Real-Life Characters

Happy Sunday, to you all, Katy Lee here. We were so honored this week to have NYT Bestselling Author, Lynn Kurland visit the Scribes. If you missed her posts, click here and here. But do come back after!

Something Lynn said that made me snicker was about one of her techniques in creating characters. She said, “I’ve also been very blessed with wonderful, witty friends, delightfully awful former boyfriends, and plenty of kooky people crossing my path. They all become grist for the mill.”

I laughed because of how openly she admits to using characteristics from real-life people she knows. I, myself, worry my family and friends will see themselves in my books and not take too kindly to it, so I tend to mix a few characteristics up to be sure they don’t.

Regardless of whether you are inspired by real people or not, your characters still need to come alive on the page. The key to doing this is not by listing all their characteristics like a police report, but by showing certain actions that give a real visual to your reader. For example, instead of saying someone is very tall, note how they have to duck their head to walk through a doorway.

In the past, I have had some trouble with some characters and readers have said to me, “I don’t know what this person looks like, or you need more description about this person because I can’t see them in my mind.”

Nine times out of ten, it is because I, myself, don’t really know the character, and I’m finding it hard to describe them. I don’t know if their eye twitches or if they rub a bristly jaw. I don’t know if they hold back smiles or let them fly. I don’t know if they cross their arms to cut off the world or embrace life openly. And the reader won’t know these things until I spend time getting to know the character.

The Unlocked Secret: I’m with Lynn when I say observing people is a great way to create characters for your stories. Some of the things I’ve seen people do are so weird I know I could never make those things up on my own. Like a certain person I know, and I won’t name names here, but they do this weird thing when he– I mean they– turn the page of a book. They wet their finger and make a slurping sound that literally has me cringing from across the room. Yuck. But, seriously, even when you’re not trying to gross your reader out, you still want your book to play like a movie, where every person comes alive with motion and feeling. Just be sure to mix the traits up a bit so your friends don’t know you’re watching their every move…and taking notes.

Question: Where do you get your ideas for characters? Do you use actors, models, friends and family?


23 thoughts on “Real-Life Characters”

  1. I loved Lynn’s comment about quirky friends, too. I have one writer friend who freely shares her quirks with me knowing fully I want to use them in my books. LOL

    The other powerful thing that makes characters three-dimensional is subtext. If everything your character says and does is “on the nose” (as screenwriters call it) you miss the opportunity to richly layer the character with attributes and secrets the reader will enjoy discovering.

    1. Oh, yes, I love to discover who the character really is. That’s big, especially in suspense. When writing, ir’s hard to know when to hold back and not reveal too much.

  2. I’m a people watcher, at parks, bars, airports, but I also use my family in my writing, not everything about them just some of their more dramatic traits and since I doubt any of them will pick up a book that I’ve written I’m in the clear.

  3. I’ve always been an observer (maybe that’s how I ended up with BAs in Anthropology and Psychology – behavior can be so much fun to watch). My characters’ traits seem to come from that mysterious part of the brain – the same well my ideas come from. But, I do know many of my male characters have been influenced by the snarky men in my family. I shamelessly steal catchphrases and other male oddities from my husband and kids.

  4. Great question, Katy. I think most writers are secretly voyeurs to some degree. Otherwise we could never create characters out of thin air. Without some kind of reference to real people, our characters are figments of our imagination that have no substance. It makes characters much more interesting and entertaining if they remind us of someone we could meet on the street or even in our own family.

    I struggle too with getting deep into the character’s head and staying there and I think your right. You have to get to know them before you can bring them to life. I like Kristan Higgins’ idea of a character interview. Once you’ve sat down and asked them everything under the sun, you get to know them like they are your best friend…then you can write about them and know what they would do in any given situation.

    1. I try to even dig into the non-essential characters, but not as much. You know, the ones that may only have a few lines or pages, like a grocery store clerk. I don’t usally spend any time in their heads, but only observe them from my main POV’s perspective. I don’t like to just say the store clerk replied….but rather, discribe them as my character sees them in the moment. That way they don’t seem like a flat zombie character roaming through my book, but in fact, have a story of their own that the reader will never know.

  5. All good ideas, Katy. I have to be able to see my characters…literally. I have note cards with their picture and key facts/characteristics on a cork board next to my PC. I mostly use pictures of actors and actresses from days of old…don’t want it to be too easy for my 12-year-old readers. But I do mix in my current favorites as well. Alexander Skarsgaard (dreamy!) looks an awful lot like one of my character’s father, but that same character’s mother is the spiting image of Bea Arthur from the 1940’s…Go figure!

  6. Most of my characters have combination traits of people I have known, or have seen on television or in films, though some are completely made up. I love being a Dr. Frankenstein (that’s “Frawnk-en-shteen”) or Dr. Moreau cobbling together bits and pieces into a new whole. What’s more fun than that? And Katy – I know a loud finger-lickin’ page turner like that, and yeah, it’s beyond nasty!

  7. Sometimes a character will start off based on someone I know or a character from a movie or TV show or book, but it always seems that the character morphs into something different by the end of the first draft. Nice to see them take on a life of their own!

  8. Firstly, I dream about my characters. My peeps hang around in my mind for a while before I write a single word. I guess they must be parts of people I know otherwise how could we ever create them, but noone in my writing is close enough to resemble any one particular person I know. I think I’m safe there. I too like the idea of a cork board … I just might have to get myself one of those as well.

  9. I freely admit that my current WIP is modeled after my favorite Quarterback. I watch him on TV (like, right now!) and listen in on all his pre and postgame reviews. I have a ton of pictures of him on my computer. He’s the wallpaper on my phone and 2 laptops and his picture is hanging in my office at work. He’s the inspiration for writing it and my wonderful character is my fictionalized version of him.
    Am I fixated? Yes! Cause he’s the hero in my book.

  10. Creating characters from life is a splendid idea. But I always think of, not women, but male antagonists. I have met a perfect female antagonist. She was in charge of a recent event and terrorized most of the volunteers and vendors. I had a taste of her venom. What a horror. Perfect as an antagonist. I will never forget the bitterness she spews. Thank you Katy, you and Lynn inspired me.

  11. Oh, she sounds like good fodder for your next book. And it is funny how we tend to make our antagonists men. I recently finished an ms where it was a woman, and I felt so guilty about it. 😉

  12. Hi Katy, I usually create my characters out of several people who inspire me. I take a few different characteristics of two to three people and blend them together to create somebody unique. An example of this is Mick Tripper, a secondary character in my next short story who is based on Jack Tripper from Three’s Company and my brother Ron Mickelsen. Both os these men are great cook’s, resturant owners and they both fancied the ladies before settling down. And yes, I went to my brother before making him a character and got his permission.

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