Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Real Characters

Comments on Sunday’s post about how cool my husband is got me thinking… do you use people you know as characters in books? Steve is a very talented individual. He’s actually quite the Renaissance man… if Renaissance men dressed in tie-dye and Chacos. He’s very multi-faceted with a lot of likes, dislikes, and internal characteristics. Now, obviously he’s my ideal guy, so quite possibly all the love interests in my books have some part of him in them. But one, Tristan in my Beatles book (Her Ticket to Ride), I tried consciously to make a lot like him. In fact, some of the conversations he has with Leena are exact conversations we’ve had about John, Paul, George, and Ringo. The only problem is, I lost the feel for Tristan because I made him too much like Steve. What I think happened has a lot to do with translating real people to paper. Though we want dimensional characters, we don’t want them to come across as contradictory, with too many personalities. Often characters that come across as contradictory seem unable to stay IN character and pull us as readers away from them. There is also the problem of having only so many pages available to show their personalities in your book. To make my point on where I went wrong, I interviewed Steve. Here are his answers to a simple character worksheet:

ME: What’s your profession?

STEVE: I am a product specialist for a medical device company. It's kind of like a project manager, but heavy on the clinical side. Right now I am working on research and development for some therapies to treat lower limb peripheral artery disease.

ME: What did you study in school?

STEVE: I studied chemical engineering as an undergrad. I studied biomedical engineering for my doctorate, but it was in the chemical engineering department, so my degree says chemical engineering.

ME: What are some of your hobbies?

STEVE: I have way too many hobbies. I'll try to list some of them in no particular order. Playing guitar, cooking, traveling, camping, hiking, backpacking, biking, running, hunting, fishing, reading, woodworking, and gardening. I know there are a lot more than these, but I can't think of any this close to my bed time.

ME: Describe your ideal friend and enemy.

When I read the question I told Jackee that I am like Red Forman from That 70's Show, "Kitty, I don't like people." If I have to choose an ideal friend it would be someone that can make me laugh. My ideal enemy, simply put, is someone I would have no problem killing with my bare hands.

ME: What is your idea of a fun day?

STEVE: Anything other than going to work (though I do like my job). The day would involve spending time with the family, working in the yard, going to a good restaurant, doing any one of my hobbies (see above), etc. Take your pick.

ME: What are your biggest pet peeves?

STEVE: I told Jackee that I don't have any pet peeves, but she didn't believe me. My biggest pet peeve is the word like, I can't stand it when people say like every other word. Personally I think it makes some one sound really dumb when they don't use the word correctly. For example, someone says, "I like went to the store". Well, did you "like" go to the store or did you go to the store? The other pet peeve would be the use or misuse of the word your and you're and there, their, and they're. It really gets on my nerves when people who have graduated college can't use them correctly.

ME: What are some of your favorite books?

STEVE: My favorite book is The Count of Monte Cristo. The story is great and the character development is incredible. Sadly, I don't think the book would sell today, people don't have the patience or attention span to read a book that long. Others include: Les Miserables, Dracula (the original by Bram Stoker, not those vampire atrocities people read today), The Jungle, Hunger Games (working on Mockingjay right now), Citizen Soldiers, The Demon in the Freezer, and The Terror. There are probably a lot more, but those are the ones that come to mind.

ME: What were some of your favorite books as a kid?

STEVE: I didn't really read many books as a kid, I spent more time outside. I loved Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attack. I enjoyed the book Hatchet as a kid too.

ME: Favorite music?

STEVE: All kinds of music. My favorite genre would have to be late '60s San Francisco psychedelic. Here's a list of some of the musicians/groups I like to listen to, in no particular order. The Grateful Dead, Moby Grape, The Beatles, Yonder Mountain String Band, Railroad Earth, Phish, The Velvet Underground, Cream, Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers, George Harrison, Mozart, Berlioz, U2, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Wilco, Tea Leaf Green, Jerry Garcia Band, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings. And that's just that start of a very long list. I like music.

ME: What do you think is the most contradictory thing about you?

STEVE: I think that I am one big contradiction. The one thing that comes to mind is that I am sort of a hippie, yet enjoy hunting and fishing.
From his answers you can see that he is all over the place. Many people are! Which is why I think it is very hard (if not impossible) to take a single person and put them on paper as they are. I believe certain characteristics of people we meet and know aid us in creating real and rounded characters in books, but obviously I couldn’t put a real person into a fictional story the one time I tried. What do you all think? Am I right? Or have you tried to take a person and made them the same on paper as they are in real life, whether memoir or fiction? I’m curious to know!

