Writers are inexorably attached to their characters. And why shouldn’t they be? To us, they are like our children. We create them, nurture them and watch them grow until one day they can fly on their own as full-fledged people. Even mean, nasty and unlovable characters are cherished by the writers who create them – go figure, mother’s love and all that.
However, if you are constantly using yourself as a model for your characters you may find yourself swimming in a sea of fictional clones that do no favor for your story.
Writers are supposed to write what they know
This old chestnut has been around forever. And was in liberal use when I was a young writer, looking for usable advice on how to improve my writing and hone my skills. Nine times out of ten the mentor would don a solemn look and utter, “Write what you know and then the rest will follow.” To make matters worse, I actually believed them. I have to say, I wasted a lot of years on that one.
And I’d wager that so have many other writers that came before and after me. It is really confusing advice, especially to a writer who is younger and has little life experience. What could they write about then if they had to write what they knew? Themselves of course, their life, their family, the little spats between siblings. And who then would become the obvious hero, you guessed it, the person writing the story.
While I agree that writers write more authoritatively on subjects and experiences they know, since the advent of newspapers, textbooks, history books, libraries, search engines and social media the door to any experience, lifestyle, culture, or historical event has been wide open for writers to walk through and ‘know.’
Otherwise how could anyone have ever written a science fiction story? Was Isaac Asimov a space traveler and robot technician? Or a detective novel? Was Raymond Chandler a hard-boiled private detective? Or a horror story? Did Stephen King ever live in a hotel that was possessed by evil beings and had a boiler with a mind of its own? Is JK Rowling a wizard in disguise? Of course not.
The greatest nation on Earth
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Imagination is the greatest nation on earth. It is the place where all new and exciting things are born. From the greatest inventions, technological advances, art and literature. It’s what enables a seven-year-old to have his very own battleship in his backyard, and sent man into space, and inspired a small group of men to create the first democratic republic in history. Surely, each of us has enough to create characters that aren’t carbon copies of ourselves?
Inspiration versus duplication
While many characters and perhaps most are based on or inspired by real people it’s not about recreating a real person down to the last detail but rather taking certain characteristics, manners of speech or funny little habits and weaving that into the characters you create.
Here’s a fun little drill: Note an admirable quality about each member of your family. Then do the same with their flaws. Use the first name of any close friend and the last name of another friend to create a name for your character. Then choose a location you went to or lived in at some time in your life, whether it was a vacation spot, a town you lived in, your grandmother’s neighborhood or a place you attended a convention – that’s where your character lives. Give your now named character, all the characteristics and flaws you previously noted and voila’ you now have the beginning of a character that you can flush out. And while you used what you knew and took that to inspire you, you end up with a unique, and probably interesting character that could never be mistaken for a clone of yourself or your Aunt Mable.
For me, creating characters is one of the best parts of writing and fun too. And sometimes the weirder the better. And if you think your characters are fun and interesting, chances are, so will your readers.
How do you create characters? Any tips you’d like to offer? Feel free.