Saturday, February 19, 2011

Real People, Real Characters

It's Josh again. Today, I'm looking at one part of characterization.

A couple years ago, I read a creative writing book that suggested it was a bad idea to base fictional characters on real people. At this point in my career, I disagree. The people in your life can be useful templates or starting points for new characters. Got writer’s block? Start looking around. Everyone has a story, and I see no problem with stealing your friends and family to come up with new plotlines and character traits.

Creativity can be about more than pure invention. A good character or plot point can routinely come from your background or experiences. This might sound lazy, but I harvest stories wherever I can find them. Instead of coming up with an entirely new personality, I can work with someone real, someone filled with texture and history.

Using people you know can be helpful because they are emotionally charged. Starting off with a real person means you can take advantage of what you already feel. If someone irritated you, you know exactly what traits bug you. If you fell in love with someone, then you can call on all of those little details that enticed you. I wrote Dream Runner (scheduled for release in March, 2011) in about three months. I was able to go so fast because I was very much in love. I refocused all of those feelings into one character, Cora. When I described Cora, I was thinking of a real person. I had her laugh, her hair, her smile, her eyes, and all of her little traits to work back from.

Two years ago, I started work on Poisoned Star (scheduled for release in August, 2011). At the time, I was fascinated by a young woman. She had long hair and laughed a lot, but at the same time, her eyes seemed haunted. When I started a book about a young woman kidnapped and forced to pilot a powerful starship, I picked the girl as my starting point. In time, the character evolved away from the real person.

By starting with someone I already know, the foundation is already in place. I don’t have to pick a birthday, name her hometown, her parents’ profession, or any of another hundred little details that make a character feel real.

The obvious downside is that some people might not like being new characters. A friend of mine freaked out when he learned I based one of my characters on him. This is pretty rare, but it’s something to consider. This problem has an easy fix. Change the character’s name because by the time you’re done, there’s a very good chance the original source won’t be able to recognize the character you’ve written.

1 comment:

Nahno McLein said...

I agree.
But: you have to be careful with real people. Using their traits is probably advisable as you say but one can easily get caught up in one's own subjectivity and thus loosing the focus on the story. Character always has to bring something to the story.
Good post.
Nahno ∗ McLein