Sunday, January 8, 2012

Creating Characters

The process of creating a character is like conceiving, carrying and giving birth to a baby who will, no doubt, have Mom’s nose or Grandpa’s ears. While I didn’t consciously model the characters in Mixed Messages or the subsequent novels in my Malone mystery series after myself or anyone else, there are bits and pieces of me and people I know in each of them: a physical characteristic, a personality trait or a life experience that contributed significantly to who they are. For example:
Ann is the main character in Mixed Messages. She’s living with someone who suffers from the disease of alcoholism (I did too) and even though Ann and I are totally different people, I can relate. Personality wise, she reminds me of a good friend of mine who values her family and friends above all else and goes to great lengths to help and protect them. Ann even has some of my friend’s physical characteristics but she doesn’t look like her.
Marnie, Ann’s older sister, is five foot five (so am I) and she’s outspoken, a trait we share and one we’re both trying to learn how to temper. She’s a family law attorney, as is another good friend of mine, but that’s where the similarity between the two women ends.
David, Ann’s husband, is a composite of some truly wonderful men I’ve known who happened to be alcoholics. He exhibits similar behaviors and he experiences many of the same emotions as his real life counterparts.
Olivia, Ann’s landlady, loves to tell stories about the past. Some of her tales of growing up in Cincinnati are modified versions of stories that my mother, who is the same age as Olivia, has told me. But Olivia and my mom are completely different in every other way.
Lawrence, Olivia’s son, is a few years older than me but, as children, we watched the same shows on TV. He’s a baby boomer too so he didn’t grow up with computers and all of today’s technology; he’s had to learn it and embrace it in order to function in today’s world.
Louise, Ann’s mother-in-law, believes in a place for everything and everything in its place and, although my home wouldn’t pass Louise’s white glove test, I am, like her, a stickler for order.
Do you see parts of yourself or someone you know in any of your characters?


  1. I do see pieces of myself and others in my life in my characters. I try to write about what I know about along with pure fiction. For instance, begin relatively short, I know what types of things relate to my height. I'd have to interview someone or guess if I wrote about a very tall woman. And, like you, I take experiences from real life and fit them to my stories. Again, our stories are a little more real if we write about things we with which we have firsthand experience.

  2. Of course our best characters are composites of people who have affected us in one way or another. I sometimes think we writers are constantly interviewing people, gathering material that may one day come in handy

  3. Marja and John,
    The whole process of creating characters fascinates me. Morgen Bailey wrote in one of her recent posts about a t-shirt she bought. It said something like, "Be careful what you say and do around me. I might just use you in one of my books."

  4. I read somewhere John Fowles based some of his major male characters on a dual view of himself--one from how he saw himself, the other on how he would have liked others to see himself.

  5. Interesting, John. My daughter once said to me, "That character is you, isn't it?" I didn't realize what I had done.

    My characters continue to grow as i write about them. The character "Possum" in ESCAPE FROM THE ALAMO started as a grizzled mountaineer. He evolved into a teenager; I had to go back and update him from the start.

  6. Everyone thinks I'm "Christy" from my novels, but she's much more judgmental, too tidy and drives me crazy with her insecurities. I love writing the character of Lennie, who is based on a woman I know from my Navy days. Rodrigo is a man I worked with in Narcotics, as is Wolfe and many others in the book.

    My life is peopled with interesting characters. Makes it easier to write; if you got it, use it.

  7. Because my most recent protagonist is eighty-four years old, people are often surprised when I turn out to be considerably younger. So I tell them that deep down, I am Henry Grave, minus the diabetes, titanium hip, and proclivity for napping.

  8. Thank you all for your comments.
    It seems to be a common misconception that writers model their main character after themselves. Most of us don't(except, of course, the author J.R. mentioned) but, traits we possess do tend to come through in one form or another in the characters we create.

  9. The question asked most often when I do programs is "are your characters people you know or have met?" And I reassure my audience that I am not thinking of putting any one of them in my next book by telling them I take bits and pieces of behaviors, personality, attitudes, and physical characteristics and put them in a blender to form an entirely new character.

  10. Lesley,
    I love the way you phrased that "put them in a blender to form an entirely new character." That is a great explanation!

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  12. We base our characters on people we know and on ourselves. Agapé Jones, the protagonist in our mysteries, is based on a friend (now a very dear friend) Love Smith, who we met in Maui in 2005. The amazing thing about him is that his real life seems to parallel our fictional character's life - without our knowing anything about his activities.
    The relationship between Agapé and his wife, Gerry, is very much based on my relationship with Larry.
    But Gerry herself is based upon a very dear friend and not Love's wife Angela. However, Angela has asked us how we know so much about her!
    One surprise to us as authors is how often we 'create' characters thinking we know everything about them, and then they balk! They often won't do what we want them to or surprise us with some other action we hadn't anticipated.
    That's what makes writing so much fun!
    You can learn more about Agapé and our other characters on our website
    Lorna Collins

  13. I do have a mix of traits from some people I know. But I work hard to make sure not to offend any of my family or friends. I do threaten friends and acquaintences if they aren't care they will end up in one of my books. Some of them may end up dead....just kidding or am I?

  14. Thanks for your comments, Lorna!
    Your last sentence made me laugh out loud because one of the characters in "Mixed Messages" has a lot of the same characteristics as a woman (who shall remain nameless) that I didn't particularly like. I haven't killed her off YET but, in the third novel in my series, I'm seriously considering it!

  15. It's fun to take different traits from people I know and mix them up to form a new character. Like Dac, sometimes I don't even realize what I'm doing and another reader will pick up on it first. Something else that happens in my writing is that I take aspects of a real-life situation or relationship, apply my own characters, and make the situation turn out the way I want it to, rather than the way it turns out in reality.

