Character Development Series – Starting with Real People

Oh, no, it’s the “DREAM CAST” article! Yep, it sure is.

Every character I have ever created, all the way back to my first story as a child, was based in some way on someone I could see and watch. Some are based on people I know in real life, but I also use celebrities or fictional characters from TV, movies, and videogames–and to be honest, a handful of professional wrestlers. The reason I do this is simple. I’m a visual person, and having someone or something to look at helps me write. In addition, it’s easy to people watch when they’re plastered all over every screen in the world. I use some people for their faces, others for their personalities, and others simply for the way they move, and one character might be based on three different people.

When writing fanfiction, this part is easy because the writer already has existing characters to draw from. I’ve talked with a lot of people who have said they didn’t like what had happened with a certain character, and my response is always, “That’s what fanfiction is for.” I wrote a novel-length Skyrim fanfiction (https://tinyurl.com/txha8a4), and I used the NPCs’ personalities and images as a base and added my own embellishments to give more insight than the game provides.

I’ve seen fanfiction by other writers who did the same thing, or they used the existing storyline to create other amazing characters. There is fanfiction based on TV and movies, videogames, sports teams, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was fanfiction based on our current Administration. The word “ship” has come to mean more than just a vessel to take you on a journey. People love these characters, and they want to know more about them than what the creators have done with them, so they make their own stories.

FUN FACT: I recently learned that the longest work of fiction in existence is a fanfic. The story is based on the videogame Super Smash Bros Brawls, and it is comprised of more than 220 chapters and 4.1 million words. For perspective, the entire Harry Potter series is 198,227 words. War and Peace is 587,287 words. So yes, despite its detractors, fanfiction has grown into a legitimate art form. The point is that this guy REALLY loves his characters. And why? Because the original creators gave him good people to start with.

If you’re creating original characters, you have to start from scratch, but there are many, many places to find ideas. I have a database of friends, family members, actors, models, dogs, cats, and owls to draw from; and I add to it all the time when I find a face or character I like or dislike. The “dislike” part is important, because my characters don’t all look like they’re from The OC. Some of them are downright ugly. I have one character in The Order of the White Guard whom I based on a certain actor because he looks like someone used his face for a punching bag.

Sometimes I create a character and look for a face, and sometimes I see a face or a character that inspires me to make something. Sometimes all I use is the face. I have an entire bloodline of witches, and another of vampires, who have very specific looks, so I’ve had to hunt down men and women with those distinct appearances. I used the “punching bag” actor just for his appearance; and for his personality, I used a different person–a fictional character, in this case. For his mannerisms, I used a third person.

If you choose this method, find someone who inspires you and use something about him to start your character. The best way to do that is to get to know him. I’m NOT talking about stalking, here. But study this person, look at pictures of him, and watch him. If it’s just the face you want, like I talked about above, that’s perfectly fine. But if you want to model your character out of more than just his face, the best thing you can do is watch him. If it’s someone in your life, talk to him, interview him–and tell him why–and find things you can use to create your character.

Example. My husband Bryan lost his best friend some years ago, and he wanted to honor him by making a character in The Order of the White Guard based on him (for those of you who have read the book, this was Don, to whom the book is dedicated). Bryan told me everything he could about his friend, and I expanded on it. I still don’t know if I did him justice, but Bryan was happy, and hopefully the reader was, too.

If it’s not a specific individual you want but a vocation–military, police, medical professional, lawyer, computer programmer, scholar, waiter, mail carrier, etc.–watch them, too, and talk to them if you can. The best way to learn about a profession is to learn from the people that do it. If you don’t have access to people you can talk to personally, look for real situations and don’t rely on stereotypes. Not every lawyer is the devil, and “military intelligence” is NOT an oxymoron. Not every gamer is a hopeless nerd who lives in his mother’s basement, and not every nerd is hopeless or lives in his mother’s basement. Nerds make the world turn. Learn who these people really are–why they chose their career, how it affects their lives, what they love about it, hate about it, and what they can teach you.

I’ve seen some videos on YouTube where professionals break down scenes in movies and TV shows and tell how they are accurate or off base. A retired Marine talks about military movies that were spot on and why (https://tinyurl.com/vwhnreu), an undercover expert for the CIA discusses how movies got espionage right or wrong (https://tinyurl.com/yxdd2uup), and a New York attorney has an entire series where he talks about certain movies and how accurate they are or aren’t (https://tinyurl.com/ruw3ucg). There are lots more like this out there.

The same goes for ethnic and religious groups, races, and nationalities. If you want to create someone who belongs to a certain group, learn from that group’s members in the same way. Never rely on stereotypes–learn who these people really are.

If you use a celebrity or character from a movie, TV show, or videogame, watch as much as you can to get to know how this person moves, how he talks, his mannerisms, and how he interacts with others. More often than not, I pair an actor up with a role or roles he has played. This is where I find the most inspiration for my characters, but you might find other sources–athletes, politicians, historical figures, or just random people on the street. Learn as much as you can but always write what you’re comfortable with. Don’t force anything. The reader will know.

The Order of the White Guard began with Bryan. I was inspired by his looks, his personality, his philosophies, and even his interests. And, well, I was head-over-heels in love with him. I was writing a vampire/werewolf story, and Bryan has a thing for werewolves, so I made him a werewolf. He also has a military mindset, a great sense of honor, and is a gentle soul with an almost non-existent temper. He is incredibly loyal to family and friends and does not take betrayal lightly. That said, he is also a martial artist with a great capacity for violence, but he hates it and has redefined the word “pacifist” for me. I used all that to create this fledgling character, and he grew to become a leader, a warrior, and someone trying very hard to protect his family, fight evil, and live up to his beliefs and what is expected of him. Do I use every facet of Bryan’s personality? No. Those things were just the basis to start with. The character took on a life of his own from there and has turned into a vivid, living person.

Another of my main characters began with a different face. I created what I thought was a an amazing character, but he hit a dead end when the person he was based on failed to provide more inspiration. When I discovered the new guy, my character took off. His look came from one movie role, but for his mannerisms and personality, I had a lot to draw on. This is my favorite actor, and I’ve seen most of his work. He is versatile, and I had plenty of material to use, all the way from downright silly to horribly evil. I was able to take the person I had created and make him stronger and more vivid, and when he started writing himself, he became my favorite character. I am still writing him, and he grows and changes every day, independent of how I started him.

To close, just a reminder: these are tips on how to start your character. Even if you begin with a real person, your character will not end up being that person. If he does, you need to go back and rework him. A good character will probably begin to write himself, and if that happens, just let him run with it. You’re using a real person as the basis to create your own character, not make a mirror image. This is where backstory and life experience come in, and I’ll talk about that in the next article.

I hope my thoughts help when you begin to create your characters. If you have questions or want more details on anything, leave me a comment. Good luck!

 

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