How To Write & Roleplay Characters Who Are Different From You
(Or, How To Stop Writing Self-Inserts!)

Some people seem to be under the impression that writing and roleplaying characters who are unlike themselves is something you either can or cannot do, and that's the end of it. Fortunately, that's not true at all. It's a skill that just about anyone can learn and build up over time. And time must be stressed here - you're not going to get it overnight, and sometimes it can be a pretty tiring mental workout.

But difficult and tiring as it may be, it's an essential part of learning to write. Most stories require at least several characters, so if you can only write one character, you won't be able to write many stories very well, period.

First of all, I'd like to clear up a few misconceptions that some people have:

1. Being able to understand a character means you agree with the character. Absolutely not. Understanding a character simply means that you are aware of the beliefs, rationales, and emotions that drove the character to act a particular way. Unless you just have no ability to think for yourself, you shouldn't end up thinking that the character is right or justified for doing something abhorrently wrong. If you're still really worried about finding yourself sympathizing with a character you probably shouldn't, you can refer to "Is This My Character's Fault?" - A Flowchart.

2. A character who has anything in common with you at all is a self-insert. It's not. A self-insert is a character who is simply just you, or an idealized version of you. It's okay if a character has a few traits in common with you.

3. Writing or roleplaying a self-insert is completely harmless. Writing a self-insert is harmless if you are simply writing for your own personal entertainment and have no pretensions otherwise. Otherwise, writing a self-insert will most likely hurt your story and you. See Character Infatuation & Over-Identification - Do You Have These Problems? for more information.

Now with these out of the way, let's move on.

Learning to write characters different from yourself is a little like learning to dance. You start with easy, simple stuff you're comfortable with, and then as your strength and coordination increases, move onto more difficult, strenuous moves. So to learn how to write characters who are different from you, start with characters who are very similar to yourself, but with a few key differences here and there - and not just physical ones. You might start out by creating a character with a hobby or interest that you don't share, or who has a different methods handling conflicts and solving problems than you. Maybe this character is more patient than you are, or less patient. Either way, make sure this character has at least a few minor, yet non-superficial differences from yourself.

Now create another character who is both different from yourself and from this other character, and write a story where they interact and talk to each other. You may find that the two characters end up representing different parts of yourself. One of them might be your emotional side, the other might be your logical side. One of them might be your optimistic side, the other might be your pessimistic side. You'll likely soon find yourself writing your very own Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson, or your very own Miguel and Tulio. This is good, because it helps you build up your first personality templates.

Once you become comfortable with these characters, it's time to write characters who are even more different from you. You might borrow a few traits from other fictional characters you've seen. A few times when I found myself needing to write types of characters I wasn't very good at yet, I would keep a mental list of characters who were similar to the type of character I was trying to portray. When I found myself at a loss for what to have them do or say, I would ask myself what these other characters might say or do. After several weeks of doing this, I no longer had to think about these other characters very much - writing the first character was a near-automatic process.

Another thing you can do is practice your skills by writing characters from books, movies, TV shows, etc. whom you have a lot in common with. You will, of course, want to be careful that you don't project your entire self onto them. Always maintain awareness of how and where these characters are probably very different from you, and always take it into account when writing them. As you grow comfortable writing these characters, move onto ones who are similar to them while having less in common with yourself, and write them. You can repeat this process with any number of characters you have a lot in common with, yet are different from you in some significant way. By doing this, you develop the ability to write traits and personalities that you can apply to your own characters at some later point.

Again, all of this takes effort and it can be mentally draining at some point, so don't get discouraged if it wears you out or if you don't get overnight results. Just keep at it, and you'll get it eventually. Also, make a point of challenging yourself to write new types of characters now and then. Don't let yourself fall into a rut!

So, to simplify all this:

1. Start by writing characters you have a lot in common with, but who are also different from you in some important way. When you get comfortable writing them, move on to writing characters who are a little bit more different from you, and so on.

2. Think of some characters you're familiar with who are very similar to the type of character you're trying to write. When you're not sure how to write your character, ask yourself what those other characters would do or say.

In addition, it helps to practice empathy for people and characters who are different from you. (And no, empathizing won't make you automatically agree with a character's actions.) How To Be A Good Listener & Be Emotionally Supportive has some quick tips on this. Also, Simple Tips To Put Yourself In The Shoes Of Characters Who Aren't You has more tips to help you put yourself into the position of someone who is very different from you.

If you liked this, you might also be interested in:

Simple Ways To Fill Out & Humanize Your Character
Mindsets & Rationales That Lend Well To Villainy
Tips To Create & Write Better Non-Protagonist Characters (NPCs)
Quick & Dirty Characterization Tips & "Cheats"

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