The ‘Real Stuff’ of Character Building

A few years ago, my sister gave me a t-shirt that reads, “Careful or you will end up in my novel.” She meant it as a joke, but the truth is that my t-shirt does not lie: for me, every person I meet is a potential character in my mystery series. Like every writer, my writing is informed by my experiences and that includes experiences of people.

That said, none of my fictional characters are ‘real.’ Though they may be inspired by someone I meet, I usually take my creative license very seriously and make my characters composites of traits that fit the needs of my story lines. For example, I met a charming World War II veteran at a dinner speaking engagement last fall. He kept everyone at the table laughing with his wisecracks and his stories of being an ordnance (explosives expert) officer during his military career. When he noted that he still had all ten original fingers, I knew I had to use that line in a novel, so I began to formulate the character of Vern Metternick in my upcoming release.

What was even more surprising to me – and especially delightful! – was that as I developed the character and his relationships with other characters in the book, I realized his explosives experience could lead to a key, and very funny, scene in the novel that I had not anticipated. So my chance dinner partner unknowingly not only gave me the kernel for a wonderful character, but also actually helped shape the plot of the book. It really is true that authors can create characters, but not always control them, and I say that’s a good thing! Especially when those characters can solve knotty plot problems and make the book even better than I had planned.

There is also a flip side to my t-shirt – on occasion, I do use real people in my mystery series. Since my books deal with current conservation issues, and I aim for strong local connections, I use real places in my books, and actual experts in the story. I always ask those folks for permission to write them into the novel and then thank them in my acknowledgments. To put them at ease, I promise not to make them murderers (unless they ask to be!), and I generally give them an overview of how they’ll fit into the story. So far, no one has turned me down, and I get a real-life connection out of it that my readers love…not to mention one more person who is almost as excited as I am when the book debuts!

As a result, I assure my friends who see my shirt that their secrets are safe with me. Besides, they can always take comfort in that lovely disclaimer that prefaces fiction: “Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.”

And if you believe that, I have some ocean-front property in Arizona I’d be happy to sell you.

Where do your characters come from?


20 Replies to “The ‘Real Stuff’ of Character Building”

  1. This is a good topic for the writers’ water cooler. Like yourself, most of my characters are composed of qualities and characteristics taken from a number of people. From what you wrote it seems that you are unlike myself in how much you mix people together to get a new fictional character. I think the smallest number of people I believe went into any one fiction character that I wrote is 4. Another question/idea is: is your writing autobiographical at all? I would say that some of my fiction writing is autobiographical in the same way that a Fun House mirror is a great way of seeing what someone really looks like.

    1. Yes, Miriam, I’ve found that my fiction is very autobiographical, though no one but me may know it. For instance, I may use a restaurant that has special memories for me, or I include a funny story I heard at a specific event; when I read the book, I remember the story and the event itself, so it’s like my fiction writing is almost a journal of where I’ve been, whom I’ve met, and even what I’ve done. I had no idea this would be the case when I started writing fiction.

  2. I’ve seen that shirt in a catalogue Jan, and threatened to buy it. 🙂

    It is true, even for non-fiction writers like myself, the people we interact with each day often inspire the characters represented in our books. I use a lot of fictional stories, based on compilations of real-life people, to show examples of my subject matter. Readers are drawn into stories, and seem to remember details easier that way.

    As writers, the trick is often to create enough intrigue to keep the pages turning, while offering enough familiarity so the reader feels comfortable. Taking cues from everyday people provides the perfect balance.

    There can be another bonus to this method. If someone knows they’ve influenced your story, they’re more apt to spread the word about your book. You could provide their 15 minutes of fame.

    1. Anita, my real-life models are some of my best promoters! And then you have the people who are SURE you modeled a character after them, despite all your assurances. When that happens, I know I’ve done a good job making a character real.

  3. I too fictionalize any person that might inspire me to create a character. And ‘create’ is a key word here. No one in my writing is a real character, but may have qualities of those I love, or those I meet briefly. This is one of the things I enjoy most about writing — the freedom to have characters be what you need them to be, or even to take on lives of their own — that is the best!

    1. I agree, Angela – I love having characters do what I want them to do…except when they won’t! I had no idea that some characters really do have a mind of their own until I had a couple of them that just didn’t respond the way I expected. And that’s another fun part of creating characters – the surprises you get.

  4. Great thoughts! When I write fiction, my characters are usually based on someone IRL.

    I won a young author award in first grade for my first story ever penned entitled “The Killer Worm.” I decided that I must be a naturally brilliant writer, but found out later on that i had written in several family and friends into the characters, names and all. I think my story won b/c people liked seeing their names in print :).

    1. People LOVE to be in print, Gillian. As I noted to Anita above, it’s a quick (sneaky?) way to grow your fan-base.

  5. I love this mindset, because it means that every bit of life is harvestable. Now I just need to start writing fiction!

    1. I was always a nonfiction writer myself, until I realized that the line between fact and fiction can be so thin, it’s almost transparent! I always tell my readers that I make very little up, since so much of my stories are real.

  6. Hi Jan
    Great post. I mentioned another author and his books in my novel (With his permission) and another author’s picture in the book trailer for the same book and he had volunteered without knowing what the book was about or what the trailer entailed. (He was happy with the end results) You never know who might be next… 🙂 I’ve got to get me one of those shirts!

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Karen. It adds a delightful element to fiction when there’s a ‘real’ connection.

    1. Thanks, Jordyn. Maybe the shirt dealer will give me a cut on this week’s sales…that’s actually something I’d be interested to know: how many novelists consider related merchandise? Have you thought about hats or shirts with PROOF on them? I considered doing hats when my first book came out, but I couldn’t imagine having the time to run a merchandise outlet from my website along with all the other tasks required of an author. Too many ideas, too little time.

  7. Thanks for making me smile! BTW, although mine wasn’t fiction, I have used neighbors and friends, including one in a marriage book. She laughs that although she’d love to tell her parents she’s in a book, she can’t! 🙂

  8. I love that t-shirt – it’s fabulous 🙂 As for my characters, sometimes they just pop into my head almost fully formed, other times they’re a mixture of different traits (with the occasional pinch of someone I’ve met – like an odd turn-of-phrase or mannerism).

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