February 7, 2011

Monday Mess: Drawing Characters from Real Life

My friend Don inspired this post today, so you might want to go read about his plight over at Donald J.Carey. It's brief and a little funny, but it is something I've wondered about in imagining the upcoming release of my first novel, The Orchard. How many friends or relatives will think I've written them into a book?

I'm sure many writers will agree that characters sort of come to life on their own. Sure, we can give them a career, tell them what school they went to and how many brothers and sisters they have, but while writing them, or sometimes, scribing for them, their unique personalities develop as the hero, the love interest, the villain, the best friend, the counselor.

It usually isn't until after I've written characters interacting a good deal, that I go back and write character journals of each one. Then it's fun to enhance those interactions with some of the things I've discovered about each one. It's like getting to know somebody. You can be acquainted, know a little background, and listen to what they have to say. But then after spending some time with that person, you can attach more meaning to their words, and understand their actions and views better. Or in an author's case, you can write them better, deeper.

However, having said this, of course writers draw from influences around them. I'll share a few easy examples where my characters have been influenced by real people in my life:

In The Orchard, the hero, Derick, has an older sister. A lot of my mom went into her character, her energy, her desire to make sure everyone is comfortable. Even some of her coloring is influenced by my mom. My mom is thrilled. Especially since the character is younger.

In the same book, Ben's character is a combination of my dad (sweet and quiet) and my sister's old boyfriend (mannerisms). I didn't choose it that way, I just recognized the influences of those people in my life as I pictured Ben stepping out onto the front porch the first time and meeting the visitors to his ranch. Often, when I recognize attributes in my characters as those of people I know, it's a relief to be able to picture them as I write. I'm a visual writer and picture the story unfolding as a movie, and I'm just writing down what I see and hear. So it's wonderful to have a clear image of my characters.

In The Inn, the hero's son, Sam, is a combination of my two sons (but not in looks), and his youngest daughter, Lily, is my youngest, all the way. His oldest daughter, Chloe, talks as my oldest daughter would. Probably because my kids are such a presence in my hour-to-hour life that I couldn't escape their influence if I tried. In The Lake, Chloe's best friend was very much influenced by what I thought my 10 year old niece might be like in college.

But, and this is a big BUT (go ahead, giggle), though these characters have been influenced in some way by real people, their stories, their choices, their parts in the plot ARE NOT REAL. They play roles in bringing a story to life. So although Derick's sister resembles my mom, my mom is not married to a farmer-turned college professor, nor was she unable to have children. Ben is quiet and shy like my dad, but runs a ranch. My dad is a computer engineer, and doesn't care for horseback riding.

The protagonist in Grace & Chocolate is called Jill, after my cousin. But Jill my cousin is nothing like Jill in the book. At all. Actually, I've used a lot of my cousins' names in my books. But only because I love the names, and they were great for the characters. Assuming that I must be writing about my cousins would be like assuming I'm naming a baby after someone because I expect the baby to be just like that person.

So while poor Don is fielding questions about his characters, I will continue to write my new novel, which is set on Camano Island in the Puget Sound of Washington state, where the main character goes to stay with her 2 aunts, and I will continue to wonder what people will think, who know that I actually have 2 aunts who live together . . . on Camano Island.

And just for fun, I'll post some pictures I've found of some of my characters. It's so great to happen upon a face that makes you cry out, 'It's _____!" It's also a little insane. Oh well. Such is the life of a novelist.

Young Derick Whitney- THE ORCHARD
Young Alisen Embry-THE ORCHARD
Jillian Parish-GRACE & CHOCOLATE
Justin Michaels-THE LAKE
Chloe Brennan-THE INN, THE LAKE
*Just a note: I usually find a picture well after a character is established. It's not always spot on to what I see in my head, but it can come surprisingly close!

Next Monday Mess: Drawing Events from Real Life


Norma said...

Love the pics! You are brave to confess which characters are similar to real people. Now those people are on the watch! (theme from Twilight Zone ♫ Doodoo doodoo doodoo doodoo...)☺

KarenG said...

I'm so glad I have an easy going family. They see themselves in my work and just laugh.

Abel Keogh said...

This is a great post. I hand't thought about using photos before. I LIKE that idea.

I try not to draw off too many personal people in my books, but in The Third, the two boys are pretty much how my two oldest boys behaved that their age.

Krista said...

Norma, I know! But so far the (real) people like that they're (kind of) in my story.

Karen, that is very healthy!

Abel, I think I did it more in my first novel, because I was searching for inspiration and really wanting to develop real characters, even minor ones. The interesting thing is, none of my MAIN characters are an off-shoot of real people. They seem to come packed all on their own. But they are the ones I like to have pictures of.
I LOVE writing kids.

RobisonWells said...

I'm generally pretty terrible with describing a character's physical description, so one of the very first things I do when starting a book is get a photo of them. I use this site (www.nowcasting.com/search) which is a database of actors. Its search tool is insanely useful.

Krista said...

Oh great! Thanks for the site, Rob!

Shari said...

I love finding pictures of my characters! It was fun to see yours. I've done character journals and profiles. I'm not sure which one I like best.

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