Make your characters anti-ciphers!

A lot of beginning writers seem to make the mistake of creating cipher characters, or characters who are too much like themselves. That’s not only unoriginal, but truly limits your creativity. Why would you only want to write about people who are exactly like you?

I’ve made no secret of the fact that Emeline Troy of Little Ragdoll was strongly based upon myself when I went back from scratch and memory after 16.5 years. People who know me well will doubtless recognise much of myself in Emeline, like how we had hyperlexia at age three; our love of Hermann Hesse and world religions; our voracious reading habits; reading at an advanced level even as a young child; how the first book we ever read, at age three, was the adult, uncensored version of Grimms’ Fairytales; becoming vegetarian and even cutting out dairy products; love of Indian music; being very inspired by the Krishna story; etc.

However, there are still a number of important differences. While I did grow up without a lot of money, my family at least wasn’t so poor for the majority of my childhood. I also only wish I went to Vassar; I didn’t even think of becoming a librarian till I was an adult; I’m the oldest of two, not the middle of nine; I’m Sagittarius, not Taurus; I’ve never smoked pot; I wasn’t quite so young when I discovered Hesse; I didn’t switch to a private Episcopal boarding school for disadvantaged young girls when I was fifteen; and, as much as I love and admire George, I still feel like John is my favourite Beatle.

My Cinnimin was a big-time cipher for awhile. All my interests and thoughts were hers, with absolutely no context, since I had the incompletely-formed mind of a teenager. Cinni certainly has the background to suggest why she’d be drawn to Marxist-Socialism, but she just comes across as a proletarian version of a limousine liberal. After drifting further and further Left over the years, really alienating and scaring almost everyone, she suddenly becomes apolitical.

You can always give a characters a few traits in common with you. Some of the traits I’ve doled out include a sweet tooth, a tendency to throw dirty clothes on the floor, a passion for art, and so-called “tomboy” interests. It’s only natural to include some of yourself with your important characters, but don’t let them overwhelm the character.

I’m sure I’ll get some friends asking why I would write about “goyim” (a word I loathe and despise, btw) instead of sticking with Jewish characters, or why I’d make a fair number of my characters members of other denominations. Short answer: Because I can. The gist of the longer answer: Because I don’t want to limit myself, I have great respect for other ways of life, and I have to write about the kinds of characters a setting dictates.

Outside of my own religion, I’ve happily, positively written about Russian Orthodox, atheists, Roman Catholics, Eastern Catholics, Georgian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Methodists, Unitarians, Lutherans, Western Hindus, Western Theravada Buddhists, Episcopals, Anglicans, Shi’ite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Wiccans, you name it. My Jewish characters affiliate Modern Orthodox, New Age, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Traditional, Masorti, Progressive, Hareidi, and right-wing Orthodox. I really enjoy the chance to depict people who aren’t all like I am.

While I have nothing against writers who choose to only or mainly write what they know (particularly within youth literature), to positively depict communities many readers might not otherwise know much about, I personally don’t want to limit myself. A good writer is open to writing about all sorts, and cherishes the opportunity to learn about how other religions, cultures, races, and ethnicities live.


2 thoughts on “Make your characters anti-ciphers!

  1. Sometimes I do give my characters (or at least my heroines) a few traits that I have because I feel so connected to them. I’ve also given two of my heroines snippets from my past as their own history. I like doing that because it makes the story more authentic. But I still do have a bunch of characters who are nothing like me, and have lives vastly different from my own, which I like to do because I live through them. 😉


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