#9 DEVELOPING CHARACTER, Part 3:
Using Real-People Models
Bobbi JG Weiss 4/23/14
Every time I begin a story or book, I use real people, usually actors or TV/movie characters as models for my main characters.* I borrow their physical looks and mannerisms, their personalities and even their voices. This gives me a solid foundation on which to begin building my onpage cast. And as much as I blush to admit it, my main male character is usually based on an actor or TV/movie character that I have a crush on. Let’s face it, I’m guaranteed to follow through because of the crush (silly, but hey, it works for me).
Example: my dark fantasy novel Hooked is coming out in a couple of months. In short, it’s about an angry man with a violent family history who is struggling to overcome his negative qualities and be a nice guy, especially to his girlfriend. But when he is forced to begin a transformation into a truly bad guy (nope, not giving any details… yet), he finds that he fits the role too well. He struggles against it, yet part of him likes it. The reader watches the struggle, wondering if Jon’s dark qualities will win or if his fragile good qualities will triumph.
That character, Jon, was first modeled on actor Christopher Walken when he was about 35 years old. I chose Walken because I adore his weirdness, the way he can be likeable and frightening at the same time, the explosive violence that always lies just below the surface, and especially that odd charisma he has. That’s exactly how I wanted Jon to be.
But then, as I dragged Jon through the horrific details of the plot, he began to change. Not in big ways, but in those wonderful little ways that slowly transform a placeholder model into a unique rounded person on the page. You see, I had to make Jon react to the story’s events, and his reactions had to serve the overall plot. Slowly, reaction by reaction, I gave him enough personality qualities that he, in a word, became his own man. He started telling me what he should do. At that point, Jon didn’t look or act like Christopher Walken anymore. Jon had finally accumulated enough of his own physical and personality characteristics to be whole (though those characteristics still echoed Walken at the core because Walken was the core).
In the novel I’m currently writing, I desperately needed a model for my lead female character because I just couldn’t get a handle on her. I knew what she had to do in the plot, but I couldn’t figure out more than that. She was annoyingly elusive. What kind of person would do the unusual things that I needed her to do? What kind of young woman would make such dangerous decisions? How would she move and speak? How would she act on a day-to-day basis, before the events of the story ultimately changed her?
I was stymied, and it pissed me off. Then I got an idea — I would work backwards. I grabbed a young actress that I liked (Imogen Poots, to be exact, specifically her role in the 2011 remake of Fright Night). Poots wasn’t my character. I knew that from the start. But I figured, maybe if I tried forcing her into the role, my real heroine would start fighting back via the needs of the plot, demanding that I fix the situation, and thus she would be revealed.
So I started writing. Every time my heroine needed to do something difficult but necessary, the Poots model was so wrong that I would suddenly realize what my heroine really needed to be like at that given moment in the story. I kept going like that, zeroing in on her scene by scene until she became solid enough to throw the Poots model away (no offense, Miss Poots — I still like you!).
My strategy worked. I’m 20,000 words into the novel, and I now have a strong female lead. I need no model for her at this point because she definitely knows who she is… oh, okay, that’s not entirely true. She needs more development still. But I’m definitely on the right track, and more importantly, I trust that track. I trust my heroine to tell me what characteristics she needs as the story progresses. Later I’ll go back and adjust her in earlier scenes until she appears to be seamless throughout the novel (trilogy, actually — seems you can’t be a novelist these days without a trilogy!).
Yet another example: I’m also writing a comedy chapter book series. (One glance at my resume will show you that most of my full-time freelance writing career has been spent writing for kids, so my coming up with my own chapter book ideas isn’t surprising.) The one I’m currently writing involves a very silly young girl at a boarding school. For her model, I used several different comedy anime characters. She’s kind of an anime character to begin with, so I knew the kind of humor I wanted her to have. I already knew how she would speak and act. What I needed, quite frankly, was some way of developing her core so that she would be grounded and believable. The book is a goofy romp, but she has to be real or the story won’t, as they say, “have legs.” It won’t stand on its own, it won’t be anything more than one long joke. I want young readers to like my heroine and root for her, even if her situation is totally absurd. So what did I do?
I stepped into her shoes.
Yup, I used myself as the model. You wouldn’t notice it if you read it, but many of her core characteristics are mine. Why did I do this? I wouldn’t normally, but I like this character so much that I started to relate to her. As she developed, I just naturally began to insert my own reactions into her. What can I say — it worked. (Does this mean I can tell people I’m a model? Ooo!)
So anyway, that’s it for this blog. Hope it’s been helpful. My next blog will provide you with a few character development exercises that I created for my own use. They’re unusual and will, hopefully, give you an active way to develop your characters at times when you can’t actually sit down and write. Come back then, and I’ll show you what I mean.
* Obligatory warning: Be very careful of using real people in your life as character models. They might not want to be used by you. Keep the word permission in mind. Just sayin’.
I went so far into Jon’s character development that I figured out what kind of car he drove, how many cats he had — I even found his GRAVE!
By accident during a visit with a relative, I found a little graveyard with his name on it. I took this picture, and I pretend that it’s his. Shall I tell you why I would possibly even want to know what his grave looks like? I mean, is he really in it? You’ll have to read Hooked when it comes out…