between the spontaneity of our own human interactions and the scenarios we create for ourselves as we work. The first environment is real life: unplanned and uncontrolled, with lots of different wills bumping up against one another and no time for analysis. The second environment is where we hold all the strings. When we write, we enter a laboratory where every variable can be analyzed, understood, duplicated, altered and controlled by us and only us. Nothing happens that we don’t authorize. No character acts outside the bounds of our own understanding. In short, it’s a safe environment to explore in, and there’s no opposing consciousness to take control from us. That means replicating human empathy is a far easier, more foolproof, less time-sensitive endeavor.
And Here’s a Reminder:
You will gain points of emotional reference as you go about your life. Just as you develop an understanding of what types of things affect your characters emotionally, things will come along to affect you. To illustrate my point, here’s a personal example: six months ago, I learned what it meant to loathe someone so much it made you want to rip out fistfuls of their hair, claw their faces with your fingernails, and throw them out into the snow. From the same incident, I learned that I am far more easily angered when my friends are hurt than when I myself am hurt, and that my aggressive streak is the most dangerous when it comes to protecting people I love. Previously, I just thought I was an aggressive, vengeful prick who obsessed over people I didn’t like for far too long. The more you know, huh?
Most importantly, that incident gave me firsthand knowledge about how those emotions feel. The next time I sit down to write about an angry character, I know I’ll have new material to draw from. I’ll have better words to use and a more realistic end goal in mind. I’ll have an emotional experience I can manipulate to fit the needs and circumstances of whichever character is angry. And that’s the heart of what character development is, when you get down to it: it’s taking what you know of the human condition and pulling it apart to see what works (or what doesn’t). And just like we writers are always looking for new ideas, we should be keeping our eyes out for our emotional experiences, as well.
Yes, improving your empathy towards other people is possible. It takes practice and exercise, like any muscle, but for most people it is possible. And yes, it is also possible to experience the emotional development of your characters in a completely independent context. You can even have both happening at the exact same time, as I tried to illustrate above. How these processes manifest depends entirely on your experiences as a person and the methods you’ve developed so far as a writer.
Don’t forget, you’re still living. Experiences will come to you that will shape and deepen your understanding of people. You still have a lot to live and learn from - we all do.
So good luck to all of you writers out there, especially those of you who, like me, struggle with empathy. I have every confidence that with time and practice, you’ll come to your own understandings and find ways to think about these ideas that work for you. Now go out there and get developing!