How I Treat Characters

Nearly all my characters are based on a person, or an amalgamation of people that I know, or wish I knew.  Not always directly based on real people, sometimes I’ll take a particular feature from someone and it becomes its own character, but almost always there is one or more specific people in mind when creating a character.

I’m not sure if this affects my writing in a positive or negative manner, but writing them this way often affects my relationships with those people in real life, even if they don’t realize it.  Writing a character based on them, starts off with my view of them, but then in the process of writing, I try very hard to make the character fully fleshed out, and believable and not a caricature.  In this part of the process, I can come to appreciate people in my life more.  It’s one of the things I like most about writing characters, but that process does get me attached to characters, and that process makes me defensive of them.

A short story that I’ve been working on, and trying to submit is about a man having an affair, and since the man is more in love with the mistress than his wife, I made the decision to base the mistress character on my wife.  She’s everything good about my wife rolled into a character.  As part of the process, I had some friends whom I trust, read the story and give me feedback.  One friend, who’s feedback was very helpful but is a married woman, referred to the mistress as ‘the slut.’ I understood the impulse, the character is having an affair with a married man, but in the characteristics, in her humor, and everything else, it was my wife, so I felt defensive.  This is definitely the downside of creating characters after people that I love.

In that same short story, I based the main character/narrator as far away from myself as I think I ever have.  I basically took my worst impulses, or things that I would joke about but not do, and created this kind of monster of a character.  My goal was that the reader would think “oh this guy is a total piece of shit.”  Again, not the result I got.  I was told by a male friend that he identified with the character and thought that if he was a middle-aged married father that he would have similar desires/behaviors.  I was shocked as this was the last response I had assumed I would receive.

This short story (which my friends and wife have all said they liked) had left very different impressions than I had intended.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it is something that is difficult for me to accept.

As I’ve said recently, I’m working on a time-travel blog, and again the characters are based on my real life family and friends.  The difference in this one is that the characters are direct representatives of those people.  The narrator is a 26 year old time-traveler named Michael Cole who goes back in time after his family dies.  I plan on using the series to explore my own life from a detached perspective, someone who knows what’s going on, someone who remembers it, but is watching it from the sidelines.  But in order to motivate the character to travel back in time, he has to lose everything.

I called my sister yesterday, and was like “Um… so I killed you in the thing I’m writing right now.”  I don’t know why I assumed there would be some major offense taken by her, but it was hard for me to do (the modern day events occur in 2010 so she’s aware this isn’t some guess at how it’s gonna happen).  Her response was “oh cool.”  Then being my normal over correcting self, I explained to her what I was doing, and she was excited about it.

I think seeing my sister not flinch at the idea of her being fictionally killed, makes me want to do two things in the further edits of the short story I mentioned above.  First, I want to not worry about the perception of the mistress, and wants me to put more of myself into the husband.

For all those writers out there, do you have a method of creating characters that you use?
Readers, do you like knowing characters are based on real people, or do you prefer characters to be purely fictional?

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