A Writer’s Guide to Understanding People

“Write three-dimensional characters.” “Bring your characters to life.” “Create realistic human experiences.” These ditties of writing advice are so common they’re almost clichés. But how can you fulfill these dictums to write “real characters” without first mastering the even more foundational principle of understanding people?

Recently, I received an email from a reader, which raised a question so pertinent, so obvious, and yet so overlooked that I felt it worthwhile to answer it in a blog post. He wrote:

After searching though your archives, I have been unable to find an article on the subject of people. Chief among the advice given to fiction writers is to have well-developed characters, and often included is the suggestion that one should listen to people, learn how they speak, act, and react.

I do not understand people. Why they react the way they do, why they say what they say—these are not things that I have been able to measure or bottle. Oh, I have listened to plenty of strangers speak in quiet coffee shops, true enough. Psychology offers interesting material to sift through, but I have found that it is only helpful to a point.

My question then, after the less than concise outpouring of words above, is this:

How did you learn about people and their behavior thoroughly enough to craft believable characters? Is there advice you would give to any of us struggling in this area?

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

The theories and techniques of writing fiction offer many refined ideas about how to convey realistic and charismatic characters on the page. All of these approaches necessarily reflect certain understandings of how people “work.” Because all stories, even the most fantastic, seek to provide a simulacrum of reality, every technique is at least nominally founded on the idea of, first, understanding people and, second, conveying that understanding with accuracy.

But as the email points out, it’s easy (maybe even inevitable) for us to get the cart confused with the horse. In part, this is because as humans ourselves, most of us take for granted that we understand people far more than we actually do. In even larger part, I think it is because most of us are using our writing, whether consciously or unconsciously, not so much as a way to reveal what we understand about people, but rather as a way to figure out ourselves, our fellows, and our existence as a whole.

Today, let’s take a more conscious approach to investigating how we can enhance our ability to understand people on our way to writing better and more realistic characters.

Writer, Know Thyself

That person in the mirror is your best shot at understanding a human being. She’s seductively mysterious, deeply complex, scarily dark, miraculously replete, and ridiculously dimensional. Start there. Actually, I think you’ll find there’s so much there, you may never need to stop.

There are many ways to get to know yourself better, both as a human and as an individual. Exploring psychology and personality-typing theories is a great way to start peeling back the layers on your onion (I recommend Jung’s cognitive-function model and the Enneagram for starters). Largely, these will be exercises in growing your own awareness and honesty.

Get to Know Yourself Physically, Mentally, Emotionally, and Spiritually

Learn to get in touch with all four corners of yourself—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Most of us tend to neglect one or more of these areas. Not only does this cause the health of the other areas to suffer, but it blocks us from a fuller understanding of even those areas we believe we already understand.

For me, learning how to listen to my emotions and my body (and realizing I previously couldn’t even hear what they were saying) has been astonishing. I thought I knew myself pretty well; turns out there are whole vast areas into which I’ve never yet gone spelunking.

I talked a few posts back about the idea of repressed aspects of the self weighing us down and eating up our creative energy through inner resistance. That “shadow” part of ourselves holds (often initially painful) aspects of the human experience that we’ve relegated to the darkness of an almost willful ignorance. Shining light into our own dark places offers a wealth of insights into the human experience as a whole.

Figure Out What Your Own Writing Tells You About Yourself

More than that, don’t forget that as a writer, you already have an immensity of illuminating research at your fingertips. Look closely at everything you’ve ever written. Often, the fiction is even more revealing than the shadow-blind soul-searching found in journal entries or personal essays. In revisiting some of my own work from the last ten years, I’ve been fascinated to realize the “dishonesty” of some of my journal entries, especially in comparison with what has turned out to be the symbolic accuracy, and even prescience, of many elements in my fiction.

Even in your early clumsy attempts to sketch rounded characters and events, you were telling yourself truths about yourself—and thus about people in general. Every character you write (even those based on existing or historical people) inevitably become avatars of yourself. They are avatars of the aspects you claim, the aspects you reject, and the aspects of which you are not even yet consciously aware. Take another look at your own stuff, from an older vantage-point, and see if you can figure out what you knew all along but maybe didn’t know that you knew.

