In Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, Dwight Swain says
You start from a foundation of your fantasies and feelings. Because the character you can’t fantasize and feel with will fail. …
In other words, you hunt till you find one whose looks you like … one who fits your private standards.
Sometimes it’s tempting to base a character on a real person, but that’s not a good idea. No two people—or characters—are alike. If you try to create a character just like someone you know, you won’t have the freedom to create the perfect character for your story.
However, using individual traits and characteristics from real people works well. Observe people—at home, at work, in the mall, in the media, everywhere you go. Use what you observe to create composite characters. Ask yourself, “What if …” What if someone had hair like your mother’s, a facial tic like someone you saw in the office supply store, the voice pattern of your neighbor from another state, and the bubbly personality of a co-worker? And what if that person was a fifth degree black belt in karate?
Make your characters fit your story—people who can do interesting things and still be credible. If you’re writing an amateur sleuth mystery, your sleuth has to have some reason or motivation to solve the crime. Maybe she has an insatiable curiosity, has always been intrigued by a puzzle. Your action-adventure hero needs to have the physical and personal traits to enjoy adventure, or he must have some strong motivation to overcome his limitations.
Real people don’t always act consistently and don’t always know why they do what they do, but they rationalize their behavior. Rationalization provides plausible (but not necessarily true) reasons for actions, in life and fiction. Even when characters’ actions aren’t logical, the characters have to feel they are justified.
Just as in real life, we form dominant impressions of characters based on what we see:
- Sex – woman, man, girl, boy
- Age – young, old, 18-years-old, baby, teenager
- Vocation – doctor, nurse, housewife, bag lady, construction worker, lawyer
- Manner – surly, bubbly, sloppy, friendly, pompous, fun-loving
But if you built characters with dominant impressions only, they would be shallow and flat characters, not the dynamic, three-dimensional characters main characters should be.
In a list of do’s and don’ts for character development, Holly Lisle, author of Holly Lisle’s Create A Character Clinic, recommends:
Do start developing your character by giving him a problem, a dramatic need, a compulsion.
Now you’re starting to make your character interesting. A woman who is a young lawyer with a fun-loving manner is a stereotype. A woman who is a young lawyer with a fun-loving manner and a hatred of drunk drivers because her parents were killed by a drunk driver who is assigned by her law firm to defend a man accused of drunk driving—that’s an interesting character.
In my novel Dream or Destiny, Marilee Anderson is a business consultant who is strong and confident in her business but quiet and shy in her personal life. She dreads being in the public eye, and, more than anything, she hates being mocked for her psychic abilities. Then she has a dream that puts her in the spotlight in a sensational murder case, a target of media attention and public ridicule for her dream.
The next installment will cover revealing character and point of view.