Calisthenics for Characters
A Guest Post by Donnell Ann Bell
Hello Booklover’s Bench readers and contributors! Thank you to my critique partner, Lois Winston, for the invitation to join you today. Recently, I came across a question from a new writer who asked, “Is it okay to use a real person to create a character?”
That’s a tricky question because writers get their ideas from so many areas. A vacation we take might stir a potential setting. A newspaper article may influence a plot. But basing a character on a real person, especially if the person isn’t a public figure, can be detrimental to an author’s career. Lawsuits have been filed (and won) when a person recognizes themselves in a book.
As a new fiction writer, I read myriad books on the craft of writing. One, and I’ll bet my friends and colleagues on Book Lover’s Bench have read it as well, is Techniques of a Selling Author by Dwight Swain. Dwight Swain taught literature at the University of Oklahoma, and one section in the book sticks with me to this day. One of his students approached the professor to complain about his grade on characterization. Ad-libbing here (It’s been a few years), Dwight Swain said words to the effect, “Flat characters. Unrealistic.”
“Unrealistic?” the outraged student replied, “How can you say that? They’re real people!”
“And that,” the instructor said, “is the crux of your problem.”
Just as authors become enamored with a setting or plot, they often meet someone with physical characteristics or quirky traits that would make a great protagonist, antagonist, or secondary character. So, if it’s ill-advised to use a real person, what’s an author to do?
Perhaps the genuine article can be used as an inspiration, e.g., the outline or mold. Then it becomes the author’s job to stretch and fashion the character into someone even the author no longer recognizes when she thinks about her character.
I’ve done this numerous times in my fiction career. Plot comes easier to me than characterization, and because I write both romantic suspense and police procedure, it’s easy to become embroiled in stereotypes. When I wrote Black Pearl, A Cold Case Suspense, I decided to write a female police officer. How did I get to know her? I interviewed several female police officers and even rode with a female field training officer. By combining traits, comments and tips from these professionals, Officer Allison Shannon became her own person. Yikes, it just occurred to me I’m a bit like Frankenstein!
One other example in which I used this composite technique was in my debut novel The Past Came Hunting. I wrote this book after taking The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office Citizens Academy where I met so many varied personalities, I was able to create my protagonist, Lieutenant Joe Crandall.
I often meet a real person who I think would be a fantastic character, but Dwight Swain’s advice is firmly entrenched in my psyche. It takes inspiration and grit to develop a character. Real people are just not that interesting, especially if the author doesn’t mold, push, and stretch to give the character their own personality.
Readers, have you ever read a book where a character reminded you of a real person? Authors, have you ever created a character inspired by a real person? Post a comment for a chance to win one of two paperback copies of The Past Came Hunting (US residents only.)
Happy reading! Thanks for having me, Booklover’s Bench!
About the Author: Leaving international thrillers to the world travelers, Donnell Ann Bell concentrates on suspense that might happen in her neck of the woods – writing Suspense Too Close to Home. The author of four award-winning, single-title romantic suspense novels as well as her award-winning Cold Case series, Black Pearl and Until Dead, she’s currently working on book three of the series.
Donnell co-owns Crimescenewriter, an online group, in which law enforcement, forensic experts, and a multitude of related professionals assist authors in getting those pesky facts straight in their novels. Sign up for her newsletter for updates and giveaways at her website, on Facebook, and on X (twitter) as @DonnellAnnBell
Posted in Guest Post, Puzzles and more • Tags: Black Pearl, Donnell Ann Bell, Guest post, The Past Came Hunting | 28 Comments