The Art of Observing Others

Although seeking to understand yourself will provide your deepest and richest insights into the human experience, the inherent subjectivity of your own experiences won’t give you a complete view of your subject.

Study Psychology and Personality

This sounds (and was) stupid, but it wasn’t until my mid-teens that it hit me like a thunderbolt that not everybody was like me. Prior to that, I literally thought everybody was wired pretty much the way I was… which meant I lived in a perpetual state of frustration because if they were all like me, then why didn’t they do things my way?!

Studying psychology and personality typology has led me not just to a better understanding of myself, but also a better understanding of the panoply of differences found in others. I appreciate and advocate systematized approaches because I find them so useful as a starting point in breaking down the vastness (and yet surprising simplicity) of the human experience.

Observe Human Interactions Through 3 Different Lenses

People watching—the writer’s stock-in-trade hobby—remains one of the single best ways to deepen your understanding of characterization. Although there’s much to be gleaned from casually watching random interactions in the mall or airport, the true opportunities come from your actual interactions.

One particularly helpful rule of thumb to keep in mind in observing the interplay between yourself and others is the Chinese proverb:

There are three truths. My truth, your truth, and the truth.

There are always going to be three perspectives: two subjective viewpoints and one objective viewpoint.

After an exchange with another person (especially if it was heated), take a moment to step back and observe. Note your experience and opinions about what just happened. Then, try to honestly assess how you think the other person experienced and judged the same moment. Finally, take a further step back and try to see things objectively. Don’t make value judgments (e.g., “they were wrong and I was right”); just note what actually happened, what each of you did and said—the context, not the subtext.

In the cracks between all three perspectives, there are usually insightful nuggets to be found if you’re honest enough to recognize them (which, frankly, can be grueling sometimes).

We will only ever understand others—and therefore “people” as a collective—via our own viewpoints. But the more we can practice noticing how others see things and how both our and their viewpoints stack up against the objective facts, the better we can become at recreating realism in our stories. (Plus, getting in the habit of separating objective happenings from their subjective slants will give you leg up on understanding how to show rather than tell.)

The Key to Understanding People Is to Do Your Homework—Literally

As children of the 20th and 21st Centuries, we have access to an unprecedented view of the human experience. Never mind the easy accessibility of the Internet, we are blessed (if often overwhelmed) by just the sheer accumulation of questioning, discovering, understanding, and recording left to us by our ancestors.

While understanding yourself and understanding those around you may be the deepest trove for studying characters, there is a still broader treasure chest to draw from. Some of it can look a little like the drudgery of homework, but most of it is so much fun, it requires only a little extra oomph of discipline for us to take full advantage of our opportunities.

Here are four assignments to get you started (although I’ll bet you’re already elbow-deep in almost all of them):

1. Pursue Literature

You’ve heard it before, but it’s a drum that’s always worth banging:

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.–Stephen King

Commit yourself to reading voraciously. Always have a bookmark in a book and that book within easy reach. More than that, read widely.

  • Read those lists of “100 books to read before you die.”
  • Read the classics.
  • Read all the Pulitzer and Nobel winners.
  • Read any book so famous you recognize its title and/or author when browsing.

Fifteen years ago, I committed myself to reading all the classics (so far, I’ve made it through most of the authors up to “R”). It’s been a lot of work (a lot of work), but it has also been one of the most valuable and broadening exercises I’ve ever undertaken. Reading classics dating as far back as The Iliad has given me not just a fuller appreciation for the history of literature but also a wider view of humanity—who we have been and how we have thought, century by century.

2. Pursue Drama

Don’t stop at reading. Do the same with other art forms, particularly the dramatic arts. Movies and TV are so easily accessible these days that visual storytelling has arguably become our culture’s most prevalent form of communication.

Watching film (or plays or operas) offers us many of the same opportunities as written fiction—a story communicated from the mind of one person to another, as well as insightful sketches of the characters. More than that, however, visual mediums allow us to watch actual human beings. Although actors rarely portray themselves, they share with writers the inevitability of revealing true things about themselves as well as their characters.

To the person who watches with attention, visual stories can teach us many, many things (subjective and objective) about what it means to be human.

