How to Write a Homeless Character

Okay, so I’m from Brazil, so I know poverty. I’ve never been homeless, but I’ve been with not enough money to buy food. It’s not fun. Poverty is not fun. So, I have some things to say about how to write a homeless character. Actually, this was one of the things that turned me off from Magnum Chase series from Rick Riordan. I’m not sure if this is a spoiler, but the teen is homeless and it’s so freaking unbelievable, that it got me upset right away. This is something important to get right, as it’s real life. Even if your story is fantasy, this is something from the real world.

How to Write a Homeless Character: The Basics

  • What’s your end goal?
  • Freedom x Safety
  • The basics: food, water, shelter, time, money
  • The underworld
  • How will this change the character?

How to Write a Homeless Character: What’s your end goal?

Why are you writing a homeless character? Is this crucial to the story? Being homeless is a plateful. You have to think about everything: how will this character find food, shelter, shower…? Even the most basic things about being a human will change if the character is homeless, so this has to be massive. Please, only write a homeless character if there’s no other way for your story. Don’t romanticize poverty. Poverty sucks. Being homeless SUCKS. And a LOT of real people out there experience that. So, don’t treat this as something other-worldly, because it’s not. It’s real. And it’s not cool to be treated as something beautiful. Just like when authors romanticize depression, just don’t do that. Think long and hard about your end goal. Is there another way for your character to be or is it absolutely essential for them to be homeless? If they could even couch-surf, that would be easier than living on the streets.

How to Write a Homeless Character: Freedom x Safety

This is the old-age dilemna of freedom versus safety. We give up our freedom for our safety: our houses, easy food, no need to fighting for survival. When you’re homeless, then you’re on the other side of the spectrum. You have absolute no safety. You don’t know where you’ll sleep, you don’t know how you’re going to eat, and you have to fight to survive every single moment. This means that even the most basic things, as having clothes as possessions, could be stolen from you. There’s no safety whatsoever.

However, they also have all the freedom there is in the world. They can be wherever they want and do whatever they want because they have no strings, nothing holding them back, literally. In a way, it’s like writing a pirate: 100% of freedom, 100% of danger. 0 safety – no house, no food, nowhere to sleep, the police won’t protect you. 100 freedom – no house, nothing to lose, nothing making you stay in a certain place. You can literally walk somewhere else and do whatever you want.

Be careful, though, with only romanticizing poverty and forgetting the “cost” to this “freedom”.

How to Write a Homeless Character: The basics – food, water, shelter, time, money

You have to think about everything a person usually take for granted:

  • How will you feed yourself? You have no money, no house with a fridge, no way to get money. Will you beg, steal, hunt, try to get some money…?
  • How will you get water? Both to drink, to shower, to use the bathroom, to wash your clothes. Will you use a public bathroom? Will you try to find a shelter? Will you drink dirty water from the street? How often will you shower? How will you do laundry?
  • Shelter: where will you sleep? Where will you spend the day? And the night?
  • Time: what will you do with your time? You don’t have a job, maybe you don’t have a family. You have no obligations besides keeping yourself alive. How will this character spend time? Remember that you mostly won’t be able to walk in “public” spaces without being frowned upon, like malls, churches. You become basically invisible, undesirable. People don’t want you around, and the police want to get rid of you. You become a burden for the public. Even at parks, you might need to get out before somebody kicks you out.
  • How will you get money? Will you steal, will you try to make some money? Remember that it’s very hard to get a job when you’re homeless: you have no food, you’re dirty, you don’t have a house to go back to after your shift to get some rest for the next one, you don’t have clothes, nobody gives you an opportunity, and you definitely do not have a resume. Getting out of this situation is REALLY hard.

You have to really think about every aspect of a person’s life when they’re homeless. That’s why I said: isn’t there a better way to write this character? Is this absolutely essential to the story? Because this will consume a huge chunk of the story, so it has to be essential.

How to Write a Homeless Character: The Underworld

Being homeless opens doors to a world that the common people don’t realize. Being so vulnerable takes you close to drugs, prostitution, mafia, casinos, sickness, broken families, sadness, hunger, starvation, dirtiness. It’s not pretty. You have to think about how this will affect your story. Again, please don’t make this look like it’s beautiful and great. It’s not.

How to Write a Homeless Character: How will this change the character?

Will this character be homeless for the whole story? Or will they get out of this situation somehow? Anyways, you have to think about how this will change your character for good. Just like a character that been through jail, they will never behave normally again. Maybe they will have PTSD, trusting issues, depression. Remember, action and reaction. If you made your character go through this, you have to make them react appropriately too to the trauma.

How to Write a Homeless Character: Final Thoughts

Be careful. Don’t romanticize something as horrible as that. Think if you really need to put this in your book. If you do, don’t take anything for granted, even having a flu could kill your character, specially if they are in America, where there’s no free health care. Good luck.

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