Where Do Characters Come From?
Nonfiction and editing are my bread and butter. They help pay rent on the apartment and keep the car insured. But I have been spending some more of my time playing around with fiction. That means coming up with characters who interact in the worlds that I create. Where do these people come from? A conglomeration of places.
1. They're real people I've met. If you're a writer, you've got to be careful with this one. Live people often don't feel flattered by their fictional counterparts. I handle this by taking just a piece of the person I know and completing the character in another way.
For instance, in my book, Visiting Grandma, Danny's neglectful mother has a serious drinking and drug problem. In that way, she reminds me of the mother of a classmate of mine when I was in sixth grade, but so many other details between the two women are different, I doubt my friends mother would recognize herself.
2. They're real historical people. If you're writing about a famous person, especially one who no longer shares the planet with us, it's okay to make him or her recognizable. But even then you have degrees of freedom. Just look at what the Showtime Series The Tudors did with their lean, mean Henry VIII.
I also think it pays to remember that not everyone was seen in the same way by his or her contemporaries. Will your Mark Twain be the toast of American literature, for instance, or will he be the villainous knave whose books Louisa May Alcott wanted banned?
3. They're good ole me. I show up a lot in my characters, both the good and the bad. My viewpoint, my feelings, my preferences, my strengths, and my weaknesses help fuel my creations. Again, though, I don't want my readers to be able to look up at me scornfully and say, "Oh, that's just you." So I cut and paste and add and subtract and come up with a character with some of my quirks and some of his or her own.
Years ago, for instance, my work appeared in an erotic anthology under a pseudonym. The main character sets the events rolling by trying to rescue a young man from his abusive Top. That's something I would have done in a heartbeat, but in so many other ways this character and I were completely different. For instance, I'm female, not currently partnered, and not into the BDSM scene.
4. They're literary devices. Vampires. Werewolves. Fairy Tale Characters. Soldiers. Parents. The Beautiful Popular Girl. The Shy Genius. Pick almost any stereotype you want, and you'll find hundreds of characters to guide you on your path.
Of course, they won't all be exactly the same. The hellish vampire in Dracula is very different than the sparkling vampires in the Twilight Saga or the longing to be human vampire in Interview with the Vampire. The idea is to pick out one or two common characteristics (e.g., light is a no-no) and then use your imagination to come up with the rest.
When I wrote "James aka Janie," for instance, one of the main characters is a bitchy, popular girl, but in the end she uses her personality in a positive way to help her transgendered friend.
5. Imagination. Imagination is what brings all the elements together for an unforgettable character. For example, if I were writing a story about Alexander the Great, I might incorporate parts of real life veterans I've known. I might read up on the history of Alexander. I might insert myself into the story by thinking about how I feel after a victory or a crushing defeat. I might look at the stereotypes of the ways gay warriors have been portrayed in history. Finally, I would let my imagination combine these elements and add many more. The result, I would hope, would be an interesting, well-rounded character with a fascinating story to tell.