3. Pursue History

Literature (and to a more limited extent film) offers us glimpses into the vastness of our accumulated human experience. But why stop there? History is valuable to every writer, not just those writing historical fiction. Understanding the evolution of society, of politics, of religion, of technology, of fashion, of food—all these subjects are crucial to helping us understand ourselves and others.

Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously observed:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

I’ve always been a history buff, but I widened my scope after the 2018 Winter Olympics when I realized how little I knew about so many of the represented countries. My latest reading challenge is to try to read a book of history about every country.

4. Pursue Philosophy and Science

The philosophies and the sciences offer us the current and accepted compendium of human understanding thus far. I’m not likely to figure out Newtonian physics by myself (much less Quantum physics), but I can get an overview on subjects that my ancestors would never have dreamed of. I can view the progression of human thought—the ideologies that have come and gone and those that have under-girded my own modern beliefs in ways I would otherwise be totally ignorant of.

These subjects are largely the study of life itself. Like our own pursuit of understanding ourselves, the current amount of known information is dwarfed by the magnitude of the subjects. But taken in combination with every other method available to bring awareness, insight, and honesty to our human experience, they offer profound tools for any writer seeking to understand people as a route to writing better characters.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What has been your best help for understanding people and writing better characters? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Reading all the classics sounds tough but pretty dang awesome. Is there a list you’re working off of? What defines “the classics”?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      When I started, I personally defined a classic as any book or author I recognized, published prior to 1965(-ish). But that was 15 years ago, so I’ve been thinking I should now extend the limit through 1980. :p

    • I’ve read a few classics (my partner is an English teacher, so the garage is stuffed full of paperbacks of classic works) and one nice thing I’ve discovered about them is that books from decades ago tend to be a lot shorter. They don’t take as long to read as you might think.

    • Ages ago, I bought an encyclopedia and the purchase included a set of the classics (well, some of them). A shorter age ago I decides to actually read them all. I haven’t quite made it all the way through yet (in the meantime purchasing other classics that weren’t included in the original deluge). All of these were written in the 19th century and before. I have learned a ton from reading them, especially Shakespeare.

  2. Beautiful post! I’m always trying to understand myself and others through my stories. Psych grad student here… who still doesn’t understand people 🌝

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah. Totally. Writing this post reminded me that most of what I’ve learned about people so far has been the direct result of my own misconceptions along the way. :p

  3. Eric Troyer says

    Great post! I would add addendums to your first two assignments. That’s to read books and watch movies that are poorly done. They provide a wonderful contrast to well-done works and help illuminate why the works are so good.

  4. Psychology definitely helps. Originally I studied it just because I wanted to understand what psychopaths were and how to spot a Ted Bundy. I stumbled on the Hare Test, by Dr. Robert Hare, which can also be useful for constructing various villains without making them cartoonish.

    I’m fascinated by cults, and how people get involved in them, which helped make people in domestic violence or just abusive relationships make more sense to me (there’s an overlap in behaviors of cult leaders and abusers). Again, the result is not just empathy, but its helpful in constructing characters in that scenario who are less cartoonish.

    Evolutionary psychology can help make sense of crime and social phenomena. Seriously, if you know that “stepfathers” in assorted mammals tend to kill their stepchildren, the crime stats for humans in that regard make sense, and you can see how culture and religion temper biology — human stepfathers can be very loving, and the mean ones might simply drive off their stepkids without killing them. There’s a reason that polygyny (multiple wives) can involve women who are strangers to each other, while polyandry (multiple husbands) only involves brothers sharing a wife. If you’re constructing an alien or fantastical race of beings, you might start with their biology and figure out how their culture deals with the problems caused by their biology.

    Then there’s the cognitive stuff! I’m not convinced that the “Sally Ann test” is truly measuring autism. But, in fictional terms, it helps to know that a character shouldn’t act on knowledge that she doesn’t possess. If your character is “Sally,” she should be searching for her marble in her basket, not “Ann’s” box, even though Ann has taken Sally’s marble and put it in her box while Sally was away.

