How do you write about people and relationships?
November 26, 2016 3:32 PM   Subscribe

I am working on a writing assignment that is a kind of autobiography (let's say for school, but not really). Well, apparently, describing people isn't the straightforward task it would seem! Tips for getting started would be useful!

So, technical challenges of writing aside, this is a hard thing to do! I don't know how novelists or even diarists do it! Most people are quite ambiguous and fraught with contradictions. It seems like there are a million ways of describing the same person. Pinning them down to some kind of caricature based on a few mistaken assumptions seems unfair. Like, if you changed the emphasis of a story slightly, it would draw a reader to completely disparate conclusions about the people involved. Who is to say who is a hero or villain?

Nevertheless, this is often what writers do, right? Create a central narrative that they can stick to? And they often use their own lives for material, presumably. I feel like I'm too vague a person to tell a story in that way - I have too many mixed feelings to everyone. Any tips for approaching this, o ye writers and clever folk Metafilter? (Apologies if this goes under writing instead of human relations).
posted by benadryl to Human Relations (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You have to pick a perspective to write from and stick to it. If you are playing yourself, play yourself. If you want to play someone objective, write that way. YOU, as the narrator, are the common denominator. This then gives a backing, solid plane on which to characterize other people, because presumably you can incorporate your perspective and your opinions won’t change.

Your opinions CAN be mixed, but presumably they will then not contradict each other, which is what would actually bother a reader. Complex characters are more interesting, not less.

Picking a perspective is much more important than picking a certain time/place/event timeline, because with a good narrator you can weave those all together in the way you prefer. You’re asking the right question.
posted by tooloudinhere at 3:44 PM on November 26, 2016

Honestly, the way professional writers do this is to think of their subject as a character. They decide what kind of story they want to tell and what kind of roles they want all the various characters in that story to play. For example, Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton was a really complicated person, but in the musical, Lin Manuel Miranda depicts him as, first and foremost, a striver. He's ambitious, he has a lot of big ideas, he's willing to fight for those big ideas, and he always seems to want more for himself, his family, and his country. I'm sure there were times when Alexander Hamilton, the man, was not like this, but it works reasonably well as a sort of through-line uniting a lot of the different things that Hamilton did during his life.

It wouldn't work to pretend like Alexander Hamilton was something we know very well that he was not (an aspiring ballerina, an uneducated lout, a sassy waiter), but within the parameters of what might feel right for Hamilton, "ambitious striver" works very well.

One thing that is always important in good writing is not to *tell* us who is the hero and who is the villain, but to show us who the character is by describing their actions. Alexander Hamilton comes off as ambitious because he worked his ass off to get to America, and then upon arrival, walked into a university and asked to be fast-tracked for a degree. During the Revolutionary War, rather than hanging back and being thankful for his administrative position which could keep him far from combat, he repeatedly begged Washington for a command of his own. After the war, rather than practicing law and living in whatever version of the US got settled on, he took on a role in government and helped to shape how the country would function. All of these choices tell us who Hamilton is. He almost never tells us in his own words that he's ambitious, and even when Miranda puts those words in his mouth, he does it in indirect ways, like "I'm not throwin' away my shot," rather than "I'm a real ambitious guy who's going places".

If you want a hero, have your main character act heroic. Don't describe him as a hero.
posted by Sara C. at 4:17 PM on November 26, 2016 [7 favorites]

Additionally, if we're talking about fiction, one answer to your question is just not to base anything on yourself or any specific person, but instead to come up with a character you think is interesting, or funny, or who would have an unusual perspective on the kind of story you want to tell.
posted by Sara C. at 4:24 PM on November 26, 2016

"Show, don't tell" is the maxim you want to work from here. You can have your main character think about their opinions of the other characters' actions, but don't get caught up in too much detailed description. That makes for boring writing and flat characters.

Also, there is nothing wrong with shifting a story to edge the reader towards one conclusion or another. That's the beauty of writing -- you get to make some of those choices, and leave some up to the reader. There doesn't have to be a "hero" and a "villain". Characters can and should be complex, with real motivations and reasons for doing and saying the things they do. The reader will empathize or not based on their own experience.
posted by ananci at 4:57 PM on November 26, 2016

Who is to say who is a hero or villain?


Anybody's take on an individual is going to be that, their take. Full of bias. One set of eyes, one perspective. That's all you can do, you just have to do it as honestly as you can.

The way to approach it is not to think of chracteristics, of judgements, but of facts. Let the reader judge. Ambiguity is fine; ambiguity is welcome, it builds up the picture. This Truman Capote story is a good example. It's the contrasts and the conflicts that bring across what his cousin was like so clearly --- the weather-beaten face and the timid eyes, the naivete and unwordliness (never eaten in a restaurant) and the bravery and expertise (killed the biggest rattlesnake the county had every seen).
posted by Diablevert at 4:59 PM on November 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

I learned to write in a lot of different ways, but the most fun and the most easily practiced is by reading and imitating other writers. Who are your favorites? I read sheaves of Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, Dorothy Parker, all for fun, and when I wrote stories I naturally imitated them. Of course the results were embarrassing at first, just as they were when I was trying to learn to swim or to ride a bike, but to this day I feel that I'm just a little better for having read a well-crafted work of fiction (even if it's for the thirtieth time).

Who are your favorite literary characters? Why do they act the way they do? Do you see their authors doing similar things with characters in their other stories? I like to play with these ideas, and see what's resounding with me.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:47 PM on November 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Are you writing an autobiography, or are you aiming to write something like a short story that's maybe informed by your experiences?

If autobiography: you can initially take a (sort of) objective view of your life by describing "what happened", e.g. chronologically. There are some facts to use (you went to a particular at such and such a time and place, finished with X qualification, had X siblings, worked at X company) - something like a resume, you'd select pivotal events and experiences. And then you might want to situate this series of experiences by looking at, on the one hand, how your life intersected with larger events and trends in the world - e.g., graduated during a recession - and on the other how your personal motivations played into those events at the time, and what they meant to you then, and now.

(You could also present those events e.g. grouped by theme, or even by setting, instead of chronologically.)


Like, if you changed the emphasis of a story slightly, it would draw a reader to completely disparate conclusions about the people involved.

Yeah, exactly. In part, it depends on which events you select (and which behaviours you're showing). If I wanted to write a story about the relationship between my brother and I in childhood, say - I could do it in a way that made me look like a jerk, if I only included the times I e.g. ate the last piece of pizza. Or I could include e.g. the time I taught him how to play a song on the piano and made it fun. Also depends on the slant, could assign myself motivations or context for the pizza slice grab that could make me sound sympathetic. Or I could do the piano thing from my sib's POV and have it so that actually, it wasn't fun for him, and he was just going along with it because he felt bullied, or because he figured pretending to have fun was the quickest way to get out of it so he could go out and play soccer, which is what he really wanted to do (and that could be done in a way that made him look sympathetic or not, too).

(But also you'd want to choose events that are meaningful to you, and that, when presented, in the way they're presented, add up to something you think is important to say.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:21 PM on November 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

I like Dan Harmon's advice as linked by Jacqueline. To me, it falls under the category of brainstorming. A fiction writing teacher of mine would conduct brainstorming sessions by leading us through relaxation exercises, and maybe reading some poetry, and then telling us to "brainstorm for objects." These would be objects from your memory. Then you'd pick the ones that resonate with you and write about them. As with Harmon's characters chosen from your phone, they should make you somewhat uncomfortable. They will become associated with characters; don't worry.But the good thing about objects is they will keep you from getting too abstract and they may in fact embody some contradictions about the character. Contradictions are good.
posted by BibiRose at 5:04 AM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

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