Don't I Know You From Somewhere?

In most any story, characters populate the bulk of the tale. Writers spend time crafting these imaginary people, bestowing them with brief or lengthy histories, likes and dislikes, charm and flaws, all in an attempt to breathe life into the work. But where do these ideas come from? How do authors craft such rich persons from scraps of paper and odd scribblings?

There are many methods, plenty of books, and oodles of advice to help with this task but often times these "people" reside deep within the greatest treasure any writer can possess: their minds.

Each and every day we meet and greet people of all shapes and sizes. We see people with great beauty or remarkable characteristics. We witness individuals acting in consort with the rampant others milling about them or standing out with flair and panache that makes them beacons in a dull foggy field. As writers, it's our duty to study the world around us, injecting what we see with our own stories, grafting histories and dialogue to people passing within our camera eye. And with each unique person we witness, we add memorable details to our database that we can pull from to wrap a rich, velvety layer around our characters.

To break this down, lets look at the most prevalent groups of people that we come into contact with each day: families, friends, co-workers, and passing strangers.

John Candy from Uncle Buck

With our families, we have grown up watching them, living with them. Holidays, family gatherings, or weekend outings gives us a chance to watch true characters at work. Do you have that uncle that refuses to do something with that comb over that straddles a sun-chapped scalp? How about a little sister that stands on the edge of the group, her mouth moving silently with each piece of conversation, anxiously awaiting for her chance to leap in and tell her story? If you think back, I'm betting you can remember plenty of tasty character traits that you can adapt to the people within your story.

Cast shot from How I Met Your Mother

We've got 'em. You know... friends. Those people we grew up with, went to school with, formed some strange bond that you can't imagine how or why but there they are, a part of your life and you couldn't imagine not having them. I'm sure most of your friends are pretty straight and narrow but there always seems to be one or two that stand out, that belch at the most inappropriate times. Or ask for favors that come from so far out of left field you're left scratching your head in amazement. Thank God that our friends are so different. They breathe life into our lives, and our imagination. From frank conversations to late nights romanticizing about places we may never visit. Love their quirks, their goofy one-liners, their weird and wild charms, and store them in your Writer's Tool Box!

Dave Foley and Andy Dick from News Radio

Co-workers offer a different pool to draw from. Often, while at work, people put on a different face, and can swap them out as they interact with other co-workers, supervisors, and upper management. Think back to Rob Schneider on SNL when he played the "Copy" guy. Sure, the gag ran its course but he presented a unique character, a lonely one dying for conversation and would shoot out any copy-related term to catch someone long enough to be heard. Anyone who has worked within an office environment, or as part of a team in many different fields can easily remember that one person that stood out, the one that dumped half a cup of sugar into their coffee and called it their "go-go" juice. Or the person that came into work on the edge of being late, clothes in a rumble, reeking of sweat and shame... then sat at their desk and stared at the pictures of the wife and sighed.

Whether you're at the restaurant, on a bus, walking through the mall, or just driving about, you'll see volumes of characters to fill the pages of your stories. No matter where you go (unless you park yourself in an isolated cabin at the peak of the North Pole) people are present and in full bloom. They walk with limps or swagger; they talk to themselves or bury their faces into their cellphones; they smile and the world around them lights up or they have a black cloud that's pissing all over them and everyone else in a five-mile radius. They're out there and all you have to do is observe.

Though brief, this is where I start when looking into my characters. It doesn't take long to strum up enough details that I can fill in with confidence, with enough life to make them believable. But I should point out one important caveat: Do not carbon copy someone to the point that you all but call them out in your writing. Borrowing some details helps flesh out your people but draping a character with s much detail from someone you are close to could be offensive and the grounds for a defamation suit... or demands for royalties for plastering them all over your story. Tread lightly, sprinkle some of these "people" within your story and make them pop with life!


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