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Reaching beyond your viewpoint to build better characters

January 11, 2013

A while back, I was challenged by a comment to write a lot less about sports. The commenter suggested that my tendency to fall back on sports as a vehicle for making a point might even be sexist.

I didn’t agree, but that’s all perception. I don’t see how simply writing about sports–it’s what I know–can be considered as demeaning to half my readers. But the commenter couldn’t see how writing about sports wasn’t exclusionary. It’s all based on how you personally see things.

It would’ve been easy for me to discount that viewpoint. I could simply ignore it, assert my singular lack of sexism, and move on to the next thing.

But I’m a writer. I make people for a living–or would like to. And some of those people would think of a writing blog that constantly trades in sports metaphors as being sexist. That’s a person with real opinions and experiences and strengths and weaknesses. It’s a person who might be interesting as a character. As such, it’s a person you might want to be able to portray as three-dimensional, even if you don’t agree with many of that person’s views.

The challenge, then, isn’t to immediately dismiss someone with a viewpoint you consider alien, but to understand that person. As a writer, if you can figure out how they tick, what makes them take the views they have, you might be able to use that to create a more realistic character.

For me, it could be worthwhile to create a non-stereotypical character who thinks sports metaphors are sexist. Why does she think that (if she’s a woman)? What experiences led her to the viewpoint? Why does sports seem to be a male-dominated areas, with an attraction primarily by men? Who in her history could have cemented that opinion and how?

If you’re a person who might view a guy talking in sports metaphors as sexist, then maybe you can create a character who does that, and understand him (if he’s a guy). Why does he think that? What experiences led him to that approach? Why does sports seem to be a universal language, and why might he be blind to someone who doesn’t see things that way? Who in his history could have cemented that opinion and how?

The goal here isn’t to create characters that conform to your viewpoint. It would be easy to create a coarse, misogynist frat boy who can’t escape his faded athletic glory, and considers himself God’s gift to women. It would be similarly simple to write a humorless lesbian who views sports as a drain on society and demands that school teams be banned so the money can be used for art and music.

Neither construct represents a real person. People are far more complex than that. Your characters should be, as well.

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