Story Weaving on Steroids: Real People Create Real Characters

22 Oct

This is part of a series of post that gives you tips, tricks, and dirty little secrets that will help pump up your plot, and make your story an irresistible read! Today’s trick:

Using real people to make real characters.

A question authors are often asked is “are your characters based on people you know?” most of the time the author will answer no, but let’s be honest the answer is probably yes, because if there is one thing authors are good at it’s cheating at writing.

Basing characters off real people is cheating, and it’s also genius!

Using a real person as a base for a character much like you would use white as a base for paint leads to amazing things. How so? After all, real people generally don’t have lives that are spicy enough for fiction.

Well, take a person I know. Let’s call him “John”

John’s older now, but his whole life while living in the mid-west he struggled with a drinking addiction. He’s been divorced once, and had two kids with the woman, but he has now remarried and his kids grew up with his new wife and their mother. After his remarriage he found help with his addiction and now lives happily.

Okay, that’s all well and fine, but there is no plot to John’s life. You can’t just write THAT story. But you CAN write one with someone like him. Now comes the imaginative part.

Change John’s life. Make it more tragic, more weird, or more adventurous.

For instance lets pull John out of the mid-west and stick him in England. He’s a young 23-year-old drunken Englishman in (instead of the late 1980’s) (the early 1900’s )lets say 1910. His wife didn’t leave him because of his drinking, he killed her in a fit of rage during one of his many drunken bouts. Now he can’t stand the sight of blonde women. He placed his young daughter (instead of daughters) into an orphanage to cover up the murder. He dumped his wife’s body in the river and now slogs about the bar near the river’s bridge often looking out at the water pondering suicide, until…. he meets an extraordinary woman who….

Who what?

From there you take the story where ever it may please to go.

But, just from that paragraph you have an excellent idea about who your MC is. Granted, we embellished John’s life almost to the point of  being in-recognizable, but John is still real and still very much there, and that is what makes the character seem real!

I am totally in favor of stealing people’s lives for novels. Are you?

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3 Responses to “Story Weaving on Steroids: Real People Create Real Characters”

  1. Jennifer Stuart October 22, 2012 at 10:11 pm #

    I’m definitely in favor of that. I still haven’t even written a novel, but when I write short stories, I often times take a person that I’ve seen before in my life. A lot of the time, I don’t know their whole story. But looking at their face or the way they walk makes me think that I do know, and it leads me to making something up. Then they become this sort of skeleton of the character, and the pieces are filled in by bits that I’ve seen in others. So, the homeless man with a swagger might turn into someone who has the same fondness for a certain type of whiskey as that guy I served at the bar once, who refused anything except his one brand. So then I get the details from the homeless guy I keep seeing as well as the picky whiskey drinker. I love doing that 🙂

  2. Honestly Catholic October 23, 2012 at 9:53 pm #

    I have found it useful to take people I know as a base. The details of their life do not matter so much as the expression of their temperment. They then seem to evolve into their own person from there. Tidbits of other people then get added from there. Usually I think of who my character is and then I ask myself who I know that is like that. That gives me a basis for their behavior and thus helps push beyond the temptation to have their actions dictated by the needs of plot.

  3. harmamae October 25, 2012 at 12:25 am #

    I agree, but you must spice up the real person (since trying to make the character too realistic could be really boring, like you said), and you must do your best to make sure the real person can’t guess that you put them in your book. Unless you make them look really good, or you’re intentionally trying to insult them. Many authors have had trouble with friends feeling insulted because they thought the author put them in his or her book, and made them look bad! (L.M. Montgomery talked about this.)

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