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?