Writing Prompt: 05/31/10

"Your phone rings. When you answer it, you make a startling discovery: the person on the other end is dead. What does he/she say and why are they calling you?"

Write for 15-30 minutes. My response will be posted 6/02/10.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Essay: Why You SHOULD Use Real People as Characters

Making believable characters is a difficult process for any writer. In previous essays I've discussed how important it is to know your characters, inside and out, but today I want to talk about something a little different.

I am of the mind that the most realistic characters come from life. The four tightly-knit characters of Crossed Swords are actually modeled on a semi-professional paintball team I played with from 1994 through 1999. Although it was actually a ten man team, there were four of us; Shawn and Mike (two brothers), my roommate Ted, and myself, who spent most of our off-the-field time together. In fact, in 1995 when my home was flooded thanks to a group of environmentalists whining so loudly that Pierce County decided not to dredge the river for gravel (causing a mere $122 million in property damage and rendering hundreds of families homeless-- but at least the Dolly Varden trout population had safe spawning grounds) I moved in with Shawn and Mike for three weeks, and then Ted and I got an apartment together.

It was during this time that the inspiration for Crossed Swords came to me-- literally in a dream-- and there was never the slightest bit of question who would be the "stars." They were in the dream after all.

Unfortunately, there's a certain Mary Sue element to this. The arguably "main" character is David, who is, for all intents and purposes, me. There are certain notable differences. I've never in my life wanted to be a ranger. While I've done the Boy Scouts thing, the idea of running around in the woods getting rained on, far from a gaming rig, copy of Unreal Tournament, high speed internet connection, and a bunch of geeks to headshot just isn't my bag, baby. I'm also not particularly attracted to elves (nor is Michael).

These things aside, if you can honestly look at the people around you, I think you'll find some great examples of characters to include in your writing. The problem is, you have to look honestly. Stephen King is a master of this. His characters are generally lifelike and multi-dimensional. They have hidden flaws and quirks of personality. They get horny. They eat McDonald's. They drive 2003 Nissan Sentras with dented fenders from that time when they pulled into the Lowe's parking lot and there was a cart out there that they didn't see.

There are hundreds and hundreds of little details that real people have in their lives, from the clothes they wear to the schools they attended and the activities they choose for hobbies. More than that, real people are consistently inconsistent. We all have things we do that are the opposite from what we believe. (I'm not talking about flat out lying. After all, there's only one Barack Obama-- thank God.)

Here are a couple of cliche' examples you've probably seen in your life:

1) The athletic coach or PE teacher constantly admonishing you to push harder or eat healthier or work out more-- while he munches a doughnut or simply looks like an egg with feet.

2) The parent who smokes/drinks/does drugs but tries to convince his kids these are bad habits.

3) The boss who pretends to know what you do and therefore micromanage it, while complaining all the while that the echelons above him meddle in his sandbox too often.

4) The bleach-blond bimbo gossiping that her friend is "two-faced and shallow."

These are just a few quickies out of the pageant that is life. We all have inconsistencies and gaps in our logic that cause us to react in certain manners to certain stimuli. It's part of what makes us human. The trick, when developing believable characters, is to find those inconsistencies and use them as the foundation for your characters.

A few months ago I found a copy of Fantastic Realms: How to Draw Fantasy Characters, Creatures, and Settings in a local discount store for $2.00. I was about to put it back on the shelf when I knocked over a book across the aisle and a $1.50 sketch pad landed at my feet-- with a package of pencils on top of it. Not one to piss off the gods when I don't have to, I decided that $3.50 was worth it to try something new and interesting that I'd never done before.

As I've been learning to draw (which is precisely as difficult as I thought it was-- and I wish I'd picked this up years ago, along with music and programming, instead of concentrating quite so hard on theater and drama in high school) I've discovered what most artists and authors knew all along: it's a hell of a lot harder to draw (or create a character) from scratch than it is to create one from a model.

I can generally duplicate most of the pencil sketches in the book, and I have a number of saved panels from webcomics that I particularly love and work on duplicating, such as Oasis from Sluggy Freelance and backgrounds and some characters from Pawn (Warning! Adult themes and artwork. May be NSFW!) However, to just sit down and say, "I think I'll draw a goblin..."

...Let's just say I'm not that good and leave it at that.

So what I'm recommending is that you look around you at the people you interact with. Think about why they are where they are, doing what they do. Why is it that your waitress at the Waffle House spends her break reading String Theory and M Theory: a Modern Introduction? (No kidding. I actually saw this!) Why does the painted Barbie-Bimbo in the mall carry a camera with her wherever she goes?

