Thursday, July 7, 2011

Characters From Life

Yesterday I noticed that I've begun picking minor characters almost exclusively from people I meet at work. Sort of noticed, anyway. Re-noticed. I've been characterizing from life for years, but it wasn't till yesterday that I sat up and said, "Hey, yeah, that is what I'm doing." And I'm sure in a year or two I'll have the same moment all over again.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not stealing peoples' identities wholesale*, but I'm taking personality types, behaviours, and ways of speaking, and giving them to my characters. A walk-on character, one who only appears for a scene, who maybe gets a single line, gets one trait to distinguish them. The more they're around, the more I borrow from my customers. I've yet to take anything from people I commute with, largely because I don't see enough repeat faces and buses aren't the most social of situations. People don't talk to strangers or move around much on buses, so it's harder to people-watch.

It's highly recommended by People In The Know for writers to people-watch. It helps with dialogue, characterization, voice, and all kinds of things. So if you're a writer, you probably do this already. Maybe, if you're like me, you watched people long before you became a writer. Maybe it was the reason you became a writer, or one of the reasons. A fascination with people and what makes them tick is certainly a factor in the stories I tell.

One of the reasons I lift personality traits rather than personalities is because that's simply easier. A minor character doesn't need to have the same weight as my protagonist, whether on the page or in my mind. When I'm reading, I barely pick up on the personalities of walk-on parts, because what they say or do is generally more important to the story than their appearance, and I'm sensitive to that knowledge when I'm writing.

The other reason I only lift traits is because I'm worried about someone I know reading the book and recognizing themselves. Call me paranoid but I'd rather not be sued for defamation of character, or anything else. Then again, lifting a specific, uncommon trait could still bring down a lawsuit, but so far, I haven't had a minor character demand anything more than a generic trait of a demographic. A high-powered businesswoman who snaps at store clerks who ask her to get off the phone is a completely different animal from the woman who comes every few weeks to talk to me about vampire novels, because we've established that I know more than my coworkers on the subject.

Watching people also means less research for me in other areas. I've met people who conform to stereotypes, people who don't conform, and people who only conform until you get to know them. When I'm creating characters I don't have to work at avoiding stereotypes as much as a result, and can create deeper, more layered people. I can base my characters on people I've encountered instead of starting from scratch—and yes, that includes main characters. Of course, I still have to make sure that unwanted stereotypes haven't crept in, because that's the 21st-Century responsible thing to do, but again, I have a knowledge base that includes non-stereotypes so there's less research needed.

I'm not a Person In The Know by any reckoning, but I do recommend that if you write, you should make a habit of noting what people around you do. It is helpful, if only because it makes populating scenes a lot easier. Need someone to bump into the protagonist on a crowded street? Need a redshirt? Need an amusing byplay to lighten the mood? You'll have a list of people and situations you can stick in, and won't have to dredge your mind. And of course I recommend going for generic traits or people who don't really know you, over specific traits and people who do, but bear in mind that I'm biased because that's what I do.

Where do you get your characters from? Do you people-watch? Do you share my paranoia?

* that I'm aware of

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