So last week we talked about how it was a bad idea to pattern your characters after specific people in your life. We looked at how….
* the world is much bigger than the slice we see
* real people might not respond the way the fictional character needs to respond
* using real people puts you in the crosshairs for lawsuits
* using real people puts you on a double operating table when the professionals get a hold of your story
So we know we can’t pattern our characters exactly after the people we personally know. How, then, does a writer form imaginary characters who are still relatable, dynamic, even real?
Learn to love people-watching. One thing I notice about avid writers (whether published or not) is that they usually list “people-watching” as one of their favorite pastimes. There are good reasons for this. When you do any amount of intense people-watching, you begin to see all sorts of quirky details in how humans in general respond to each other. To their environment. To whatever new stimulus is pinging at them through their iPod or iPhone or computer or book. That’s when you cull all sorts of interesting textures with which to “flesh out” your characters: nervous habits, facial tics, logistics of dealing with [odd clothing, multiple packages, disabilities, small children, or anything else with which you may personally be unfamiliar]. Because you are not personally attached to the strangers you’re watching, you have a more objective view of them and the things they do.
Learn to have a well-disciplined mulitple personality. I am of the firm opinion that every author writes a little bit of themselves into every character they create. That is certainly true of me. If you should pick up (as one day, I hope you will) a copy of my book, you need to understand that there is at least a sliver of the real Angela in every hero, villain, stooge, sidekick, and good Samaritan. As a writer, we must constantly get into the head of our characters – ALL of them. We need to know why the stooge is dull witted, why the sidekick is so loyal, what makes the good Samaritan go out of his way for the outcast, and why the villain imagines himself justified in whatever nastiness he’s up to. This means tapping into your inner idiot, your inner Samwise Gamgee, inner do-gooder, and inner villain – even if that’s a part of you that (you think, anyway) isn’t actively used.
Learn to take a “pulse check” by the people you know. This is going to sound a little contradictory at first to last week’s character installment, but hear me out. There is, in fact, a time when you DO want to check your characters by people you know. Notice I said check, not pattern. For reasons given last week, we don’t want to pattern our characters exactly by a real person; but sometimes we do need to refer to a specific template to get an idea of how near the mark we are (or aren’t) with one or more of our characters. Since I do not have children, I am constantly taking note of the children in my life to see what is and isn’t typical for children of a certain age. This is especially important since the main character in my current manuscript begins his adventure when he’s about eight years old. But he’s a composite picture of several eight-year-old boys in my life, and not just one. It makes my main character a very quirky, well-rounded character that (according to my beta readers) makes for a very precocious, dynamic, and believable kid.