​​How Do You Write [_________]

ML Day  
You Don’t Get Good Answers to Bad Questions

As a reader, it always pulls me out of a story when the author seems to be writing a character they don’t understand or relate to. This can be true of a protagonist or an ally, but I see it most often in antagonists and love interests.

Frequently, it’s because the author is writing a behavior they’ve observed, not an emotion they feel. These characters act in ways that progress the story forward, but their reasoning is opaque, even self-sabotaging. They behave inexplicably because the author can’t see themself in the character. 

So when writers pop up on various writing forums to ask how to write a certain type of person, my initial reaction is always delight. A person who is astute enough to recognize their blind spots and brave enough to ask for help is in a great position to grow as a writer. 

But while I applaud the spirit of these queries, they frequently lack sufficient detail to get the answers the author truly needs.

What do you mean?

Let's back out a little and look at an absurdist example:

Poster: How do I write a left-handed character?

Replier 1: Just write them like a right-handed character. People are people.

Replier 2: No, I'm left-handed. You can't just write my life like a right-handed person. Grab a can opener and try using it with your left hand. You have no idea how many little hurdles I jump over daily to exist in a right-handed world.

Replier 3: I liked it better when left-handed people didn't make things so political. Do we really need a left-handed person in every story?

Replier 2: Oh, yeah, spoken like a real rightie-tighter for sure.

Replier 3: Reverse-handism!

Poster: I just want to write my character accurately.

Replier 2: Maybe you shouldn't be writing about being a leftie if you aren't a leftie.

Replier 3: I hate leftie-fic.

Replier 4: I make $6,000 a day working from home.

Moderator: This conversation has run its course.

Thread Locked

Where did this question go wrong?

To my mind, it was the assumption that being left-handed was sufficient context to craft a character. Being left-handed in Salem, Massachusetts, circa 1690, is a vastly different experience than being left-handed in some cyberpunk future where bodies can be endlessly enhanced and modified.

The former will necessarily shape the character's personality more strongly than the latter.

But even in the era of the Salem Witch Trials, you can't link every element of a character's experience to this one attribute. Are they male or female? Young or old? Robust or ill? Social or withdrawn? What are their aspirations? Fears? Strengths? Weaknesses? Being left-handed in this time and place has a meaningful impact on the character, but it’s not the sole factor influencing them. 

When you use a single attribute as the defining facet of your character, you risk writing stereotypes. But when you ignore the social impact of those attributes, you risk writing a character that doesn’t feel genuine.

So, what? Don’t ask about writing other people? Is this what passes for advice around here?

You've got a point. I've done a lot of nay-saying. But I haven’t addressed the original concern. So, let’s try another example: 

You’re writing a contemporary mystery about a left-handed woman who leaves her high-pressure job as a Los Angeles-area forensic analyst to open a vacuum repair shop in rural North Dakota. In the course of her work, she discovers evidence of a murder in the canister of a vacuum she’s repairing.

There are some interesting dynamics here. Vacuum repair is a male-dominated field, and something like 90% of humans are right-handed. So, some more useful questions might be:

  • Does anyone know what particular challenges women face in the vacuum repair industry, especially in the US Midwest? 
  • What sort of experiences are common for women in male-dominated fields?
  • Are there any potential advantages to being a woman in vacuum repair?
  • Are there any vital tools in vacuum repair that are hard to use left-handed?

Note that these questions don’t ask how to write all left-handed people, or all women, or all vacuum repair technicians. These questions explore how a particular attribute impacts a person’s experience in a specific context. 

This allows the author to write a person they understand and who acts and reacts in genuine and logically consistent ways. You may not be a woman, but you can understand being an outlier in a group or being underestimated. You may not be left-handed, but you can understand what it is to use a tool that feels cumbersome or ineffective. 

Once you learn to ask the right questions, you will be able to craft a wider variety of believable and relatable characters.



“I make 6,000 a day working from home” this made me laugh so hard I had to stop reading :rofl: :sob:

Apr-22 at 00:33


yeah you make a valid point.

when someone asks say “how do I write a woman?” that is such a vast topic. “Or how do I write a gay person?” or “how do I write a XYZ culture?”

In neurodiversity circles we say “If you’ve met one neurodiverse person you’ve met one neurodiverse person.” Its because while we tend to have common behaviours and overlapping issues, we are all uniquely different.

When people ask these questions I think what they are really asking is “will someone sit down with me and be my source.” what they want is someone they can go to with questions and get answers as they come up.

my husband is the man I go to when writing male characters. He answers questions about … anatomy … that I don’t have and it helps. I would expect a man writing about a woman has a woman he can ask the same questions of.

I think that’s what people are really looking for … someone from that demographic to answer questions openly and honestly for them.

Apr-22 at 00:38


I’ve never understood the “how do I write X” questions. If you don’t have a handle on your character, if you don’t know who they are and what they want, why are you writing about them in the first place?
Their gender, sexual orientation, handedness or profession is the least interesting thing about them, and the one you should have the least trouble with if you have any experience interacting with human beings at all.
The salient part is what makes them different from all the other heterosexual, cis-gendered, irish-italian, left-handed TV-repairmen, not what they have in common with them.

Apr-22 at 00:57


That depends on the story. If it’s about the Salem witch trials, then gender is hugely important to the characters. If it’s about Stonewall then the same for sexuality. If it’s about Jason Bourne then his profession is really the most interesting thing about him because he’s a blank slate otherwise. And you really think that if people need to do research about something then they shouldn’t bother writing it? Huh?

Apr-22 at 01:01


This blog post is a great prompt to ask more than one question about your characters. I’ll add that when writing villainous/criminal characters it’s a good idea to research the personality disorders and traits often associated with chronic anti-social behaviors. A villain who is generous and superficially charming and yet entitled and sadistic is more entertaining that one who is simply the latter, for example.

