Ever wonder where your favorite fiction characters come from? Ever been stuck on who’s going to be your next villain, or stand-up secondary?
Not too long ago, someone from my day job asked me where I came up with my ideas. Specifically, she asked me where I got my characters from. She seemed kind of startled by my answer: all around me.
I consider myself a ‘people watcher’. That is, I like to look and listen to the infinite variety of people around me, and try to guess what they’re all about. If you pay close attention to your surroundings, you can see and hear things far stranger than the greatest fiction writer can dream up.
That man in the corner, in the overcoat with the dark stains? probably a homeless man, right? But if you listen carefully, you might overhear that he’s just an ordinary businessman who spilled his coffee…which he dropped so he could pull a fallen man from the subway tracks.
Or seen the tired cashier ringing up your fast-food order, who’s complaining to her coworker that she’ll be glad once she’s gotten her degree. And then you hear she’s a single mother of four kids, but she’s maintaining a 4.0 GPA.
Or the 15 year-old kid next door, the one who mows your lawn. Did you know that he delivers the newspaper and works at the hardware store too, just so he doesn’t have to go home at night to watch his dad abuse his mom?
I’ve sat in courthouse hallways, and listened to cops discussing finding a man dead on his couch, while his girlfriend insists the guy’s only sleeping. Heard about domestic squabbles between two men and the woman who was playing them both as her sugar daddies. Been told the story of a man whose fiancee left him at the altar to run off with his dad.
Really, you can’t make stuff like this up! But you can take what you see, hear, and suspect, and weave them into new characters with lives so three-dimensional they could be real. The characters that jump off the page and burrow into your heart are the ones whose lives you feel you could reach out and touch. The axiom of truth being stranger than fiction is never more true than when you want to create a new character.
It doesn’t matter when or where your story is set. Human nature is the same in all ages and all locations. We all love, hate, mourn, celebrate, live, and die in much the same manner. Cultural mores might differ with regard to the how, but the fact remains that there are certain things inherent to the human condition. Think about the recent earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan. The human toll was staggering, not just in death, but on the lives of those affected. And not just in negative ways. Consider how it felt to be the rescue workers who discovered the 4-month old infant still alive after she was ripped from her parent’s arms by the tsunami. Regardless of culture, the world rejoiced at the news.
When I create my characters, I listen to the voices in my life I have watched and overheard. Then I become a weaver. I put myself in my people’s shoes, trying to imagine what emotions would drive me if I were in their positions, and then I put it on paper. I might be in charge of what’s going to happen to my characters, but how they react will always be founded on the human condition I have observed around me.
Great characters will always behave in a manner true to themselves, to how they’ve been brought up, to how they’ve lived their lives up to any given point. To properly portray this, you need an understanding of how people get from being the clean, unwritten slate of a newborn baby, to the wizened and happy (or unhappy) individual drawing their last breath.
So stop, look, and listen. The crowd around you is a living, breathing miracle of characterization. Use it wisely.