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Part-Time Writer: Real Life Characters

Bumping into a real-world protagonist at one of our research events.

For more posts in the ‘Part-Time Writer’ series, click here.

“The story has to be about the characters.”

If you’re a writer, you’ve heard some version of that statement, or said it yourself. Writers these days encounter it so much that it’s become something of a cliché. In certain contexts, it can even be followed by an eye roll.

Thanks –– tell me something I don’t know.

But tiring though it can be to hear, there’s no denying that it’s true. If you don’t like your characters, the chances of you sticking with a book through completion are significantly reduced. You simply have to spend too much time on a novel to put up with annoying or uninteresting companions for the duration.

So all fiction writers need to get good at building characters who can enrich the worlds we write about. To accomplish this, many of us become somewhat creepy observers of people. We become students of how real people deal with different circumstances. We read what they write, watch interviews, or conduct interviews ourselves. We spend time with people similar to the fictional characters we write about.

In these ways and more, we learn to internalize the viewpoints and logic systems of real people, then we gift some of their characteristics to our fictional creations. Sometimes we just plain abduct them into our books with slightly altered (or not at all altered) names.

As writers of fiction who know that characters matter most, we spend an enormous amount of time learning how to think like other people. And that, I must say, is probably the most important skill writing has taught me when it comes to my day job.

If you’re a part-time writer, there’s a very good chance you interact with other humans in the course of your day job. Obviously some jobs will have more human connections than others, but assuming you’re not a lighthouse keeper then hopefully you cross paths with at least one or two other people in a day. Much of your potential success in the workplace is tied to your ability to interact with those people.

Whether you’re on a team, dealing with clients all day, or just trying to keep the boss happy while you’re on shift, some element of human interaction is going to influence your success. There’s no shortage of advice about how to optimize these experiences –– plenty of books on leadership, team dynamics, and self-development. But because we spend so much time understanding different people, writers come to these interactions with a decided advantage: we can look at any person we encounter like a lead character in a book.

I treat everyone I work with like the protagonists of their own stories –– which, of course, they are. I try to understand as much as I can about their histories, thought processes, and instincts, just as I would with fictional characters. That helps me understand where and how I fit in, and ideally, how best to become the likable tertiary character who drifts in for a couple of chapters to help move the plot forward.

I certainly don’t it get it right all the time. Sometimes I get it plain wrong. I find that I develop the best working relationships with the people whose stories I understand best, while those whose stories remain opaque or incomprehensible are more difficult for me to connect with.

And sometimes the people I deal with are more like villains than protagonists –– but then, another oft-repeated fiction-writing truth is that every villain is the hero of their own story. Being able to view the people you disagree with in that light is a good way to start looking for common ground to reduce conflict. Or to figure out how to defeat them, if you must.

Either way, viewing the people you work with as complete ‘characters’ with their own lives, perspectives, and internal logic equips you to have a more complete relationship with them. Perhaps that’s just natural –- the way people are supposed to know each other, but in divided times when people are often reduced to labels that they didn’t even choose for themselves, it’s important to make a deliberate effort to reach a deeper understanding.

We writers constantly seek that understanding of people. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have stories with characters in them. Part-time writers get to bring this perspective into the day-job workplace, and I strongly recommend we do –– it’s much needed.

Next week I’ll talk more about the specific type of work I’ve sought out –– a field that’s allowed me to put ‘characters’ (people) at the forefront. I often recommend professional communications work to part-time writers –– though it’s not without complications.