“Are fictional characters drawn directly from life? Obviously not, at least on a one-to-one basis—you’d BETTER not, unless you want to get sued or shot on your way to the mailbox some fine morning.”
– Stephen King, On Writing
Around a week ago, I hammered out an outline for a new novel I’ve decided to write. It’s nothing I have high hopes for; more like, a way for me to try my hand at the coming-of-age genre. No publication goals for this one.
I’m not going to say much about it here, but it centers around high school. So naturally, I had to whip up a variety of high school characters.
You can see why I would be apprehensive doing this. I just graduated high school, and no matter what spins you put on characters from that setting, there are bound to be similarities between my literary cast and my set of best friends.
So, here are my thoughts, as an author, about creating characters and how they compare to real life.
Wisely following Mr. King’s advice, I’ve never written a character who’s directly based off of someone I know. When I write out a character, the fun part for me is getting to create someone entirely new, embodying either the best or the worst of some role I’m trying to fill. However, despite what you may think, I’m not an overly creative person. And while I don’t directly base a character off a person I know, I do use that general frame of reference.
Here’s an example. If I have to create a school bully character (which I never have, incidentally), I’ll think about the school bullies I’ve encountered in the past. I think about what made these bullies so unpleasant, why it did, and what defined them as rude people. Then I take all of those elements and spit out an entirely new character.
I do not, however, pick out one bully in particular and create a character exactly like them except for their hair color. For one thing, if a person I meet is so unpleasant, why would I want to spend time writing about them? I’d much rather create a bully of my own and force readers to hate them. So yes, I draw on base elements to get some groundwork, but I never copy exact traits. And certainly not from one person.
Occasionally, someone I know will inspire the creation of a character. For example, if I knew someone named Jack who could read an entire book within two minutes (again, not a real example), I would probably be intrigued enough to create a character who can do that. Anyone who knew me personally would start pointing the fingers and cry out, “Whoa there, you just wrote a story about Jack and changed his name, hair color, age, height, personality and gender!”
I hope I’m never in that situation, because it’ll be kind of hard to explain. As a writer and storyteller, I’m always on the lookout for interesting things to throw in my stories. That includes places, people, and even specific events in my life.
But here’s how that process works for me. Non-writers might assume that it goes something like: Element A inspires me, so I create Element B (similar to element A) to inspire readers.
Not quite. I’m a pretty weird kid, and I can’t assume that the same stuff that inspires me will inspire others. So instead, it goes like this: Element A inspires me. I think about why, then create an entirely new thing (Element B) which I hope will inspire others in the same way, make them feel the same things I did. Naturally, the elements will have some overlapping traits. But that’s not intentional.
Here’s the main reason why I would never adapt a character straight from someone I know: because if I’m writing a story, then I want to have the creative license to twist up that story however I want. If I want to write a romance novel which ends by the love interest killing themselves, then it might not be such a good idea to base the love interest off of my girlfriend. I can make them similar, but at the end of the day, the love interest character has to be an original creation. If they aren’t and I decide not to add the suicide in fear of what my real life girlfriend would make of it, then my creative license has officially been revoked. I’m now being restricted by real life in how I can write a fictional story. And seriously, what’s the point of writing a story if you’re restricted in telling it?
So, to anyone who has, does or will read my stories someday, if you think you recognize yourself, don’t be so quick to jump on board. Yes, you might very well have inspired a character that I want to use in a story. But when I write, I picture that character in my head, not you. So please, don’t think that anything said character does is a reflection of what I think of you. And most certainly, please don’t be offended if they end up killing themselves.
Have a lovely Friday!