    Note that Sally isn’t an idiot for not searching Ann’s box, and the story shouldn’t treat her as if she is (unless she knows that Ann is a thief who covets her marble). Similarly, your medieval characters aren’t idiots for not knowing that germs exist, and your story shouldn’t treat them as if they are. If your character is a medieval doctor, you’ll have to come up with a good reason for him to do more than just wipe off his surgical knives when they fall on the floor. Otherwise, he just keeps using those knives, even if you want him to seem brilliant and nice. He’s still brilliant and still nice, he’s simply innocent. He’s only a malicious surgeon if he lives in our time yet refuses to sterilize his knives.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good points! I would add that I’ve found the Enneagram helpful for understanding and creating realistically-motivated villains. Don Riso’s book Personality Types has been especially useful since it charts the “descent” of the nine Enneagram archetypes.

  5. I, like your commenter, do not understand people at all from our president to many of my neighbors. There must have been a course on this that I missed in my education. I have even used the Enneagram and Meyers-Brigs to understand my self and have used them to develop my characters but still understanding people is a mystery that gets worse by the day.
    Like you I appreciate and advocate systematized approaches but these approaches, I have found, are less than adequate.

    You talk of listening and watching people in public settings as a way to develop your character development chops. I have done this but not without a great deal of frustration. I’m often floored by what I see and hear.

    I whole heartedly agree with and attempt to follow your 4 assignments.

    Thanks for this post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Another tool that I’ve found helpful lately is Spiral Dynamics (sometimes called the Graves Model), which is a model for recognizing how an individual’s (or a society’s) psychological perspective can grow through several different expansions. It’s helped me understand why some people seem to have such radically different views of the world. The book Spiral Dynamics by Christopher C. Cowan and Don Edward Beck blew my mind.

  6. Quite a relevant post since we are finishing a section about “reexamining characters” in my speculative fiction writing class. For me, I have authenticity issues when writing male characters. I think like a woman, not a man. As the writer, I can make my man respond in any manner I chose, and I do make him respond accordingly. However, it’s “how I want him to react as a woman”, and sometimes, it doesn’t seem genuine to me. A lively discussion based on this prompt ensued, and the consensus of the group…have someone the same sex as the character read your work.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Agree. What’s most important is understanding each individual character’s personality, background, and motivation.

  7. I have always shied away from reading “dark” novels, murder, abuse, etc. Now that I am writing and developing characters of all kinds, I am reading The Alienist by Caleb Carr. This book has the seediest, evil bad guys. Another great book to learn from is Nabokov’s Lolita.
    Your advice to read, read, read and people watch is so true ! Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Lolita has been on my list forever. Hoping to finally get to it soon.

      • Lolita was a hard book to read. Yet, I think I should read it again. I was in my late teens when I read it last. Several decades later, maybe, I’ll get more out of it other than being aghast at Humbert.

  8. Katie Walker says

    I keep debating in my head. Are you an INTJ? You talk about emotions fairly often, which makes me wonder about the F/T. But INTJ has tertiary Fi. Plenty of feeling, it’s just harder to get at, which maybe explains why you discuss understanding yourself and your emotions as a struggle (if I’m paraphrasing that correctly) you’ve come to as you’re older? I’m really not sure about that at all! But I can’t imagine you not being an INJ, what with all the big-picture thinking and story structure and constant reading. Unless I’m really off my mark.

    (It’s your fault that I got stuck on learning about mbti for a year. You mentioned the enneagram over a year ago, and that renewed my interest in personality theory.)

    No, I take it back. Infj’s are the most interested in personality theory. That gives more evidence for the F.

    But the way you approach stories seems a lot like Te, a very organized and logical system. Doesn’t it?

    (I have an alarming tendency to guess the personality type of the authors I read now, and then look it up online to see if I was correct. Of course, the internet usually just tells you what other people think the author is, but it’s fun to guess anyway.)

    By the way, I still have no clue what my Enneagram type is. I just know I’m not a 7 or an 8. Jung’s cognitive functions make so much more sense to me.

    Anyway, thanks for the articles you write!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah. You’re very perceptive! 😀

      I’m an INTJ. Pretty much everything you’ve conjectured here is spot on.

      I like to refer to the tertiary functions as the “beasties” of the bunch, because they’re high enough in the stack to make themselves very known, but low enough that it’s often hard to understand what they’re trying to say. That has 100% been my experience with my Introverted Feeling (Fi). My relationship with emotions has been and continues to be one of the great challenges of my life–but also, as I’m finally coming to experience, one of the greatest blessings as well.

