Turning People into Characters

Have you ever tried turning people into characters?

At a writing conference, author James Rubart talked about how he had a friend, whom he turned into a character for a novel. He didn’t adapt his friend’s personality or made any other adjustments. He just plunked him in as is.

I don’t have the courage to do that. I figure I’d describe a friend in some way he or she didn’t like and I’d offend them. But most of the characters we writers create contain some aspect we’ve seen in real people.

Such as my oldest’s kindergarten teacher. This woman personified patience and even temperament. She seemed more than able to handle any crisis her students could concoct.

Kindergarten Teacher, speaking in a completely bland voice:

“Now, Aiden, you shouldn’t set fire to the classroom. You’ll get a demerit for it. Children, Aiden has set fire to the room. Please line up at the door so we can leave quickly.”

I’ve been working with a character who has that kind of calm, unflappable personality, although she isn’t a kindergarten teacher. For this character, I’m mixing the kindergarten teacher with a woman from my church.

Who are some people who would work as prompts for characters?

6 thoughts on “Turning People into Characters

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  1. I don’t have the courage to make someone I know into a fictional character either, but i believe we writers do that in bits and pieces, like you mentioned. Because, how can you create a character and give him/her characteristics if you’ve never seen or heard it before? Even if they’re characteristics of people you watch in the movies, I’m of the believe you can’t write what you don’t know.

    1. I think the advice “write what you know” really applied to building characters. We can research settings and we have to imagine most of our plots — how many of us have been involved in a vendetta or mystery or fairy tale romance? But it’s harder to create characters if we don’t draw on our direct experiences.

  2. Bwahaha- I could see my daughter’s Kindergarten teacher saying that, smiling the whole time😂.
    I’ve never intentionally written someone I know (same reasons as you said) but I read a lot of first hand accounts from the places/eras I write about. I don’t copy characters intentionally, but I find this helps me get the right ‘flavor’ of speech and reactions.

  3. I love your hilarious example! Like you and some of the others mentioned, I worry that if I completely base a character off a person I know, it will be noticed and not appreciated, so I tend to “borrow traits” from real people to build characters.

    1. Yes, it seems so risky to drop in somebody you know without making any changes. Because you are writing about how you perceive them, which may be very different from how they see themselves.

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