Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Sunday, 16 June 2013

Do I know her? by Jenny Harper

'The Girl with a Pearl Earring'
by Johannes Vermeer,
via Wikimedia Commons

How do you create your characters? I find that sometimes they bounce into your head fully formed, but sometimes they evolve as your story evolves and you get to know them. Sometimes a character in a newspaper or magazine photograph begs to be written into your story – but sometimes you have to sit down and search for them.

I like using photographs as a stimulus and it's good to have them by you as you write, to remind you of that stubbly chin or that faraway look, or the eyes the colour of the sea in November.


Perhaps one single image can set off a complete idea for a novel. Think of Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier – she must have had a moment of blinding inspiration sitting in front of Vermeer's famous portrait. Interpreting the look on the face of the little serving girl and developing her imaginings into a full-length novel – how brilliant is that?

Film stars are a great source of inspiration, not so much because we use their personalities as the basis for characters (which of us really knows a film star?), but because of how they look.

Quite often, I find that characters and plot are inextricably linked. The story would not have been set in train at all, for example, if Joe hadn't been such a dozy guy that he completely forgot to bring flowers home on his first wedding anniversary/forgot to turn up for a crucial meeting/stepped out in front of a car and got himself run over because he was dreaming about Jane.

So far so good. But what happens when the character you're writing about is based on someone you know? Your mother-in-law, for example? Does that inhibit you or stimulate you? What will she say when she reads it?

I haven't actually tried this technique yet, but I'm assured by some very experienced writers that people never do recognise themselves – and if the character is bossy, or malicious, or greedy, or has some other negative trait, they are quite likely to 'recognise' the woman down the road! I'm really tempted to try it and see what happens.

Have you ever based your character of someone you know? And have there ever been repercussions? Do tell!













20 comments:

  1. For me, the answer's unequivocal - characters closely based on real people don't work because the real people get in the way. If you've got a fixed idea of the type of person a character is, he/she hasn't got the freedom to develop, to surprise you. I've only tried it once and, paradoxically, I soon realised I was creating an unreal character. Because he was constrained by who he was (in real life), he didn't have the flexibility to respond to the circumstances in which I (and the other characters) put him. I've used real incidents, real things that people have said, but to create real fictional people I find I need characters with room in which to develop.

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  2. Good point Bill. In my first attempt at a novel, I based two characters on my parents (because the story, very loosely, was theirs). The book didn't work for many, many reasons – inexperience and over-ambition among them - but I certainly found I couldn't bring out the bad side of them enough.

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  3. Hi Jenny, I agree with Bill. Once you have a person in mind there are huge constraints. I've been to many playwiting workshops where you swap stories and re-tell with a particular angle. On one occasion my partner interrupted several times to say I'd got things wrong! Can't say her grasp of fiction writing impressed me much, but I can see why she got upset. What I do take from real people are traits, expressions, mannerisms and then work on them. Anne

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    1. Playwriting must be a really useful skill to be able to bring into play for writing fiction, Anne.

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  4. Hmm, interesting. I think I have a slightly different take on this. Quite often a person - maybe their looks or their charactersitics - can, for me, form a starting point - but they tend to break free and become something individual. That said, I don't think I've ever produced a character I think could be identified as a real person.

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    1. Saves on the libel suits anyway, Jennifer!

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  5. I once tried to base a character on a woman I knew and really didn't like. I made the character do all the things the woman had done - and my crit partners said she was totally unbelievable and nobody would behave like that! This annoyed me at the time but I think it was probably true for the reasons Bill gives - I wasn't allowing her to be the character she should be in the book. I cut her from a later draft of the book.

    I do quite often use someone I know very slightly, have only seen once in passing or 'know' from photos and newspapers. I use that as just the start, then I am free to take them forward and let them develop. It's such fun!

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    1. Writing novels gives a heck of a lot of power, doesn't it? I love it when a character you've created does something totally unexpected and you have to go off in a new direction.

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  6. Given where I set my novels, I am very careful not to use people I know, though I do sometimes have inspiration from characters I see on trains etc. One of the reasons for always carrying a notebook!

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    1. I suppose that's why we need that disclaimer at the front of every book, isn't it?
      I wish I remembered to take a notebook with me everywhere. I do try, but often forget. And if I do write something in one notebook, I can never find that particular notebook again later.

      Sigh.

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  7. So far I don't think I have ever consciously based a charcter on a person I know. My fictional charcters are composites of all sorts of people. However a local woman was absolutely sure one of my characters (a not very nice person) was based on someone in the village. I couldn't see the resemblance myself but I suppose the fictional character must have been realistic. I could never be inspired my film stars.

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  8. I don't think film stars inspire me, Gwen, but I sometimes borrow something of their appearance. Not all film stars are glamorous!

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  9. Good post, Jenny, which has prompted some really interesting responses. I use personality traits or bits of people's physical appearance so some characters are a sort of amalgam of several people. In No More Mulberries I did write in one character more or less straight from life because she was a rather horrible person and I enjoyed depicting her as such - then she actually turned out to be a bit nicer than in real life.

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  10. Is that because you're inherently nice, Mary?

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  11. Quite the opposite, Jenny! No, I think it was probably because no one is 100 per cent nasty nor 100 per cent nice and although I wanted to depict her as the absolute bitch she is somehow something about that didn't quite ring true - which is what several people have been saying in the comments, isn't it?

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  12. Yes. I'm interested that people don't always see characters quite as I see them, and I suspect this is a failure of writing. So much to learn!

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  13. I steal characteristics of people, but never base a character on one person alone.
    Jenny, my experience with notebooks is the same as yours. When I remember to take one, I then lose/mislay it, and can never find what I'm looking for when I need it.

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  14. Phew, Joan, thanks for confessing. I thought it was just me!

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  15. I have....but I waited until they were dead to do it - coward that I am!

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