      For more on the Enneagram, I highly recommend Beatrice Chesnutt’s book The Complete Enneagram. I’m just about to finish it. I found it deeply insightful. I’m a 3 (tritype 351; instinct sp/sx). The Enneagram is a deep well. There are a myriad different angles to it. But I’ve found it profound for self-work.

      • Katie Walker says

        Ooh, thanks for the confirmation! INTJs have a certain feel to them, something akin to steel (whereas I’m more like a marshmallow?). Not that that’s always the case with everyone, but I notice patterns.

        I find it interesting that you mention “beasties”. I have AV INTJ writer friend who says she has three gremlins living in her head. The first one is in the back, surrounded by books and archives, and can immediately access any info needed, often in ways that seem magical to outside observers. The second is in the front office with his feet on the desk, acting like he runs the place. The third is the Thing that’s locked in the basement. Disturb it at your peril.

        To me it seemed like these were personifications of the cognitive functions. The guy in the back was introverted intuition, making all the connections and offering up all the answers as if by magic. But introverted, which explains why he’s hiding in the back. Then the guy in the front office is extraverted thinking, the face presented to the world, the function that likes to make systems and run things. And the Thing in the basement is the Introverted Feeling that she tries to ignore but which keeps rearing its ugly head. I don’t think she’s yet got to the point where she’s trying to make friends with the Thing.

        Anyway, when you said tertiary functions are the beasties, I immediately thought of that.

        (My tertiary function is a gremlin named Timmy, aka Ti, and Ni-Ti loops have given me all sorts of grief. For example:

        Ni: You should write!
        Timmy: hell no, that’s illogical. Way too many people write. Why the hell do you think there’s any hope that anything you do would be successful? Think logically, you idiot!

        Around and around and around…. Ahem.

        (That being said, I think the Ni-Fe functions make it pretty easy to understand people. I can pretty much understand possible reasons for everything anyone does. I could argue any side of any issue and understand why someone might support it, or not. It always surprises me when my ISTJ husband can’t see it. Except that now that I know him, I then quickly follow the surprise with understanding of his strengths and limitations.)

        There was a cool book called The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene that explains a lot about people and their behaviour. It walks through all sorts of case studies of certain traits and how they manifest in people.

        Sorry for rambling. I’ll shut up now. 😀

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Totally resonate with your friend’s gremlins.

          And, yeah, I’ve always thought that Ni-Ti loop looked pretty nasty. 😉

  9. just need to send this to get back on the blog…I clicked “unfollow” by mistake 🙁

  10. Sally M. Chetwynd says

    Somehow, my high school class was never assigned the classics, so some years later, I set out on a mission to read some. I went through a number of them and learned a lot from most of them, besides the enjoyment of good literature. I bogged down, however, on Henry James and D. H. Lawrence, and I haven’t got back onto that bandwagon. I would have climbed aboard again if I hadn’t got distracted (still!) by so many other books! I really go gaga over non-fiction on 18th and 19th Century scientific discovery and invention.

    You are right on about digging into self to learn much about human nature. I found this as I worked to finish my second novel, which challenged me with the hardest writing I’ve ever done. But as tough as it was, I found much joy in the work.

    One of the toughest parts was writing from the POV of my main character’s 13-year-old nephew, who is trying to work his way through the death of his father as he drops like a stone into the mine shaft of raging teenage hormones and teen rebellion against parental authority. I had no clue how to build this, and after looking for friends who might have gone through something similar, I contacted one of my own nephews whose mother had died when he was nine. He wrote a powerful letter with his remembered feelings. None of it was useful on the surface, but I went back to it about once a week for a couple of months, and the deeper grief and anger steeped me with what I needed. Then I was able to write those scenes. A beta reader with teenage stepsons, also a school counselor and minister, confirmed that I had struck the right chord with my nephew character.

    It takes time to work through this kind of stuff, but it is well worth it, and as revealing of self as of fictional characters. It can be tough to look into oneself, but we’re not all bad – if we were, we wouldn’t be engaging in introspection in the first place.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s a great quote attributed to Joseph Campbell that really highlights the ironic truth of self-work: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” That’s certainly been my experience.

