Front Page, Musings

True to Life. Sort Of.

For many writers, a big source of inspiration for characters are friends and family. Makes sense. These are people whom you see frequently and know their quirks, speech patterns, personality, and could describe quite easily. Why struggle for hours thinking up a name or description or poring over character sheets when you have a throng of people at your fingertips? Some authors even go so far as to mine the backgrounds of friends and family for plots and subplots. Indeed, the joke about being nice to the writer or else you’ll end up in their next book can be quite true.

Unless you’re me. For years I have stayed away from using family and friends for inspiration. Though I am clearly writing fiction, I worry if I use someone I know, even if it is as simple as a description or pulling a couple of interesting traits from them, they will think I view them as being that person on the page. I shied away from even using their names regardless if the description or personality of the character had zero connection with the same name real life counterpart.

It’s not that I worry about being sued. Writers are covered under the law from being sued just because a character either has a strong resemblance or a passing resemblance to a fictional character. It’s why this language appears after the title page: This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

But even with this legal protection, I was still afraid. Afraid of what other people would think about me. I used to worry what would happen if I have a character which resembles someone I know and the person they are loosely based on reads it. Will they jump to conclusions and believe I view them like that? Will they be upset? Will they be happy? Will they stop talking to me? I’m usually a non-confrontational person and though I know what my intent was and recognize a fictional character is not the same as a flesh and blood person, it was a risk I wasn’t willing to take.

However, I’ve realized how flawed this thinking is. Yes, my characters and situations are entirely made up. But I get inspired from a variety of sources: newspaper articles, listening to NPR, shows and movies I watch, books I’ve read, bullshitting with people, etc. So how is using a friend’s name or distinctive look or personality traits of a family member any different? Why not use people I know, even in a small way, to help flesh out a character?

Looking to friends, family, and even myself makes things a little easier. Writing is incredibly difficult, and I am someone very prone to making things more complicated then they need to be. It’s one of my few natural skills. So, if I can make certain things like names, descriptions, character traits, even events easier to come up with then I should use them.

Another way to look at it is those around you are resources. They can become part of your writer’s toolbox in whatever way you need them to be. Perhaps a friend has an interesting job that inspires you to write a story. Or maybe a family member has a unique personality that fits in with the world you are creating. Again, anything which makes writing a little bit easier, use it.

And while I have realized it is okay to mine people you know for you work, it is also important to keep in mind that at the end of the day, your friends and family are still people. Be respectful and think heavily about how you use them in a story. Don’t be afraid, though, as no matter how strongly a character may be based upon someone you know, that character is still its own one of its kind person.


Weekly Musing: Quite a Character

Something any writer must be able to do is have the ability to create characters. Or at least have good enough hearing to pay attention to when a character pops into your head with a story to tell. Character creation is one thing I’m not sure a lot of readers realize can come from anywhere. Some are created from scratch by the author while others come to the author. A big reason why it’s never a good idea to think a story is a reflection of the author as a person unless noted otherwise.

For me, it seems most of my characters just come to me. I even hesitate using the phrase “my characters” as I don’t think I own these characters. Even though they live in a fictional world, they are still real to some degree. What I mean by characters come to me is either I’ll be trying to sleep or reading, watching TV, or doing something else when a complete stranger pops into my head to say hello. If I’m lucky then maybe they bring me a gift, or curse, depends on the situation, of a story they’d like to have told.

Most of the time I’m not so lucky. The stranger just presents himself or herself to me and it’s up to me to figure out what to do with them. When it’s up to me to figure out what a character wants, it takes a lot of “talking” to figure out what he or she wants to say. Even when the character comes with a story, it’s still up to me to interview him or her so we can get to know each other better.

Other times, though, I’ll have an idea for a story and what kind of main character it should be about. When this happens, I naturally start with the basics of gender, age, and physical appearance but beyond the superficial I rely upon the character’s actions in the story to show me who they are.

Rarely do I sit down and say that I am going to have a story with a certain type of character. This is something I have been considering more as I think about how to push myself creatively. Sometimes it’s something like having a character of a different ethnic background from previous works. Sometimes it is creating a character based upon a piece of history I read. Sometimes it’s as simple as wanting to see certain kind of character more in literature and I don’t think I’m reading enough of that particular kind.