P.S. Sorry there’s no nature post today. I’ll get one up next Wednesday. If you have a burning question about plants or animals between now and then, feel free to ask it.



  1. I think people can be very complex! That's why writing great characters can be so difficult at times.

  2. experience writing here, but I just have to say I got a kick out of reading Steve's answers cause I could just hear him giving you all those answers...and see the look on his face as you're asking him the questions!! (Particularly his ideal friend or enemy, and his pet peeves...I'm still laughing!)

  3. HAHA wow. I don't think I ever realized how much Steve and Jon are alike... or how much Beth is like Steve too (especially in the music department). Although I'm not a writer like how you and Jon are writers, I have tried to write my own stories before, and almost always have pulled from real people... but I've never tried to make a character exactly like a person I know.

    Usually it's two people I know and I take the traits I like from each one and then throw in my own observations and ideas too. I haven't ever gotten deep enough into a character yet to see if they fail though. I'm sure at somepoint they would become their own and totally run off in a new direction, or I would run into the ground and realize that I can't make them who I want them to be, or I would get stuck and they wouldn't be able to be that person anymore. I totally understand where you are coming from.

    I also think that if anyone were to ever try to "capture" an Alston on paper, it would be a fireball of death from the get-go.

  4. Yep, a Renaissance man sounds like the ideal description. You two look so cute together.

  5. it's difficult, i think, to create a perfectly complex character. if it were simple, they'd be easy to imagine.

    but we even need to know how they felt when they got bubble gum stuck in their hair - or when they were bit by the neighbors dog - or when the package they were waiting for never arrives...

    it all creates depth.

  6. So, like, Steve, could you like kill me with your bare hands? HAHA!! I am going to make a concentrated effort to NEVER say like around him (does "You know?" annoy him, too?). We both know I say that a LOT! :D
    I think his biggest pet peeve should be having to get up in the middle of the night, he really hates that! What a sport he was, to do this interview for you. Can't wait to see how Tristen turns out!

  7. Such a great idea. I think I'll interview my husband for my blog too. Aren't husbands the best.

  8. hi miss jackee! wow mr steve sounds pretty cool for sure. mostly hed go crazy being around me cause of that grammar stuff. yikes! killed be his big bare hands cause i said the wrong theyre their there. ha ha. for putting a real person in a story im the hero in one of mine and its easy cause of knowing myself. for my third story i got a girl hero and thats pretty hard cause mostly i dont know so many girls just my sister and mostly older ones. its lots of hard work getting a character just right for the story. im just learning more on doing that from my new writing book and blogger writer friends.
    ...hugs from lenny

  9. Great thoughts . . . very interesting study. I've never tried to put someone, verbatim, into my writing. Just taking a characteristic seems to work better. But I did it subconsciously. But now that you say this . . . maybe I'll stick with that. :)

  10. You make a great point here. I think it would be impossible to get one person fully on the page. I do put parts of people I know in my writing, but never a full person.

  11. Oh my, you described him accurately as a Renaissance man. What a lovely post--about as real as it gets.

  12. How fun to interview your husband like that! I know exactly what you mean about the trouble with making people you know into characters on a page. I think we'd all be pretty contradictory in print.

  13. Ok-- if that is your husband in the picture and he has that many hobbies, old lady or not, I want him:)LOL
    He would make an awesome leading man in a romance! Lucky you!

  14. Aw! I love that you interviewed your hubby. =) And how cool is it that you added him into your wip. Cool! =)

  15. Awwww! Hello to hubby!! And what a fab interview too!!

    I much prefer to create characters I would very much like to read about - ones I've not met or will probably never likely to meet. I think it's because I can't bear writing about people I know of personally - they're much to close to home and I end up caricaturing them or at least exaggerating their personalities - that in turn will make me feel most uncomfortable and very guilty!!

    Take care

  16. I don't think I've ever written a real person. They're just so complex. Plus they're too real :) I prefer my imaginary friends!

  17. You know what I was thinking while reading your interview? What a fun and great idea it would be to interview our spouses or SO's from time to time. And even our children!