  11. Christina Lefebvre says

    I am a very weird sort of person. On one side I am very logical. I love science and want a rational reason for stuff happening. That side of me has studied the Meyers Briggs and is extremely interested in the Enneagram system. But, my other side is way different: I am a professional Tarot card reader and have studied astrology. Keep in mind, that even Jung was interested in the esoteric. I am hoping the juxtaposition of these worlds -science and mysticism- will help me to create interesting characters with depth and dualities of their own that showcases their humanness.

  12. Kathleen Kidder says

    One of the most powerful takeaways for me happened in the paragraph where you said, ” fiction is even more revealing than the shadow-blind soul-searching found in journal entries or personal essays.” That felt like a cold splash in my face waking me from a late summer sleep! Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m very interested in Archetypes right now–recognizing how archetypal stories operate instinctively in the human mind–and how we often unconsciously project them into our own stories in ways we don’t always recognize in the beginning. It’s definitely a subject I want to explore on the blog someday in the future when I feel I understand it well enough.

  13. Creig Sigurdson says

    Great post as always. I have modeled my characters after some of my behavior, and from people I know. For my current WIP, the MC brother is me, a tall red head with blue eyes. You are right about the progression in our writing styles as we understand more about writing and story craft, we reveal on the page truths about ourselves that we may not have been consciously aware of. Reading the classics is a labor of love, I enjoy every page turned and all the old book smells.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I’m always happy when I borrow a classic book from the library and discover it’s a very old edition. 🙂

  14. You just had to mention the Enneagram of Personality! Now I will be reading about that . . . instead of working on my six WIPs.

  15. Stian Kallhovd says

    Amazing post! I’ve just recently started reading the content I’m notified of through subscription. You excel at creating substantial ideas and sharing them in artistic language! Each and every post of yours is a true meal for the mind. And I’m now wondering whether starting blogging myself is superfluous. :p

    I really like that you brought up philosophy. As a philosopher myself (on my own aspect of human nature), I know that philosophy does not only influence how I write characters, but also what stories I want to tell. As you bring up, story-telling is closely connected to figuring out ourselves and expressing ourselves as humans.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I snack on philosophy here and there, but that’s another subject I want to make a meal of by studying properly one of these days.

  16. David Snyder says

    Dear Katie,

    This is great, as usual. I have few added thoughts that might be useful.

    As a researcher in psychology I know it is easy to get pulled down into the rabbit hole of personality’s complexity, when sometimes it is equally helpful to remember the basics.

    What I have learned in my life so far is this: human actions can often be separated into two buckets.

    One bucket contains actions driven by the “primal” instincts of greed and lust that make us not too different from animals. These are the Jekyll and Hyde impulses that people fear, but fall prey to. It is what makes people murder, or steal, or indulge their lower instincts in other forms, sometimes referred to as “sin.” These impulses—often referred to as the “dark side”—are mediated by the lower brain region still known as the “reptilian” or animal brain. When we say a person is acting like a snake, well, in a way they are.

    The other bucket is human emotion, which is enormously complex, but can traced to four or five foundational elements that stem from lower regions of the brain as well (and the larger limbic system) but are mediated by the frontal brain—where we all take part in a daily struggle to control our fears, or reshape our perspectives, with varying degrees of success and failure.

    These building blocks are: the need to feel important, the need to feel necessary or needed, the need to feel understood, the need to feel safe, and the need to know the truth.

    At any given moment, the polarity meter on these “story values” may shift, and so we have a “scene.” I..e. a person feels suspicious, threatened, unloved, etc. When someone “makes a scene” they almost always threaten or disrupt one of these basic emotions. Then we react to the threat of the scene, often through, you guessed it—Fight or Flight, the most primal polarity there is.

    In my experience observing the human race, almost all human behavior can be reduced to primal lusts and basic emotional needs.

    Primal lusts that win the day lie at the heart of tragedy, and unmet or thwarted emotional needs lie at the heart of pathos and longing.

  17. When I read your words about how we neglect one or more of the areas, I started laughing. I’m 36 now, but it took me until I was 27 to have any awareness of my emotions. I was close to 28 before I had any awareness of my physical self. Then when I learned in your next paragraph about how those were also a challenge for you, it gave me joy. When I was young, I thoroughly believed that there weren’t many similarities between myself and others. During the past decade, I have discovered that I am wrong in my personal assessment with relation to others.

