Creating Characters from Life

By Cheryl Wright

As much as we're told not to use 'real' people for the basis of our characters, doing so can yield wonderfully full-bodied characters.

Many years ago, when working a day job, I came across an unforgettable young man. He was a natural joker, friendly, hard worker, and seven feet tall. On the odd occasion when things weren't going the way John planned, he would use his height as a veritable stand-over tactic to entice other people to comply.

I 'stole' some of John's characteristics for my novel "Saving Emma". And they work beautifully.

This technique will give you a whole new perspective on creating characters, one that I believe you won't discard once you've tried it.

Draw up two columns - in the first column, write the name of someone who is well known to you.

Now write a list of their physical appearance - eye and hair colour, height, weight, and even the way they walk. For instance, do they stand tall and walk in a straight line, or do they sway as they go.

Now describe the type of clothing they normally wear. It is casual clothing, or perhaps they are more formal. This may be determined by their occupation.

Think about the different clothes they wear in changed situations. For example, a detective may have no choice but to wear a suit to work. When he's at home, does he then wear casual clothes, such as track suits or torn jeans?

Think about his speech. Does he talk quickly, slowly, or at normal speed? (I once worked with a lady who was diagnosed as being hyperactive; she talked so quickly, most people had to ask her to repeat herself.)

Now give his language some thought. His age will make a big difference to the language he uses. A teenage may say 'Oh man, what a day!' but in contrast, his mother would likely say 'I've had a cow of a day!'.

Now think about the personality of this person. Is he shy and retiring, or more open and outgoing?

What does he do in his spare time? Perhaps he's a model train enthusiast, or he may prefer to go to the movies when time allows. Does he read a book in his spare time, or watch t.v.?

Now we're ready for that second column.

I want you to study the first column. What you are about to do is 'pump up' your friend's personality. If you think it will be difficult to rewrite your friend, give the second column a character name. (That is, if Peter is your friend, rename it to become Jordon for this subsequent exercise.)

For every two or three character traits listed, you need to change at least one.

If the hair is brown, make it blonde (for example) If his height is 6 feet 3 ins, change it to say, 5 feet 7 ins.

For an outgoing personality, turn him into a wallflower, or somewhere in between. The character you end up with will be totally unrecognizable. At least that's the theory!

During the course of my day, I often come across people who are very intriguing to my writer's mind. One such fellow travelled on the same train as I did when I had early meetings at work.

His clothing was scruffy, and he was always unshaven. He slept across a number of seats, and always kept to himself. He looked to be Italian or Greek; definitely of Mediterranean origin.

I observed him for many months, and was often on the verge of asking him a few questions about himself. I never did have the courage to approach him; after all, he could have been a murderer, or an armed robber, anything.

So instead, I used him to create other characters in my mind.