Do You Write About the People in Your Life, and do They Mind?
The key to a great novel is character development, right? Absolutely. You can start by knowing your character’s backstory, giving them mannerisms, writing out what their thoughts might look like if they kept a diary… the list goes on. Some of what you create during this process you’ll use in your manuscript, some you won’t.
But have you ever wondered where the inspiration for these multi-layered characters comes from in each writer? I’m sure for each writer it’s different. Friends and family who’ve read something I’ve written sometimes tell me they recognize a character, with a knowing cluck of the tongue. I just scratch my head and say, “really?”.
When I write, I think of my characters as new, unique beings. The suggestion otherwise made me think. Do I really write about the people in my life, subconsciously? YIKES! If so, should I be embarrassed? Should I apologise? The thought intrigued me.
So, the next time I sat down to create a new character for my new project, I tried to keep a critical eye as I went through what is now a routine process for me. My answer as to whether or not I write about the people in my life? A resounding…
Of course, like most writers, I do go through the lists of things about my character that help me to get to know them. For a small character I might write a single page of notes that only I will ever read. For a main character, the notes might almost fill a book themselves as I nail down just what I want them to think or feel.
So, do my characters look and act like the people I know? Surprisingly, no. I’m more likely to choose a celebrity at first, rather than someone I know to define my character’s looks, accent and mannerisms, just for ease of recall. For example, if my character is supposed to be middle aged, ghostly pale and from Australia, I might write Nicole Kidman at the top of my first character page, just so I don’t have to create each and every physical trait for her from scratch. That character may end up nothing like Nicole Kidman when I’m done exploring her, but it’s a starting point.
In fact, when I think about my latest completed project, young adult (YA) novel THE FOUNTAIN, I know exactly what each character would look like if I met them on the street. Strangely, they are like nobody I can remember meeting before, though their appearances are very clear in my mind. Actually, if I actually ran into someone on the street that matched the image of one of my beloved characters in my mind, I think I would go into shock.
So, if it’s not their looks or their actions, what is it that I draw from people I know?
I copy the feelings they evoke. I want the reader to feel the main character’s disgust when her unfair teacher enters the room. The protagonist’s longing for the new girl in class must be palpable when he talks to her. I think of it as their “theme”, almost like a theme song that follows my characters around my novel, though with less fanfare. If I don’t feel their theme arrive when they do when I’m reviewing a scene, I do it again until I get it right.
The mood I want the reader to feel when they experience a scene is something that I draw from things I’ve experienced. What it’s like to lose first love. How it feels to have your innermost thoughts exposed. These are things that must feel real to the reader. And they are.
My intense memory of feelings is what compels me to be a writer. I write YA because I think that the discovery of who you are and who you want to become is such an exciting and individual journey. I let my characters borrow my feelings about certain people because I want the reader to experience this bitter sweet journey in a convincing way.
So go ahead, comb my manuscript for a glimpse of yourself. But know that it might be in how I felt when we said goodbye that time, and nothing else.