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?

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.

Comments

  1. 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?

  2. Thanks for all this great advice!

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