Real People and Imaginary Characters

At some point these posts are going to have to stop being ‘here are my opinions on how to write well’ and become normal blog posts. I’m running out of opinions to have on writing, especially for someone who gets tragically low free time to write.

For now, let’s keep up with the theme of me explaining how I write as if I have a clue what I’m talking about. I think I actually talked about this once on a post, but it’s gone now, so I may as well reiterate.

A lot of the characters in BMS I know are based on real people. Nicole was very loosely based on a friend I had growing up, Mr. Salvador was based on my actual drama teacher, Carson was based on one of those stereotypical ‘bad boys’ I befriended in my senior year, and so on. With this being the case, a perhaps equal number of characters – Adam, May, to an extent Megan, Aaron, Molly and Jerome – were based on at most someone I saw in a hallway once and never talked to, and at the most minimal cases, someone I completely made up out of nothing. Interestingly, all three of my main protagonists so far were based on my own imagination and not real people. To add to this, because I made a small-time name for myself as what apparently has become a blogger who occasionally writes stories, occasionally I get emailed questions from viewers (and I love each and every one of those). One of the most popular questions is how to write characters. Usually people will embellish, adding that they should probably write what they know (which is very true in a lot of cases) and at this point within a few weeks I got two people asking me whether they should come up with their own characters or base them on people they know.

It would be frustrating to get just a ‘You decide what’s best!’ in response even though truthfully that’s probably the core of my response, so let me flesh it out a bit. There are benefits and downsides to each.

Let’s start with basing your characters on real people. The biggest downside is that eventually the character is going to become your own creation and the part of you that knows the person and your creative side are going to do battle. Phil from BMS was based on a real-life student council president. Red hair, kind of bro-y, said ‘great’ all the time, the whole package. Was he a potentially sexually assaulting manipulative creep? Definitely not. The second things started to turn around for him I felt a pang of guilt even though people didn’t know the name of the original guy I wrote about. Real-life dude was a chill bro-y guy, but Phil Love was practically evil. As well, sometimes basing a character on a real-life person can end those creative decisions before they even happen. I bet there were a few things I could have wrote Carson or Chris to do but dismissed them before I even consciously thought of them because I knew their real-life versions wouldn’t do that.

The upside to creating characters based on real people is it’s a lot less work to make them believable individuals. All writers face certain traps, and one of the biggest traps for character writers is the trap that inevitably, all of their characters are going to sound the exact same. This isn’t just an issue in sex stories either. Regular stories, novels, movies, TV shows, everything. Myself and a friend came up with a scale while watching Glee a few years ago where we could tell how good a writer was by how unusual it would sound if one character’s lines were spoken by another character. (As awful as it is, Glee was actually decently successful in this scale, whereas certain ‘well-written’ shows like Firefly and Game of Thrones did abysmally at this.) That’s a fun little game to try – next time you’re reading a book or watching a show, picture another character saying a line that a different character just said. If it can’t be done, maybe that writer knows how to write individuals.

When you base your characters on people who are already individuals, the work is decimated. Literally decimated – as in you only have to do a tenth of the work. (Can you tell I recently learned what ‘decimated’ means?) You’re, at this point, writing about what you know, since you’ve known them for a period of time and can call upon their personality traits and how they’d react to certain situations.

That’s the biggest downfall of creating characters from scratch. You may not have a character for every occasion so sometimes the invention is necessary, but you have to build them yourself. It’s kind of like building, say, a website or something – you can download pictures from the web to decorate your website but you’ll know they’re not yours and you can’t change them without it looking obvious. But at the same time, creating your own pictures for the website will take a lot of time and effort f you want to do a good job. It’s important to extend the metaphor here – number one, you’ll always feel more proud of the pictures you made yourself for the website, and number two, if the creators of those pictures you found discovered your website, would they feel comfortable knowing you used their work? Obviously it’s a lot different to take inspiration from someone’s personality and to literally plagiarize, but I know I’ve been nervous of people either finding their likeness used in my stories, or worse, finding their friends’ likenesses in my work and then wondering if the redhead student council president Brian they know also sexually assaulted some girl named May at a party. It’s a mixed bag.

Ultimately, as cheesy as it is to say, write in the style you’re comfortable with. That means experimentation. Try creating characters and taking inspiration. See which types of characters work better. See if some techniques work better for certain stories. Most importantly, write. I’m not just typing these because I like the sound of my own… typing. Even if one of you reading these would write because you felt compelled/inspired to, I’d consider all of these blog posts worth it. I’ll talk to you all next week.

3 thoughts on “Real People and Imaginary Characters

  1. My writing would honestly be really bad without these blog posts. They help me notice things I really wouldn’t pay attention to otherwise.
    As for characters, I like to make them myself and then give them personality traits that resemble people I know. That way I’m not saying “Remember that guy John that I went to high school with? I need a douchy antagonist and he’s a douche so let’s call him Dave and put him in there.”
    Plus creating people is more fun than just writing about your friends. But that’s just my opinion.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s