How do you get inside someone else’s head?
Seeing the world through the filter of someone else’s personality, history, and concerns is how you create a wide range of distinctive characters with depth and relationships that feel authentic and unpredictable. It’s how you immerse your readers into a different culture, whether it’s one from the past, the far future, or simply elsewhere on the globe. The chance to inhabit the lives of other people is why many readers read. To succeed as a writer, you need to do it very well.
But getting out of your own head and into someone else’s is a lot harder than you might think. Most people naturally assume that they’re looking at the world in the only reasonable way — they’re seeing the world as it is, not as it filters through their own personality and experiences. This is why most writers, even the best ones, tend to build their characters from themselves, or at least parts of themselves. Hence the old joke that MFA programs tend to produce first novels about MFA writers who are struggling with their first novels.
But if you want to create characters who are more independent of you, then you need to learn to see past your own filters – to get out of your own head. There are a couple of techniques that can help.
The first and most obvious is to talk to other people, preferably people who think very differently from you. I’ve found that Facebook is a good venue for this, more than Twitter – it’s just ridiculous to expect people to pack complex thoughts into 140 characters. So look online for people who disagree with you on important matters, whether it’s Evangelical Christians or atheists, Trump supporters or Bernie Bros.
Then genuinely talk to them. Don’t simply trade talking points and barbs. Don’t troll them, and stay away from people who troll you. You’re looking for people who honestly disagree with you and are willing to open up about it. If you’re like me, you’ll soon discover that the people who disagree with you aren’t necessarily ignorant, venal, or stupid. They simply have their own way of looking at the world, their own priorities. Even if you still think they’re mistaken – and they may be – you’ll understand where they’re coming from.
Read. As I say, good writers let you see the world as someone else, often someone very different from yourself. Look for books that deliberately create this different sense of things, whether it’s a sympathetic look inside a serial killer (Joyce Carol Oates’ Zombie is a good example), or a vampire (I’d recommend Ann Rice rather than Twilight), or something even stranger. A personal favorite is C. J. Cherryh’s Wave Without a Shore, which is told from the point of view of a practicing solipsist – someone who believes that he is the only person who exists, and that everyone else on his planet is a figment of his own imagination.
I’ve just finished Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, whose narrator is an autistic teenager named Christopher. Haddon’s use of language and detail puts you very much in the mind of someone for whom minor deviations from routine are terrifyingly overwhelming, who has no idea how jokes and metaphors work, and who can only walk across a crowded train station by imagining a red line painted on the floor, leading him to where he’s going. Being in Christopher’s head can feel a little claustrophobic, but because you experience his world, you gain a real appreciation for his courage and ingenuity, even as he demonstrates just how hard he can be to live with.
Books from the past are even more effective at putting you into a different sort of mind, because here you aren’t just entering the head of an unusual individual. You’re inhabiting an entire forgotten culture. I’ve written before about how different eras have their own concerns and blind spots. When you read a book that was written in an earlier era, you immerse yourself in the view of the world they had then. You can come to understand why they believed what they did, strange as it may seem today, and perhaps learn to see some of your own historical blind spots.
I recently read a sermon given by John Tillotson before the House of Commons on Guy Fawkes’ day, 1678. The text he’s preaching from is the passage in the gospels (Luke 9:55 and 56, for those of you keeping score at home) where James and John want to call down fire from heaven to toast some people who turned Jesus away, and Jesus dresses them down for it.
The point of Tillotson’s sermon is that killing other people in the name of Christianity isn’t a very Christian thing to do. “As if he whom we call the Father of Mercies were delighted with Cruelty, and could not have a more pleasing Sacrifice offer’d to him than a Massacre, or to put a greater honor on his Priests than to make them Judges of an Inquisition; that is the Inventors and Decreers of Torments for Men more Righteous and Innocent than themselves.” Granted he does focus a fair amount of the sermon on how the Roman Catholic church broke this principle – Guy Fawkes was part of a Roman Catholic conspiracy to blow up Parliament, after all. But even there, he pulls himself back. “But I must remember my Text and take heed of imitating that Spirit which is there condemned, whilst I am inveighing against it.”
Tillotson’s point — that you can’t win people over by terrorizing them — seems blindingly obvious today. But it wasn’t at the time. The original Guy Fawkes plot took place only 73 years earlier, which meant there were still people alive who remembered it. A few decades before Tillotson preached the sermon, England had executed a king and fought civil wars over religious matters. Twenty years earlier, the Pilgrims in Boston were imprisoning Baptists and hanging Quakers. And the Salem witch trials were still a decade and a half in the future.
As I read this sermon, I felt like I was watching the Enlightenment take hold. Tillotson’s central idea had been floated before – in Luke, for instance — but this is where it first began to catch on. Tillotson, later Archbishop of Canterbury, was a major force in the intellectual currents of his day. I can feel the hope behind his contention that you don’t have to destroy people who disagree with you. You can convince them. Everyone, regardless of what they believe, is blessed with the gift of reason, and appeals to good sense can break down the divisions between different camps and bring an end to the religious battles that had ripped apart Europe for a century and a half. Listening to Dr. Tillotson, I can feel the blossoming vision of a peaceful world in which all people are united and ruled by the dictates of right reason.
Of course, it’s turned out to be a lot more complicated than that. But being able to dip into that hopeful world takes me out of twenty-first century New England, and to an extent out of myself. It’s a chance to be someone very different for a while.
And that’s the point. You can’t ever get out of your own head entirely. But by entering into the head of someone else, you can learn to recognize that some of the truths you take for granted aren’t shared by everyone. If you do this often enough, it becomes easier to understand people – and to create characters – who are very different from each other and from you.
I’d love to hear what you have to say about getting into other people’s heads — the comments are half the fun. In addition, if you have any questions about your own work whose answers might be of general interest, please feel free to ask, either in the comments or on the Writer Unboxed Facebook page.
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