Hey, That Character Reminds Me of Someone!

I’m often asked if I model characters in my books after people I know.  I’ve had people who read my novels come up to me and start talking to me about my relationships with my parents, my kids, my wife, thinking that they know something about my personal life, assuming that the parents, kids, and wives I’ve written into my books must be similar to the real things.  And, I suppose there might have been some truth to this with my first couple of books.

The more I’ve written, however, the more I’ve found that I do much better creating characters from scratch.  The best characters I’ve created — and by best I mean most believable, most interesting, most fun to play with from an artistic standpoint, and, I believe, the most compelling for my readers — tend to be those who are least like any people I actually know.  Even now, this strikes me as being somewhat counterintuitive.  Shouldn’t my most realistic characters be those who I base on real people?

The answer, of course, is no.  As someone far wiser than I said long ago, writing fiction is about taking ordinary people and placing them in extraordinary circumstances.  I’d argue that this is even more true of speculative fiction than it is of other genres.  The last thing I want to be asking myself as I place a character in mortal danger is, “Gee, what would Aunt Helen do under these circumstances?”  It’s certainly true that my ideas and inspiration come from my personal experiences.  Looking at the question from that point of view, I guess one could argue that every character I’ve ever created includes elements of people I know, just as every description I’ve ever written draws upon something I’ve seen, and every emotion I’ve imparted to a character…..You get the idea.  But I’d argue that this is different from modeling a character after a real person.

Writing a book is, for me, an organic process.  Character, plot, setting, background; they all develop together, as a whole.  I could try to bring in elements of my father’s personality and assign them to one character, and take part of my own life story and attach it to the plot, but I’d end up with something akin to a literary Frankenstein.  For my creative process to work, it needs to be relatively unfettered by preconceived ideas.  This isn’t to say that I don’t outline my books or keep my characters consistent.  But all the elements of my story have to arise from the same source.  My characters especially need room to grow, to change, to act, all the while remaining true to themselves.  If, when I create a character, I decide that he’s going to be just like my brother, or she’s going to be just like my daughter, I take away that character’s freedom.  He or she becomes a portrait of someone else rather than a living, breathing person.

So chances are, if you’re reading one of my books and wondering if that person kissing the hero is just like my wife, or whether another character’s terrible relationship with her mother mirror’s something from my own childhood, the answer is no.  And if the guy I killed in chapter six bears a striking resemblance to the idiot who cut me off in traffic earlier in the day, well, that’s probably just a coincidence….

Today’s music:  Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Mike Marshall (Uncommon Ritual)

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  1. 1. Kelly McCullough

    Yep. My wife is thinking about getting a button made up that says “Still not Cerice” (the lead female character of the first two WebMage books). She is somewhat concerned that the buttons thing will get cumbersome as more books in this and other series come out and the range of characters she’s forced to deny being the model for grows.

  2. 2. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    I do like to kill/irritate/torment and so forth people who annoy me in my real life. I admit that. But the rest . . . I simply cannot have the face or personality of a real person attached to my character or it comes out very very wrong.

    Di

  3. 3. David B. Coe

    I think my wife feels much the same way. My kids on the other hand would LOVE to be able to tell their friends that they’re characters in my books.

  4. 4. David B. Coe

    And yes, Di, there certainly is some pleasure in giving red shirts to the people who bother me, and then picking them off one by one….

  5. 5. Karen Wester Newton

    I think more insidious than readers thinking a character is someone the writer knows is the reader who assumes the writer espouses all his/her protagonist’s values. Just because a fictional character acts a certain way doesn’t mean the author thinks that’s a good thing. For one thing, people with flaws are more interesting than those without, so writers often give their protagonists a lot of emotional baggage they don’t have themselves. That’s the great thing about fiction—you get to make it up.

  6. 6. David B. Coe

    Right, Karen. If I believed everything that all my many protagonists do, I’d be schizophrenic; and if my protagonists only believed the things I do, they’d be too boring for words.

  7. 7. Daryl Gregory

    Roger on that button your wife was thinking of buying, David. I had a short story in F&SF in which a man with terrible allergies talks about preferring to have sex doggie style, so his sinuses can drain (yes, Gordon Van Gelder actually published this). Anyway, my wife had to put up with a few questions. I mean, just because _I_ have terrible allergies doesn’t mean the characters had anything to do with us.

    But people will always be a bit skittish around writers. For Christmas this year my sisters bought me a sweatshirt that says, “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.”

Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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