In another essay I advised taking your notebook out and just sitting somewhere to watch life go by while you wrote and made notes. This is an amplification of that concept. Go sit on a bench at the mall and observe one person that walks past. (Try not to stalk them. I am not bailing your ass out of jail!) Try and find one or more things that are directly observable and contradictory about your model: A business suit and a belt buckle with Spider-Man on it. A $50 pedicure on dirty feet. A hat that says "Fuck You!" and a rosary.

After you've observed these visual inconsistencies and written them down, write a brief backstory to explain them. Think deep. For example:

The business suit/Spidey belt could be a salesman who just likes comics and has to dress professionally.

Or, it could be an act of quiet rebellion against the authority that forced him to grow up and assume adult responsibilities. It could be an overt act to connect with a younger generation-- as a classroom teacher I believe that my students deserve the respect of having someone in the front of the room that looks their best every day. When I taught 6th grade social studies and 7th grade computers I wore a tie every day. However, those ties ran a gamut from Marvin the Martian to Dilbert to Grover to The Cat in the Hat. The tie was there to demonstrate respect for my students. The silliness was there to connect with them.

Which of these two brief inconsistencies would make for a more rounded character in a story about a divorced dad trying to regain custody of his kids?

The $50 pedicure on dirty feet could be a lady who was out working in her yard and had to run a quick errand before taking a shower.

Or, it could be a manifestation of a mild schizophrenic behavior because she was sexually abused as a child and therefore has a disjointed view of attraction and repulsion. On one level she wants to attract male attention, hence the desire to have pretty feet, and on the other she wants to drive them away so they don't further abuse her, hence the unconcern for keeping herself clean.

Which one makes a better character in a story about a group of students trying to survive life in a dysfunctional high school?

Where Stephen King is so great in his storytelling is that he could take either or both of those characters and stick them in an untenable situation. This is where the masterwork of narrative really shines. These little inconsistencies in our character may be considered flaws. Like any flaws-- such as the fault lines in the earth's crust-- enough pressure causes fractures along them.
Consider what might happen to our divorced dad if his children tell him they'd rather stay with mom because she let's them do whatever they want, while he is trying to teach them self-discipline and respect for authority. How might his character "fracture"? Would he devolve in a desperate attempt to reconnect to his children, abandoning the suits in favor of jeans and tee shirts? Would he ossify, moving further down the path to "adulthood"? Think about Tom Hanks's character in Big. If you watch carefully, you'll notice that he starts out as an adult child (which is what he is), dressing in tee shirts and jeans and not really knowing how to present a mature appearance. By the end of the movie, however, just before he returns to his childhood, he is wearing professional attire with the aplomb of an adult, even though he desperately longs to return to just being a kid.

What would happen to our young lady with the dirty toes if she were assaulted again? Would she continue to spiral into a hell of self-hatred? Begin drug abuse? Finally confide in her family what happened to her and seek help that would let her overcome what happened?

These inconsistencies in character that we have observed are purely physical and external in nature, but they give us insight into the internal workings of the characters we are creating. I can't tell you for certain whether the real Mona Lisa ever walked around with a smirk, but I can tell you that to Leonardo Da Vinci, there was a real and important reason to paint her with her famously enigmatic smile.

If you know someone well, you may be able to use aspects of their character in your writing with more success. Because I spent so much time with the other Three Horsemen, it becomes easy to write with their voices. Ted was a consummate smart ass who lived to play the guitar. Shawn is a bit of a clown and a relentless romantic as well as a computer whiz kid who now writes video games in Germany (and still can't grow a beard to save his life). Michael is a natural leader and takes responsibility very seriously. (He was a college graduate at age 21 with three majors, a business owner at age 24, and currently owns several mixed martial arts schools in Washington and Oregon.)

Mark and Steve are not just Michael and Shawn, they are different people in their own right, but as you read Crossed Swords I hope the realism of the characters will shine through.

I hope I'm slightly less of a screw up than Dave.

Next week we'll further examine the idea of characters from life, while we explore reasons to not use real people as character models.

Write On!

Christopher Rivan

Virgins Slain, Dragons Rescued.
Reasonable rates for all budgets!




  1. This is toooo funny - I was just defending Steven King today and my point was he was more than just a 'horror' story writer - he has a way of creating characters (and places too btw) that remind you of real people. (or is that the other way around.) For me his stories are more about the characters than anything else. The plot is just a means to show readers what they will do in different situations. Not that I'm this huge SK fan or anything, I just appreciate this strength of his.
    For the record, all of my characters have a little of someone 'real' in them (I really liked the analogy to drawing from a model! and no, drawing never gets easier - one is ALWAYS critical of their own work.) it's what brings them to life for me and hopefully for those who read my stuff.

    ps: I didn't know XS resulted from a dream - or maybe I just forgot that... it's been so long.

  2. Where do you think I got the character of Beck for SWELL from? Hmmm... not my neighbor. Nor the elf across the street.

    - Julie