Since finishing my first draft and jumping head-on into draft two, I have allowed myself a lot more time to really consider each of my characters as they appear. If you’ve seen my Plotting Compelling Characters blogs (part one; part two) you might remember me talking about how my process is fluid and evolving. Since the first installment, my personal character sheet has continued to change, as I noticed things that were missing and prioritized them over others.
In my current editing, while I do look at some of the traits/fears/etc, I find that many of those things already exist in my mind because I have based every character loosely on someone I know in reality. I call this a character’s ‘Base Model.’ When I’m stuck, the first question I ask is “What would [real person I know] respond? What language do they use? What kind of leader are they?” With that answer, I can then decide how closely the fictional character would mirror their real life base model.
This process is like an artist who betters their skills by drawing from life. You take what you see, adapt it to a different medium, and take what you learned on to future projects. I’m going to walk you through how I pick Base Models and use them to make my characters stand out from each other.
Compile & Analyze
As with so many processes, the best way to start is with a brainstorm. This brainstorm is simple enough to do wherever. Whether in a notebook or in a digital format, just let your mind go through people you know. Write down everyone, just as they cross your mind; in the beginning, there is no reason to try to file people in compartments or with any kind of system because you’re just getting as many ideas as possible. I found that the people who came to mind first were often the people I knew most about. There were definitely exceptions to that rule, but it tends to be easiest to remember people who impact you the most, both positively and negatively — and that’s just what we’re looking for! Family, friends, teachers, mentors, friends-of-friends, neighbors, coworkers, old classmates — I even went through my phone contacts to make sure I didn’t forget anyone I found compelling.
Now, I obviously don’t suggest you remember every person you come in contact with. Listing ‘the janitor on the second floor’ is only going to help you if you have a general idea of this person’s personality. So while I encourage you to make the list broad enough to get a variety of personalities, ages, races, backgrounds, and more, don’t let this become a rabbit’s hole you never escape. All things should be done mindfully and in moderation.
Same as with the list, it can be helpful to have a short synopsis of people you know in relation to your story. That sounds vague; let me explain: My story has a heavy emphasis on leadership and different ways people lead. So for my analysis, I picked a handful of candidates and wrote a paragraph about how they lead. I picked extroverts; I picked introverts; I picked blatant leaders, and I picked behind-the-scenes manipulators. Having these ideas on hand helped me not only align character-to-base, but it gave me a broader understanding of one of my themes. It’s an exercise in observation as much as it is in writing. Again, I caution you to used this step in moderation. I did not analyze each person’s relationship to the greater themes of the multiverse. Some people, I wrote a few descriptors for. Some people, I wrote nothing for. Always keep the goal in mind!
I’m not talking about love or relationships. I’m talking about finding Base Model options for each character.
I typically start this process with a character’s broad personality in mind; I have already decided things like Meyers-Briggs Personality, Star Sign, and Love Language (more on that here). From there, I go through and assign possibilities.
Let me give you an example: I’ve talked in the past about the Main Character in my current WIP, so let’s bring her up again. Her name is Abryn. She’s a mechanic; she’s practical, perfectionistic, reliable, sarcastic, observant; she hates criticism, can be distant and aloof, and is hard on herself. So with that in mind, I set off looking for people with similar personalities. *Note: it is very important to stay neutral!*
As with all MC’s, I put myself on the initial list. I saw a lot of myself in her, but I didn’t want to stop there. I ended up with quite an odd list: my simultaneous good friend and rival, a girl who stole my high school boyfriend, my best friend’s husband, my first boss, an ex boyfriend, a guy I fell-out with in college, and a girl I knew in high school. Of these eight people, four of us are girls, four are boys. Gender, race, age, and sexuality does not have to align with the character herself. I know these people in different ways and to different degrees. But they all had characteristics that reminded me, at least some, of Abryn.
From there, I had to start removing people from the list. This was when I really started to finalize who Abryn is. I took myself off first because, while I know the most about myself, I know too much about myself. The best part about this process is that it isn’t an exact science. It’s guesswork. And I didn’t like the idea of always knowing what I would do in the situation. There are too many interesting and unique people in my life; I wanted to explore what they would do.
The second person to go was my friend-rival who I realized was a perfect fit for my character Kerrix. Slowly, I pulled people until I was left with two options. If you’ve seen my Example Sheet for Abryn, you’ll know that those two people were “Brett” and “Jeff.” And that was great. I was able to go all the way through my first draft with both names until I figured out that “Brett” was the more accurate option. (I’ll leave it to your imagination how I know him in real life.)
Each primary and secondary character got this same treatment. Bryst is based on an old roommate; Reislyn is based on a girl I played volleyball with; Kaler is based on a guy from church; Estrella is based on a girl who doesn’t like me. Sometimes Base Models will know each other in real life — several of my characters are based off of people from my childhood church. That can be a really fun dynamic to adapt to more precisely fit the characters. However, I find it just as fun to stretch my imagination to consider how someone from my high school might interact with someone they never met from my college.
Beware of Clones
Never forget that the character comes first. Base Models are a great foundation, but they don’t need to be shoe-horned into the story. Think of it this way: all types of buildings have foundations. An open-air gazebo might have just a concrete slab foundation with beautiful columns built right on top; the foundation would be very apparent, but it’s not the focus of the space. A house might have a shallow foundation, too, but all kinds of things are built on top of it. You can’t see the slab through the flooring, but it’s still there. A five-story rock climbing gym would have a deep foundation that would be difficult to see. But it’s that specific type of construction that makes the interesting space possible.
Now I’ll leave you with what is probably an unpopular opinion: Just because you don’t like someone, that shouldn’t automatically make them the villain in your work. I know that some really compelling bad guys and bullies have been direct rewrites of real life jerks, but be mindful of how you use it. Hell, supervillains are most convincing when parts of them feel real and relatable. The trap I see authors fall into is a form of power-creep. It’s the opposite of the self insert “Mary Sue” where everything the self insert does is perfect and nothing can stop them. The evil power creep — regardless of genre, age demographic, or plot — happens when the author lets their hatred for the real life person fuel their portrayal.
I highly discourage using your writing to tear down someone you don’t like. Maybe you noticed that when I was picking people to become the Base Model for Abryn, many of the options were people I don’t have great relationships with. Abryn is my MC, a character I think is really cool. How could I compare her to people I probably wouldn’t want to speak to again? It’s because I’ve taken a neutral stance on the real-life models I considered. Kaler is an antagonist based on a friend; Estrella is part of the good guy squad, but her Base and I don’t really get along. But these personalities were exactly what I wanted to see in the characters. I love complex characters. Sometimes we as humans can get so caught up in our feelings about someone, we flatten out the complexity, amplifying what is terrible. It brings me right back to writing a character as their own person, separate from their Base Model. Life inspiration is great, but writing revenge fiction can really overrun a story if you’re not careful.
Anyway, I know this post is going up on a Tuesday, but I hope to see you back here next Monday for more writing content.