The best kind of theft

Until recently, I would start the process of creating a character by addressing a need: a genre need (like “strong heroine,” “handsome lover,” “funny sidekick”), a plot need (such as “someone to give my hero advice”), or a world need (as in “this stable needs a groom”). Then I would sketch out the vaguest outline of a character, and fill in the details as they became relevant.

As you might imagine, one-dimensional characters were a hallmark of my early stories.

KC the kitty cat’s entire thing was being stubborn and hating his name. Willow the otter could be (and often was) summed up in two words: steady leader. Ata, griffon-riding warrior that she was, only ever expressed herself by swearing in gibberish (Wu zxy Sohn!).

Much to my chagrin, I’ve never been one of those writers to whom full-fledged characters present themselves, ready to be written. (I envy my dear friend Jill for having this particular writertrait.) Instead, I have to hunt them down and make them reveal themselves.

Because I wasn’t very good at hunting them down, every line my characters used to utter sounded wooden and hammy. It isn’t uncommon to find lines like this scattered throughout my largest complete manuscript: “Then if it be the will of those whose bodies are not whole…I will allow it.” Blegh. Nope.

While I was writing Daugment, trying to capture Pitney’s reaction to a well-intended but ill-timed gesture, a realization sort of struck me. (Sort of, because every good writing book I ever read probably mentioned it somewhere, and it took one weird moment of clarity for everything I’d ever read and heard to fall into place.)

I just had to borrow the heck out of the people I knew in real life.

It only took a minute or two longer to identify someone in real life who shared traits with Pitney, ask myself what they would do under the circumstances, and waltz past my writer’s block.

Now, I start with someone I know. I still consider the genre, plot, and world needs I’m addressing when sketching out my characters, but I immediately choose a real person who at least shares some core traits. Even if I know I want the final product to stray far from the source, or be a composite of multiple people, I ground my inspiration in reality.

So what kind of things do I steal from my friends, family, coworkers, and mortal enemies?

Their mannerisms. So much about how a person uses their physical presence tells you about their personality and motivations. The way they walk, the way they sit. Their ticks and tells. How they shrink into themselves or expand outward when surrounded by an audience. The specific ways they gesture when they speak; their personal sign language. A list of all of the little aspects of body language and paralinguistics might go on forever, and each one you add to your character is a tiny brushstroke of relatability.

Their physical traits. You can directly rip off entire descriptions of people you know, but risk of “resemblance to real people” aside, I think the best characters are composites. They’re the kind of people who make your reader say, I know someone just like this! But I do advise snagging especially striking physical details from your dear friends and frenemies, and mixing them with less notable details from others for a realistic blend.

Their speaking styles. My dad has a peculiar way of butchering common phrases (“You couldn’t hit a brick!” is a family favorite); I’d recognize it anywhere. Take these tendencies to mis-speak, repeat certain words, lay the catch phrases on thick, drop into phony accents, and invent colorful swears… and watch your dialog perk up and come to life.

Their reactions. People don’t all grieve the same way. They don’t all process anger in the same way. They react to times of self-doubt, hunger of the soul, or intense joy differently from one another. In the interest of “show don’t tell,” watching how those around you uniquely express their strongest emotions will give you more to say than, “He grieved deeply,” or, “She was gripped by a deep joy.”

Their secrets. Some secrets would be dark to anyone, but the little secrets one person is desperate to keep are simply the daily routine for someone else. (For instance: a “secret” of my own I’ve often given my characters is a fear of water + darkness. Not such a juicy secret for a writer, but could be a great secret for a world-class diving instructor…) Collecting these from people you know gives you a good variety of shameful and silly. Caution: you must be very gentle when stealing someone’s secrets, lest you pin them on their keeper in the public square. If you’re going to use someone’s secret that you know about, make everything else about the character you give it to different from the real secret-bearer.

Their personal histories. What was her first job? Where did he have his first kiss? Who gave them the advice that catapulted their career? Where someone comes from, their formative experiences and the places they come from… these things can really inform how someone presents, thinks, speaks, and acts in the present.

Their family relationships. Depending on the family, it represents a juicy source of conflict or a solid grounding force in someone’s life; comedy gold, or a ball-and-chain tragedy. Choose a genuine family dynamic you know and can observe, and draw from their interactions to inform your character’s relationships with their own family members. Figure out who advises whom and whose praise is impossible to win. Jot down the kinds of conversations held over an ordinary dinner or a holiday dinner.

Their Meyers-Briggs profiles. This last one is a tried-and-true technique I use to quickly draw the “boundaries” around a new character. Once I’ve picked someone I know who shares some traits on the above lists with my character, I then take a free Meyers-Briggs personality test as if I were the other person. I answer the questions the way I imagine they would answer them. Then, using the results, I browse the myriad web resources on Meyers-Briggs personality types, which give me a sense of the strengths, weaknesses, communication styles, and conflict management techniques I should give my character.