Borrowing from Peter to Make Paul
Quick! Without thinking too much about it, what is the name of your favorite book? Now, why did you like it?
* Were you left breathless by the dramatic action?
* Did it exude vivid settings?
* Or was it the dynamic plotline?
Any of these elements probably contributed, but more likely than not, it was peopled with unforgettable characters. For most of us, what makes a book memorable are the folks that live within the pages. No matter what type of book: non-fiction, fiction, whatever variation of genre it may be, a story with "real" characters makes that story come to life and enables the reader to connect emotionally and experience it, rather than simply read it, thus imprinting itself into the reader's memory.
Like a jigsaw puzzle, there are many things an author draws upon when building any character, especially the major ones. The three basic ones are these:
1) Pieces of himself (herself).
2) Pieces of family, friends, and enemies.
3) Pieces of total strangers.
I know of no authors who do not inject a bit of themselves into their characters. It is through our own experiences that make us cause our characters to laugh or cry or scream or lash out or otherwise react in any given situation. After all, we are Gods! We make them in our own images!! Not always a good idea. We cannot depend entirely upon ourselves or soon all our characters would be duplicates of one another and make for some pretty dull reading. We need numerous alterations of speech patterns, personality types, and reactionary responses. Since (most of us) are not in possession of multiple personalities to draw upon (although I did manage to create such a character quite convincingly in my novel Exit Strategy), we have to depend upon the traits of others.
Enter: family . . . friends . . . and enemies . . . . . .
It's not generally advisable to base an entire character upon an actual person, but a piece or two of someone else can spice up an otherwise bland character quite nicely. We're all acquainted with at least a few people that possess some highly interesting personality quirks and nuances. It's unlikely anyone holds a patent on these, so we can't be afraid to borrow a quirk here or a nuance or two there to give a character a bit more oomph and pizazz! Trust me. Readers will thank us for it. (Even if the ones we borrowed from don't.)
"Did you see that guy over there . . .?"
Finally, total strangers. We authors have to constantly be observant, and public people-watching is a wonderfully opportunistic pastime! Did you notice that unique haircut? What's up with the high number of men wearing purple shirts today? Get a load of those shoes! I wonder why that child is limping like that? That is the most striking, classy-looking woman I've ever seen! Could that girl talk any faster? Why would anyone purposely do that to their face!?
The list is endless. Shopping malls, sporting events, concerts, amusement parks, city streets, airports, tractor pulls . . . anyplace where a large variety of people tend to gather is a watering hole of interesting characters with countless traits to choose from. (And possibly some inspiring storylines as well.)
And who knows . . . YOU just might be someone's inspiration yourself!
So, dear reader, the next time you form an affinity or an absolute fear or loathing of the character you're reading about, take a moment to thank the author for taking the effort to make them so real. It's not always easy, but we do it for you.