On Character Inspiration

careful novel

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Do you base your characters on real people? From everything I’ve read, this is somewhat of a no-no.

I remember reading somewhere that J.K. Rowling has stated that none of her characters are based directly on real-life people (except for Crookshanks, who’s based on a real-life cat! I love that), but that shades of people she knew, as well as herself, naturally creep into the characters.

Of course your own emotions and experiences are going to fuel your characters. Realistic human emotions are what make good books so good. For my first novel, I was very careful about not making the protagonist too much like myself, but I’ve had friends read it and think otherwise. For each character, I did draw upon traits of people I know or have known, and for some I drew upon traits of fictional characters I felt were particularly well-drawn. But in the end, each of my characters was entirely fictional. I couldn’t say that one or another has a real-life counterpart somewhere.

As I’m querying my first novel, I’m hard at work on my second. I had immediately jumped into a sequel, but then I read somewhere that your second novel should be something totally different–if the first one doesn’t sell, the sequel won’t either, for obvious reasons. So the sequel is on hold (just for now, since I love it so far and can’t wait to see what happens next).

So I decided to do something drastically different. I started writing an epistolary novel about a shy teenager on her school trip to Paris, drawing heavily on my own experiences (as well as my high school journal). It’s written in the first-person present, which are both firsts for me. This novel is a little uncomfortable, to be honest. High school was not a great time for me, and the more I write, the more I find myself tapping into the pain of the awkward teenage girl still inside me somewhere, pain from wounds I thought were healed long ago. And while none of my characters are thinly-veiled real people, every single one of them draws from people I actually knew in high school and beyond. And some of the scenes I’ve written–such as the one where my protagonist smokes her first cigarette under the Eiffel Tower–are fictionalized versions of stuff that actually happened. Most of the people involved are people I’m no longer in touch with. But I can’t help but wonder if someday someone I knew once will pick this up and recognize an element of themselves in it somewhere.

I’m only a month and 36,000 words into this new work, so I’m not sure yet if it’s something that will pan out. The rawness and realness of it scares me a little in the way my first novel didn’t, but I think that’s a good thing, no?

4 thoughts on “On Character Inspiration

  1. I don’t know how people can write without drawing on themselves and those closest to them. I think how you put them all together is a different experience altogether though. Each of my characters has different parts of me, and most of the time these parts are amplified to make a person that I would like to be if I was braver. I believe that’s how you write heart into your books. If they mean something to you, they will mean something to others if the passion translates. Good luck!

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