    I just learned that of the 100 books on the BBC list, I have read 43. This means that there are quite a few that I have not yet read. I have some work to do, obviously.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      One of the delicious ironies of being human is that we all wish to be unique–and yet are so relieved when we discover there are others like us. 😉

  18. Fiction is a reflection of personality and the reaction of different personalities to the world and other personalities around them. Thanks for a great post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I’ve always said I don’t think it’s any coincidence that two of my favorite subjects are story theory and personality theory. :p

  19. This is a subject that concerns me. I’m trying to write realistic characters but I’m not good at understanding people or why they do what they do. Some of my relationship partners have called this Aspergerish – and they helped raise AS relatives, so they had working knowledge of what it looks like. I have a decent idea of how my WIP story should go, but it has to be shown through the actions of the characters. I’ll have to read all the references in this post…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You’re not alone. I think we all experience moments (often moments that last years…) in which we are thoroughly bewildered by ourselves and everyone around us.

  20. This was a great post. I have been writing, off and on, since I was somewhere around 11 years old. I still have some of the stuff I wrote. When I look back at it I squirm at how little I understood those “other people”. It has been only recently that I have been able to write characters that others find believable and dialog the “feels like” actual conversation. This is, roughly, 5-6 decades later. I think I was especially deficient in this because of problems I went through in my youth. But, don’t think it’s going to take until you are in your 70’s to be able to create “real” characters. Keep at it. I think you were spot on about using yourself as a model (and some of the people around you doesn’t hurt). If you, like me, had a hard time in the early years, it will eventually help your characters to be more authentic.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This makes me realize that most of what makes me squirm in my early writings isn’t the writing but the naive characterization. :p

  21. To understand people, I ask people lots of questions from different angles. It’s not a coincidence that my Twitter profile description is “I don’t have all the answers, but I sure have many questions.” Having been a student journalist definitely helped me understand people better. A lot of the stuff boils down to a combination of reading about people and putting what I read into practice by interacting with others.

  22. Excellent, excellent advice here. I would like to add under your second assignment, Pursue Drama, to not only watch plays, but to be in them. Creating believable characters is a skill that must be developed and honed. Examples of actors who wrote include Shakespeare, Mishima, Robert Shaw, and Tom Hanks, just to name a few.

  23. Two ideas for ways that might help us to learn more about people: the Bible and books by Cynthia Tobias, starting with The Way They Learn. Tobias’s books, I think, are especially helpful in understanding people who are different than we are. Brandilyn Collins has a good book for writers called Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets A Novelist Can Learn From Actors.

    And yes on your suggestions Katie. A good list.

  24. Carol Painter says

    What an interesting post and subsequent discussion. I recently saw a quote somewhere which I’m finding useful. “We judge others by their actions but ourselves by our intentions.”

  25. Elizabeth Richards says

    There’s a series of books starting with Crucial Conversations which I’ve found very helpful in understanding people. The phrase that reverberates for me is asking “Why would a Rational Person do that?” It works in two ways: 1. As you observe people around you, it makes you curious, open, and forgiving. I wouldn’t have done that but I see why you might. 2. It’s a great question to ask about your characters. Have you worked to find a deep motivation to explain their decisions and actions?

  26. Thanks for all this great advice!

  27. What is your take on making the flaws of your characters based on people you know? Is it wrong for that to be done?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Not at all–as long as it’s not done in a way that will cause needless conflict with loved ones and/or the potential for libel.

      • Ah I see what you mean. Yeah, I’m not trying to indirectly complain about the behaviour of people I know. It’s more so that I have personal experience with their behaviour and therefore feel I can represent that in my story in a believable way. I do plan to make the characters overcome their flaws as the story goes on.

        However, should I ask the person if they would be okay with me basing character weaknesses off of them? Also, have you ever written characters with flaws based on people you’ve known? Thank you in advance.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I’ve never directly taken flaws/weaknesses from people I know. But, of course, we all do that. Really, that’s just us “writing what we know.” Unless you feel what you’re writing will be a direct correlative of your friend and/or the friend will read your character and recognize himself, you don’t *have* to ask permission.


  1. […] M. Weiland gives us a writer’s guide to understanding people, and Jami Gold studies romance beats vs. 12 stages of […]

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