The Single Greatest Piece of Advice for a Writer

The piece of advice I’m talking about here is pretty general, and wasn’t given to me personally. It comes from an interview with George R.R. Martin (author of the famous Song of Ice and Fire series). Even though I’m not a huge fan of those novels, this nugget has proven more useful to me than any other.

“You have to start from the assumption that each character is more like you than unlike you.”

When I first heard it, I nodded a little and thought it sounded interesting. But as I began to think about that philosophy more and more, I realized how freeing it was. I’d painted myself into holes on several occasions because I wasn’t sure how to write a character’s dialogue, or figure out how they’d feel in certain situations. Because, well, they weren’t me. I was trying to make them fundamentally different from myself, when all people are fundamentally the same.

With a few rare exceptions, people react similarly to every situation imaginable. Someone starts yelling at them? Fight or flight. An unexpected event makes their life worse? Oh lord, why me? At a very basic level, people all want the same things—food, shelter, water, a feeling of importance—and the only difference come in how much emphasis they place on each separate desire.

Realizing that, I decided I was approaching writing all wrong. Instead of starting off with how each character was totally different, I only needed to figure out the emphasis they placed on core values. For example, a greedy person doesn’t show that greediness all the time (unless they’re a caricature); that side only comes out in situations that will bring them profit.

In terms of dialogue, being more like than unlike a character means you can write without constantly stopping to consider ‘what they would say,’ because the majority of the time their words are not so different from yours in the same situation. I’m convinced that a lot of stilted dialogue originates from authors trying to write characters wholly different from themselves.

So there you have it. The greatest advice an author can receive—in my opinion, at any rate. What single piece of advice has helped you the most as a writer? Do you prefer to think of characters as similar, or fundamentally different? Let me know in the comments down below.

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