  16. Thanks for this, Patricia.
    Let's see. I wrote a novel called Landlady (now changed to Two Rooms, Shared Bath) based on my real life experiences with tenants, good, bad and rotten, in my home over many years. Diana, our protagonist, is so much me, and Basia, our Polish antagonist, is so much the real beauty who almost drove me nuts. (If I was a mystery writer, like most of you, I surely would have killed her or had her killed.)
    And in Josie, another novel, about making a major change in one's life, Josie is based my experiences though I changed her looks and some of her personal traits. Anyone reading it who knows me, however, can see that she's based on me.
    I write so much non-fiction, memoir and personal essay, so I don't have to even try to disguise myself, nor do I wish to. I do change names and situations, however, when I want to protect friends or family.
    A writing student gave me a sweatshirt last year that reads: Careful, or you'll end up in my novel. I have fun when I wear it, with other writers, but non-writers are wary...

  17. I deliberately made my protagonist almost a total opposite from myself as far as gender, lifestyle, occupation, talents, hobbies, family life, etc., which makes him more interesting and challenging to write. But we share some of the same attitudes and reactions and I like to think I'm as smart and perceptive as he is.
    Sally Carpenter

  18. Amy,
    I agree. It is fun to create characters, as Lesley wrote, by putting ourselves and other people "in a blender and mixing them up."
    The sweatshirt your student gave you sounds like the t-shirt Morgen Bailey has. Too cool!
    I don't think we can avoid putting something of ourselves in our characters, even when we deliberately try not to. After all, they're "our children."

  19. My protagonist in Thy Kingdom Come is a souped-up version of myself with a few others added in.

  20. Hi Patricia,
    As always, an interesting blog. I'm sure many of your readers (who are writers) can relate to your use of characteristics in yourself and friends and family in developing your book characters. Thanks for sharing.
    Jim Callan!/pages/Murder-A-Cappella/137962582978645

  21. None of my characters is based entirely on any one person I know, but many are composites of several people whose paths have crossed mine. I do find it easier to write about a character when that individual shares traits and opinions with me. That's the case with my Pittsburgh private detective, Jeremy Barnes. Like me, he's a former high school English teacher, and like me (I hope), he has a quirky sense of humor. Actually, other than the fact that JB is taller, stronger, smarter and better-looking than I am, you can hardly tell us apart. Oh, and he has more hair, too.

  22. This is so familiar. I've spoken with other authors who create characters in a like manner. I've constantly told people Mallory Petersen is me except better looking and a better martial artist. I also base some of my characters on real people I've met dong research.

  23. Okay so I am the strange one, my characters comes from the names flowing through my conscious mind as well as my unconscious mind confidence that are made-up (could that be why I am not as successful as many of you?), when protagonist Charlotte Demerayes was created through the story, she developed as well as the antagonist Mistress (Theis Maarte Veit-Standford), I had no idea where they were going,nor where I was going until we arrived (revisions, revisions). The same with the series mystery that I'm working on Agatha-Josephine Friday Noonsday, amateur sleuth. Thank Patricia for asking.

  24. Thanks for all of your wonderful comments! This is why, when I created my blog, I called it a writers forum. It's not just about what I have to say; it's about hearing what all of you have to say too!
    A special thanks to Sunny Frazier for sending the link to my blog to so many others.

  25. Another great post. Some people who've read my manuscript- Covering the Sun with My Hand-think I've modeled the protagonist, Julia Acevedo, on me. The most connecting factor is experiencing the illness of a sibling. The character's brother has schizophrenia and my sister died of renal disease. Not the same but effects on the family can be devastating.

  26. Theresa,
    The example you gave about using your experience with your sister's illness and transforming that into the experience your character has is a perfect example of what I'll be discussing in my post next week. That's the "stuff" fiction is made of.

  27. After some time I do recognize (finally) that there is a bit of me in Carrie McCrite, But then, how could that not be, since she came from my own head and heart? Many people see my husband John in Henry King, though they don't resemble each other physically. And, how could any of these creatures we have given literary birth to not end up carrying some of our overall life experiences and relationships!!

    That said, two characters in my novels are real people by both description and name. A ranger at Buffalo National River (Arkansas) who was a tremendous research help for A RIVER TO DIE FOR wanted to be in my novel by name. This was difficult for me because, even to fit the plot, I didn't want to give him any words or actions that would embarrass him or jeopardize his job. Had to be very careful. In JOURNEY TO DIE FOR, the television star Chuck Dovish, weekly host of EXPLORING ARKANSAS on AETN, was glad to appear as himself, and I was glad to have him. No problems there, I just had him filming one of his programs on the A&M RR Excursion Train, as he really has done at least twice. AND what he had caught on film lead to solving part of the mystery!

  28. Radine,
    Now that's something I've never thought of - using a real person in my fiction. I have had someone ask me to use her first name for a character and, in the second novel of my series, I had a minor character to name so that worked out well.

  29. Pat,
    We're always admonished to write what we know. What do we know better than ourselves and the people in our lives? I often find myself dropping bits of people I know, and bits of myself, into my stories. A funny story that relates to finding yourself in someone's book ... my husband just finished reading a book written by a former coworker of his and he came to me and said "You're in Karen's book. You're the mother of the heroine who has gardens surrounding her house." The author of the book had been to our home and seen all my gardens, which do surround the house. You can can see some of the gardens on our website--just follow the link. I haven't read Karen's book yet, but you can be certain I will just to "see myself."
    I hope we'll see you at Queen City Writers with some pages to critque.
    Catherine Hershberger writing as C.D. Hersh

  30. Catherine,
    Thanks for stopping by.
    Your gardens must be incredible; I'll be visiting your site to check them out. What fun to be a character in someone's novel!