In the past I’ve tried using character sheets since it appeals to my natural organized personality, but I found them too tedious. Previously I’ve discussed some of the other reasons why I don’t care for them. A couple of years later and I still feel many of the questions are characters sheets are irrelevant to discovering who the character is. Yes, experiences shape a person but I failed to see how being the oldest child in a family had anything to do with a story in which family wasn’t a theme. Another problem I have with character sheets is often times the questions seem meant for characters and stories set in modern times.

What I do now instead of character sheets is simply brainstorm. I allow stream of consciousness to take over and list what kind of person the character thinks she or he is, what it is he or she wants (a big thing to know before the story starts), any quirks he or she may have, etc. During the brainstorming phase I’ll discover potential minor characters and what their role might be.

The bulk of creating a character for me, though, doesn’t come from filling out character sheets or brainstorming or “speaking” with them but from actually writing the story’s rough draft. As many writers experience, even with plans characters have a way of changing everything by doing what they want to do. To me this is when characters come to life. Think about it. We can all list what kind of person we think we are but it’s not until we are put into a situation that our true self comes out. Why should this be any different for a fictional character?

That’s not to say that someone who is demure suddenly becomes aggressive because he or she is put into a particular situation. There’s a line between change born of an organic cause to acting out of character. But just as in real life, it’s the story that reveals what character. That’s why when it comes to developing a character, for me it is a combination of doing pre-story legwork while allowing for the story to show who the character really is.

As you can see, creating a character isn’t a simple process. For me it’s not a simple process but I’m sure for others it is more straightforward. Whatever method you use as a writer as long as you still come out with interesting and compelling characters then it works.


Weekly Musing: What Makes For a Good Read?

What attracts a reader to spend hours each day reading? Is it the characters? The plot? The author? The subject matter? Is it the story? That desire to experience a world different from their own?

For myself, I’m usually drawn to what the story is about but what ultimately makes for a good read are the characters. Occasionally it is the author but only if it’s one of my favorites.

But what is it about a story that peaks my interests? Genre is the first attraction. Since historical fiction is one of my favorite, I’m first drawn to particular time periods. If it’s fantasy, stories with swords or magical people or creatures or just has a unique world. And, as of late, I’ve been reading more of the classics and literature just because I feel deficient somehow.

After picking a genre, reading the book jacket to get a feel for the story is key. If the story is set in a time period I’m familiar with, what twist are they going for? If it’s a story containing a real historical figure, what aspect of their life do will I find interesting? If it’s fantasy, what is going to happen in this world? With the classics or literature, I tend to be interested in a theme or an exploration of a character as he goes through change in his life. Location and time period aren’t as important to me.

Once I’ve started a book, the biggest thing that will hold my attention are the characters. I generally prefer the lead characters to be smart, strong, and courageous yet I’m coming to realize that a really good lead character doesn’t necessarily have to be all these things in order to be interesting or a well-developed. Well, actually, the lead should be at least smart. And by smart I don’t mean has a high IQ but that there is something smart about them. I don’t want to read about someone who constantly acts stupid. The lead can make stupid decisions as part of the plot and character development but the character itself can’t be stupid.

Admittedly plot isn’t too big of a priority. I’ve read some books recently that had some pretty out there plots and didn’t mind because the characters were so interesting. American Gods by Neil Gaiman has a plot I have a very hard time describing but it is the odd, creepy characters that intrigued me. Actually everything I’ve read so far by Neil Gaiman I could claim to have a hard time describing the plot other than it’s just different. Another book I’ve read, Emperor Mollusk vs. the Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez is a sci-fi read with a villain as the main character that again, it’s hard to describe the plot and do it justice. It’s not that they had bad plots or boring plots, if they did, I’m not sure even the most interesting and well-developed characters could save a boring book. I think overall, I’d much prefer a simple lot and simple subplots with complex characters. If the characters are complicated, then I get more of a sense they will do just find mucking up a simple story. That’s what is fun for me to read.

Those elements that make for a good read to me are what I strive for in my own writing. Yet I do realize it is important to have a good plot; it’s the platform that allows characters to do their thing. Also, plenty of readers are attracted to plot so I do need to keep that in the back of my head. But for me, characters are what drive the story bus, both in what I read and what I write.