What Really Happens When You Base A Character On Someone You Know

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Many of my characters are constructed from people I knew, or know currently, in my real life (hi, Jamie!). As I’ve said before on my blog, I have a peculiar knack for reading people’s body language and energy casings, and this results in some fascinating (to me) tinkering over character formation and subsequent arc development.

Combining Potent Personalities In A Blender—Then Go!

One of my favorite characters, a king named John, is an extraction and distillation from an interesting quasi-genius I know quite well. It is not the full person, but about a quarter of the original, drawn off and grown out into a complete personality.

How Does That Happen?

First, I take a person who tickles my curiosity. In the case of John, the base personality was an enigma to me; there was a twist of childishness and frank genius in my source person that nagged at me. I isolated that element of character, and pressed it out into a human form. This is kind of like taking a swab from inside someone’s cheek and then putting it in a damp plastic mold and waiting for new life to fill out the desired shape. Okay, that sounds kind of nasty. Instead, let’s say it’s like cutting one branch from a tree, and splicing it into a plain tree to grow a pure strain of fruit. There, that’s more palatable.

Victor, Sometimes Your Analogies Are Just Too Strange

After I’ve gotten the piece of person I want, I start to tease at the new character, pushing at different aspects of the personality to find the weak spots. If I were to do this on a straight copy of the real person, the source body from which I drew the character, the book would rapidly become very deep, very personal, and very, um, committed. You can’t take an authentic human, a real person with a complete aura and set of personal qualities, and then chuck them into a narrative setting and not come out with sterling literature. Literature, however wonderful it might be, is not usually suited for fantasy or science fiction work, because it is just too damn serious (see, Harder Than Rocks, which is charming, and perfect, and very sobering at the end). (See also My Name Is Caleb, which is based on a combination of three very abused people I know well.)

Genre Fiction Is Not Suited For Complete Characterizations

Fantasy has got to be a little bit fun, or at any rate, sufficiently light-hearted to serve as an escape. I pushed the envelope about as far as I could with Ajalia and Delmar, but even they are quixotic enough to escape the melancholia of genuine humanity. People are dark inside, not because most of them are bad (though many of them are), but because there is an unbearable weight of pain, oppression, and sorrow that goes before every person, and trails along behind.

Enough With The Sober Philosophizing, Victor!

What happens when you take a person you know well, and use part of them, or most of them, in a character in your novel? Well, if you are possessed of any discretion, you will conceal what you have done! But what happens is that you start to get into your source’s head, and you start, if you have skill as a writer, to inhabit their skin, or some part of their soul.

Examples

Bad Writing:

Leopold was so fed up with the state of his enormous, too-big house of expensiveness, he was ready to throw it all into disarray with a haphazard auction at the lowest social bar, rung, or placement possible for a man of his elevated station. He was to the point, in actual matter of factness, of considering giving up the family noblelands, and going into the space realms to live as a carnival barker, or a lackey to a pirate-type-rubbisher. This, in fact, was what Leopold told himself, but his butler-chef, Marinker, was already plotting to thwart such a disastrous state of affairs, and made a balanced breakfast of greens and egg whites, hiding a silver sheaf of money under the plate as an added temptation. Leopold never had any money, because his butler-chef had strict orders from the elder brother to keep all household monies under strict lock and key.

Good Writing:

Leopold was upset; his hair fell to one side, and his normally scrupulous trousers had gained a set of wrinkles across the hips. He paced up and down the superfluously thick carpet of his needlessly-large library, and meditated on the various schemes he had sketched out for the purpose of obtaining money.

Toddy, his older brother, always kept the cold, hard cash far from Leopold’s sticky fingers, and the young man, who had only recently gained his majority, was seriously contemplating running away to the star-blazer’s circus, to live as some kind of freak. He’d have to mutilate himself, but lots of young men did that. At least, that’s what he’d read about in Science-Mudo Monthly. They had pictures of the space-freaks there, sometimes, young men with five noses, or an extra set of lips in their cheeks. It wasn’t so bad, he told himself, and you could always pay for a cosmetic fix after you’d made your fortune being chased by moon monkeys and standing on your head during the fire show.

Marinker was well ahead of young Leopold’s schemes; the butler slid discreetly into the library with all the fanfare and clatter associated with a timid mouse, and lay a tray of spinach and eggs noiselessly on the bench of the ivory harmonium. Clearing his throat ever so gently, the butler crinkled a pair of shimmering silver bills under the plate; the money made a lush rustle, and Leopold’s ears pricked up instantly. Marinker slid like an eel from the room, and Leopold pounced on the funds.

And Remember, Celebrities Have Proprietary Energy Signatures

Don’t use famous people unless you are very, very good at energy alterations, and even then, people will be able to taste the foundational composition. Use nobodies, strangers at the park, friends from elementary school, and people you know well enough to predict. Age can always be adjusted, and characters can be mashed together to make original flavors. When you use real people to inspire your characters, be prepared to develop startling empathy for your subjects, and don’t use too much of one person unless you’re prepared to make a literary tome.

You’re reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. Almost all of my characters are drawn from pieces of people I’ve known (or know) in real life. I like to combine touches from as many as four people to create original subjects (like Leed).

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