    We get to know our partners when we're dating, but then we go through life assuming we know everything there is to know about them. But ... maybe we actually don't! I mean, my interests and opinions have changed and flexed and grown. Huh!

    I know this isn't what your post was about ... sorry, I got distracted!

  18. People are as complex as they come. Characters obviously have to be simplified to make it possible to write them but they still need depth.
    To answer your question about using people as characters, the simple answer is no. However aspects of many of my characters have some similarity to people I know in life. But I don't think it is fair for people to be able to recognise themselves in a book. Especially if I made them the villain :-)

  19. I guess we have to just highlight the parts the advance our story? That would be tough trying to put a real person on paper! Great interview. One of my favorites is counte of monte cristo!

  20. My son would agree with your hubs about The Count of Monte Cristo being the best book ever. He adored that book. Thanks for the post (smiles).

  21. I like to create characters but do give them personality quirks I have experienced in other people.
    Great interview Jackee.

  22. Interesting post; I think your husband is cute and you guys make a beautiful couple and obviously made gorgeous babies!...Have a great day, Jackee

  23. I have a YA novel I'm working on that I 'borrowed' personality traits from my two eldest daughters. They aren't exact, but they recognized themselves when reading over a draft. It makes it harder to make them characters, because you have to be more consistent then real people are. I think most people are too complex (like your husband) or too boring (like me) to make into characters.

  24. My characters are combinations of myself, the people I know, and good ole' imagination. As with real people, they have their contradictions, but like you said, too many can pull us away from them.

    Ha, the word "like" is a pet peeve of mine too. Better to be silent than say that! xD

  25. Ireally liked this idea - interviewing a real person. I can only imagine how contradictory my husband's answers might be! Your book Jedda Hitler sounds like a great premise. Is it published/released (yes I'm being lazy by asking instead of going to check on Amazon)? I'd love to pick that one up! :)

  26. The Renaissance man - what a cool description of your husband. He does look cool in all that snow! Enjoyed the interview.
    In the next couple of days I am putting up an award post, and I have nominated you. I checked out your blog and couldn't see any 'award free' zone. If I'm mistaken, then do what you have to do.
    I enjoy your blog. Always thought I was a follower, but checked it out today and I wasn't, so I've joined up again..:)

  27. New to your wonderful blog...great job!


  28. I sometimes have a person in mind when I create a character but mostly it's for looks. That way I can be a little more detailed.

    Your hubby is adorable!

  29. How cool to interview your own husband! He sounds like such a great guy.

    I don't base too many of my characters on people from my life, but sometimes I add something, like certain traits or behavioural ticks. However, I do concentrate on the character and not on the real life person, because otherwise it can get tricky and I lose sight of what that character is meant to do and why.


  30. That was like really great! I could totally see Steve and my husband Walter like being know hunting and like fishing for big fish. (wink) Fun post Jackee! WTG, great husband get like marriage points for it!

  31. What a wonderful man! He sounds super smart.

    My characters are usually a mish-mash of people I know. I've never tried to base them on people I know, but they somehow seem to creep in!

  32. It's always hard to put a person on paper, esp when you actually know them. I find it's easier to write about a sexy-famous muse, but harder to actually write the boy at school that you are crushing on. I think the more detached you are, the easier it is to create. But with someone you KNOW it's so much harder because you want to capture the facts.

    What I do to overcome this, is I use their real name when writing them until the entire manuscript is complete then I come up with a completely new name that I think suits them. I found it's harder to write them under a character name.

  33. I really like the idea of interviewing a character. I think I could learn a lot and it would improve my writing. Thanks for the great post. :)

  34. I never use a person from real life as a character, but I'm always affected by people, so a habit or trait might show up.

    Loved the interview!

  35. I think it's okay to make characters inconsistent if their inconsistency is their consistency. I have a character who always vows never to do something again. But she always does. It's fun to give them quirks. And then they don't fall flat.

    Fun idea to do an interview. I remember KarenG interviewing her husband once, to ask him what it was like being married to a writer.

    Lucky you to have a Renaissance Man.

  36. Love the enemy line!

    Most of the time, I don't base my characters on anyone I least, I don't think I do while I am writing the story. When I look back, I can see similarities that I hadn't even realized were there.

    Good luck!


    PS I agree with Sharon. You get marriage points for the husband on the blog!

  37. Standing in, like, 3 feet of snow. Yeah, Steve is a pretty cool dude.
    Sow their ewe have it.