Creating living, breathing characters that readers can love or hate and identify with is a huge part of every author’s mission. How they accomplish that, though, varies from author to author. Some develop detailed character sheets that describe parents, siblings, eye color, height, weight, favorite food and color, hobbies, most traumatic incident, relationships, and just about anything you can think of about a person. Others interview their characters or write journal entries for them. Those who are pantsers allow the character to emerge on the page as the story unfolds.
What About Using Real People?
A recent article in The New York Times detailed the life and death of the son and stepson of three famous authors who all apparently used him as a character or based characters on him and his life. Whoa.
In the very first fiction I wrote, I filled in detailed character worksheets to describe the main characters but not for the several characters I based on real people. For those characters I consciously changed their looks, their backgrounds and any traits that could identify them and drew on my impression of who they were: how they saw themselves in the world, how they treated others, their attitudes, and so on. But, as much as I distanced the characters from the real people, in my mind, I saw them as that person, heard that person’s voice in my head when writing their dialogue.
It turned out using real people made me uncomfortable and I never did it again. Nor did I ever create character worksheets again. Instead, the characters in my stories come from my unconscious. They often arrive with names and sometimes with a little backstory but not much else. When I’m writing I try to see through their eyes and allow them to become who they are as they lead me through the story. I know this sounds mystical. I can’t really explain it.
This quote from Eudora Welty summarizes my ideal way of creating characters.
“Characters take on life sometimes by luck, but I suspect it is when you can write more entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.”
What about you authors? How do you create your characters?
Catherine is the author of four NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli mysteries–A Matter of Blood, The Blood Runs Cold, A Message in Blood and Legacy in the Blood.
In addition to the four Corelli mysteries Catherine has written four romances and The Disappearance of Lindy James, general fiction.
When not writing, Catherine is either cooking or reading. She lives in the New York City with her wife.