Day 17 Writing Authentic Characters (and understanding people in general)
Question: Your characters seem like real people. How do you create your characters? Are they based on real people?
First, thanks for the question and comment, I’m glad to hear those folks feel to you, too. I don’t think there is one secret to creating characters. If there is, no one has told me about it yet. But when I think about it, I guess there are a few things I can mention about how I think about the characters in my stories. I’ll talk about one of the key things now, and follow-up with others later.
First, no, none of my characters are based on real people that I know, at least not intentionally or consciously. I think my characters are based on “types” of people, using pieces of things that make up those types. Those pieces are characteristics of very real people, and I think those are some of the things that help make the characters seem real too. I’ll give you an example by talking about Klass, the “bad guy” in my last novel, Disbelief.
However, before I do, I want to make clear that what I’m going to say does not suggest that I thought my mom was a “bad guy”. She wasn’t a “bad guy”, but I learned that she sometimes had a logic that was a little, I’ll say this as politely as I can, “weird”. It is the same logic I see many others relying on, and it fit just perfectly with Klass in Disbelief and explains a lot of what he said and did in that story. Let me explain.
My parents were Republicans, and I mean hard-core Republicans. For a while they had official roles in county politics, and were involved in lots of events, parades, and candidate events. Growing up, I was dragged from one political event to another, and was introduced to more politicians than any one child should ever have to be introduced too. Heck, I even met Barry Goldwater and Spiro Agnew. As I grew older, I rarely ever recalled hearing conversation around the house about any political issues, so one day I asked my mom just why she was so involved in politics as a Republican. Her eyes narrowed. Her mouth tightened.
“Because of that MaryBeth Carlyle in high school,” Mom said. “She thought she was so wonderful and treated me like I was nothing. Her fancy parents were Democrats and strutted around like they were big shots, so I decided I would ALWAYS be a Republican, just to show them!”
By the way, I changed that name. So, MaryBeth, if you are out there reading this, it wasn’t you.
I don’t remember what I said in response. I don’t think I said anything, because I don’t think I could think of anything to say that would not get me in trouble. This was not a topic of discussion, or debate, like I had thought politics was to be. This was not logical, like I thought adult thinking was to be. Her comment still echoes in my head, and it came out in the words and behavior of Klass, in Disbelief. Logic and reality was not something Klass was interested in. He had a higher, emotional power that was driving him. Klass’ thinking is very real, and that is a part of what makes him very real. He was so real that he followed me around grumbling about the fact that my story was making him look like a “bad guy”, when clearly, he was the one doing the “right” thing and the others deserved what they got. Yeah, that sounds real.
I don’t think much about what my characters look like, what they wear, or those other things they ask you to write on those Character Profile Sheets in the writer’s workshops. I want to know how my characters think, what is driving them, and how that thinking might be a bit flawed, like Klass, and mom. That’s what makes them real to me. Once I understand their type, everything else kind of falls into place.
I’ll just add that I use this approach for all of my characters, in both the adult Suspense/Thrillers and the books for young readers and listeners. There are many people-pieces from my life running around inside the Skwerdlock!
Think for a moment. Think about the people you know, or knew, and the little pieces that made them unique and real. Maybe it was a weird logic, maybe it was the way they spoke that changed depending on who was around, maybe it was the dream they chased and never quite caught. Find those types of things that created their “reality”, and then see if you can give those gifts to your characters, especially if you have a character that is giving you a hard time. Then, just hang on.
What are some of the pieces that make the people around you so “real”?