So here’s my dirty little secret about writing fiction: Most of my characters begin with a real person. And before friends and acquaintances start thumbing through my novels, wondering if they should be outraged, let me emphasize that the key word here is “begin.” And let me also suggest that you may want to give it a try if you haven’t already.
Plenty of authors “steal” from real life—Harper Lee based To Kill a Mockingbird’s Dill Harris on Truman Capote; Harry Potter’s Severus Snape was a fictional portrait of John Nettleship, one of J.K. Rowling’s teachers; and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’s Glinda the Good Witch was based on L. Frank Baum’s mother-in-law. (Truly! She was a suffragist and abolitionist who also fought for Native American rights.)
Real people—meaning people I know personally and people I’ve never met but know of, such as actors or authors or politicians—are a wonderful entry point into character. It’s like having an outline of a person you can color in and embellish, something much more manageable than trying to draw a person from scratch. It does not mean I think of someone I know, change the name and hair color, then work to provide a scrupulous portrait of that person in words. As every author knows, characters take on a life of their own, and say and do things we never expected or meant for them to say and do, and in the process becoming utterly and only themselves.
In my second novel I knew that one of the main characters would be a woman aged 75-plus, someone earthy and strong, with common sense and a good sense of humor. I found inspiration in the author Betty MacDonald, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest in the 1920s and 30s. My character, also named Betty, had a quick wit, no tendency for self-pity, and was physically strong, traits I stole from Betty MacDonald. She was also passionate, married to a serial philanderer, suffered multiple miscarriages, fell in love with a neighbor with whom she carried on an adulterous affair for decades, and a devoted mother—all things I made up. I made up her appearance and her childhood and her siblings and her relationships with her siblings. She’s still one of the richest characters I’ve ever written.
Four ways to use real people to find your characters: [Read more…]