Beginning writers often hear the advice to “write what you know.” Eventually you may worry that all your characters seem like versions of the same person: you. Or maybe you have the perfect story idea but you have nothing in common with the main character. How do you write from a point of view you’ve never experienced?
It’s a challenge, for sure. But that doesn’t mean you should scrap your dream story idea to write something more familiar. You can write a character unlike yourself. You just need to make a few extra considerations, especially during revisions.
People aren’t what they seem.
First and foremost, let go of your assumptions about people like your main character. For example, I grew up in a blue-collar family and I had a chip on my shoulder about wealth and privilege. In my mind, every rich kid — and certainly every rich kid who attended a private school — was pretty much the same.
As I matured, I learned that suffering and joy are all relative. Everyone experiences the spectrum. By that token, a character with more privilege than myself has a right to experience sadness, longing, and regret. A less privileged character probably won’t sit around feeling sorry for themselves all day, either. Many human struggles are universal.
Be careful with stereotypes. While many of them exist for a reason, real people always find ways to surprise us. We all have reasons for being the way we are. Give your protagonist a rich backstory and don’t rely on their race, class, or occupation to establish their defining characteristics.
Primary sources will help develop voice.
If your main character’s voice differs significantly from your own, you’ll need to do some research. Spend time reading blogs and essays written by people like your character. Look for hashtags on social media dedicated to sharing experiences among specific groups of people. If you have an acquaintance whose experience you can draw on, interview them over coffee. Get to know your character by meeting others like them.
If your character lives with a disability, injury, trauma, or mental illness, find organizations dedicated to this issue. Many such organizations have websites with a wealth of detailed information. Our assumptions about what life is like for others often turn out to be off base. You may find you have more to learn than you thought.
You need beta readers who share your main character’s experience.
Beta readers and critique partners are always important. They become even more critical when you write from a point of view outside your own. You need to find beta readers who can tell you from firsthand experience whether you’ve gotten it right.
When you share your work with beta readers, be ready to listen. Don’t get defensive or try to argue with someone about their own experience. You’ve asked for help precisely because you may not know what you don’t know.
Writing from a different point of view can be a tremendous learning experience. It requires vulnerability, curiosity, and an open mind. You might be surprised by what you learn about a group of people you previously took for granted. While it will require a little extra work, writing someone you don’t know can make you not just a better writer, but a better person, too.