From the scrawny hacker with an inferiority complex to the thick-headed jock with an impotence problem, the single mother of quadruplets who desperately needs a spa day to the neighbor who smiles on the outside but cries on the inside, characters are the spine of any good novel. You can have the greatest, most original plot ever, but without well-drawn characters to keep readers interested in what’s going on, no one will ever know about the stunning twist because they’ll have walked away from the novel way before they get to it. And no writer wants that. But how do you write compelling characters that aren’t a boring, cliche-riddled, over-the-top mess that leave your reader turning the next page in fear of their eyeballs falling out of their sockets from too much eye-rolling?
The best place to start is with yourself. What attributes about yourself do you believe your characters would do well to receive? This can be anything from having green eyes to how you felt when you were bullied as a kid. You may have heard the adage, Write what you know; well, you are the best resource for what you know. We’ve all lived; we’ve all had experiences; we’ve all gone through a gauntlet of emotions at some point in our lives. Feed off of that. If your character must be scared of something, what are you afraid of? How does that fear make you feel? How debilitating is it? Now use those emotions to develop the character, giving them reasons for the actions they will take throughout the course of the book.
But there’s another way you can bring depth to your characters that don’t keep them confined to only those experiences you’ve had. And that is reaching out to your friends and family for inspiration, or outright basing your characters on people you know and care about in real life. If you really want to, you can even throw a friend or family member into the book, warts and all. So long as you know them well enough, basing your characters on people you know and love will help them to pop off the page because you already have an emotional connection with them. But be smart about how you go about using your friends and family in your books. After all, you don’t want to upset them beyond repair. Your friends and family are human and can feel slighted if you go too far. To make sure you don’t tear a relationship apart while writing the next great American novel, follow these four easy steps.
Step 1: Make sure they are okay with you using them in your book
When I started writing my new novel, The Spirit Of…, one of the characters needed to be outlandish, a little insane and very boisterous in order to balance the serene characters and add an infusion of comic relief. Me, I have hardly any of those traits (I may be a little insane, but the others…). My boss at the time was the perfect example of what I wanted the character to be. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I pictured her as that character and I couldn’t resist. But I didn’t simply throw her in the book. People are sensitive and their tastes are eclectic. Some may not care what type of book it is, but others may have an issue with what you write, or won’t want to be a part of your book for personal reasons. Maybe the book is about sexual molestation, and the person you want to include in the book went through a similar situation that you never knew about, and using them in your book could make them relive memories they don’t want to relive. That’s an extreme case, of course, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Before I wrote a word in relation to the character in my book, I went to my boss and asked her if she wouldn’t mind if I used her as a character. I explained to her what type of book it was and what the character would be doing. She was so excited, she had no objections. So with her blessing, I was ready to go.
Step 2: Do your research
This is especially important if you don’t know the person well. Perhaps they are a co-worker you talk to on occasion or a mutual friend of a friend that you hang out with at parties sometimes, but what you’ve seen of them and know about them on the surface is what you’re looking for with your character. But to really understand the character and flesh them out, you’ll need to go beyond the surface, even if nothing but the surface shows up in the actual novel. Take your subject to lunch to get to know them better and find out what makes them tick. You can do this with anyone, actually; just because someone is your best friend doesn’t mean you know everything about them. If, for whatever reason, they can’t sit down with you one-to-one, go online. Google them; check out their Facebook posts, their Twitter feed, their Instagram. This can, and sometimes will, give you much more insight into who they are more than even a face-to-face would. Researching the person not only serves to help you better understand the character you’ll be writing, but it helps keep you from writing anything that may be deemed inflammatory or libelous. That doesn’t mean you can’t exaggerate the character, or develop their flaws in unique ways, but by sitting down with them and getting to know their personality, you’ll have a better understanding of how far you might be able to go.
Step 3: Craft a detailed character study and outline
Once you’ve compiled all of your research, it’s time to create a character study. This is where you will make sure you truly understand who the character is. You’ll want to lay out everything from physical characteristics to personality traits, likes and dislikes, and even religious affiliation. Put down everything you think you’re going to need to know. How much money do they make? What type of job do they have? Do they have any friends? What do they eat for breakfast? Many of these things may be trivial and won’t end up in the book at all, but it’s always good to have that information in the back of your mind as you’re writing. Once this is complete, match it up with the plot and write a couple of paragraphs about how the character fits into the story and what they will do to help move the story forward. Make sure to write down key plot points and how they will react in the situation.
Step 4: Be respectful, but don’t be afraid to go for it
Now it’s onto the writing. But be careful; when writing a character based on someone you know, there may be a tendency to soften them up, to ignore certain flaws in order to make sure your friend doesn’t throw the book through your head after reading it. All this will do is weaken the character. If you’re going to base a character on someone you know, have the balls to get your hands dirty when it comes to writing them. At the same time, you must remember to remain respectful. If you write something that you feel may be going too far, let them read the pages. Explain to them why you’re writing them that way, or why it’s important for the character or the plot and give them a chance to object. Be cautious, though, as you don’t want them to write anything for you. Everyone has an opinion, and 99% of the time, it’s a bad one, at least when it comes to your novel. But understand where they are coming from, and if changes can be made that aren’t detrimental to the character or the plot, then by all means, make them.
Follow these steps and you’ll be well on your way to turning your best friend into everyone’s best friend.
Have you ever created a character based on someone you knew? Were you encouraged to tone the character down in fear of hurting them? How did it come across? Were they happy or disappointed? Are you still friends?