Apr-22 at 01:28


Good article!

Questions I’ve seen get good answers – here and other places – are about how a character with a certain kind of background or skill set might approach a situation / problem. This can be technical (how would a criminal do a certain kind of crime) or more social (how might someone who recently immigrated to the US handle political conversations at work or at a party?)

In big communities, there’s usually someone there who actually knows and can provide specific, useful answers.

Apr-22 at 04:18


Isn’t this entire article a bit of an overreaction? Herman Mellville wasn’t a giant whale. Lewis Carrol wasn’t a nine year old little girl. You could argue that Johanna Spyri was, at one point, an energetic little girl, but she certainly wasn’t a grandfather, a Peter or perhaps even a Clara. In more recent writing we have Harry Potter created by J. K. Rowling, Sir Percy created by baroness van Orczy, Modesty Blaise created by Peter O’Donnell, Sabriel and Lirael created by Garth Nix and Flicka (a horse!) created by Mary O’Hara.

Even if you try to look at this argument from the other side, the side that says only people who have lived a given character can write a particular character, how many successful examples can you name? But lets assume you can name a successful example, then what? The entire book will be filled with just one type of character? Lesbian women write books about twenty lesbians and not a single other character? Forty year old white men write only about 40 year old white men and not a single other character?

Which leads me to another point. What will you do about characters where no one has lived that experience? Take Ken Catran’s Deep water blue as just one example. By this article’s argument that entire series should not exist, because none of us have ever been working until we collapse, stripping our cities for material to build a spaceship in a desperate attempt to save humanity from a killer virus. None of us have ever been forced, against our will, to pilot this spaceship throughout space in a desperate attempt to bring that DNA home after the virus has burned itself out. Even your example of a left handed woman living in witch trial era Salem cannot be written because not one of those women are still alive today.

I think any writer who say to herself or himself, “I can only write these characters because this is the only life I’ve ever lived” will be doing himself or herself a gigantic disservice. Every single example I quoted at the beginning was a bestseller and almost every single one of them sold millions of copies.

Apr-22 at 06:57


I don’t want to put words in @Rodrigocr’s mouth, but I suspect you’re mis-characterizing the point. All the ways a character is classified have an effect on both the pressures and choices available to them, but what makes a character interesting is what makes that character unique. Statistical truths aren’t necessarily individual truths, and individual truths don’t necessarily apply across the board. Research is important, but bad research won’t yield good results.

Apr-22 at 10:29


The answer was clear. Listen to person 2 and enter a discussion about what life is like for the left hander.

I dont see the problem.

Apr-22 at 11:08


Well said.

Apr-22 at 11:12


I am pretty sure you dont have to be a serial killer to write a serial killer character.

Nor a crime boss, drug lord, cannibal, chicken, monkey, sex trafficker, alien, living in a fantasy realm, have lived in the 1500s, or 1400s, been a viking, been genghis Khan’s pet tortoise, or have met a frodo or a dragon or a giant eye that sees everything except where frodo is.

Apr-22 at 11:17


Is that what this article said? Huh. I must have reeeally misinterpreted it, because I got something else entirely from it. I thought it was just saying to take into account more than one single character attribute.

Apr-22 at 11:22


You interpreted the article correctly – and it was clearly written.

Apr-22 at 12:01


Very enjoyable article.

Empathy is an important skill to learn as a writer - everyone has their own perspective and reasons, even if you don’t agree with them.

Even ‘the baddies’ are usually the hero in their own story, and it’s worth taking the time both to understand them, and why they’re wrong.

A good example is most of the cowboy films from the mid 20th century. Those brave men with their guns versus those cowardly Indians with their bows. (And yeah, like any conflict, tremendous evil was committed by both sides at some point)

Apr-22 at 13:05


Frequently, it’s because the author is writing a behavior they’ve observed, not an emotion they feel.[…] They behave inexplicably because the author can’t see themself in the character.

Yes, writing is not observational psychology. Your characters have to live in you first, and if you can’t make them work in your head, you won’t on the page.

I’ve never been one to give any credit to the idea that you can’t write characters with identities at variance with your own. It seems really, really narrow-minded and would lead to exactly the kind of segregated literature that’s at odds with efforts to build a less segregated real world. I’d rather screw up writing someone than feel I’m not allowed to try.

I have a character, the main and narrator character in the novel I’ve given up on writing, at least for now, who is very much at odds with who I am along a lot of dimensions. I spent a lot of hours reading and lurking on social media, looking at how people like this character explain and account for themselves. I did do my research.

And one of the things I discovered, trying make this character live in my own head, was that they weren’t really all that much at odds with me at all.

Apr-22 at 16:30


I’m very new here, and just started participating. I love the subject of character development. I truly believe character creation/development is a way of seeking how to understand people or put yourself in their shoes. We are all human able to communicate, observe, and understand each other. This is what fuels the inspiration for a story, right?

Something has inspired the character. They are built as you progress the story, determining how they would respond to a situation. The character is why the story exists. It’s about them and their moment.

When you begin making a character you must imagine them as a real individual with a real past and you are trying to understand them. How have they become the way they are now?

I’m very concerned about the real-ness of my characters and their interactions. I will be posting my first story chapters soon, and really hope to receive feedback on this subject.

Apr-26 at 16:12


Its almost like you become the actor of a character to really understand their challenges in everyday life. What you seemingly suggested is therefore if I have got you corectly, to immerse yourself in the protagonist and develop it to see the challenges through all their senses. Lefthanded must be part of their challenge. I can only imagine how challenging to wipe their arse would be.

Apr-27 at 11:21
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