Characters can come from anywhere; they can be composites of people you know, derivatives of people you’ve read about or seen on TV, or wholly invented. But they will also be a part of you if they’re to be believable.
You must insert a part of yourself in every character you create, even the villains and the minor characters who inhabit the page. If you don’t do that, readers will generally fail to connect to them. That’s not to say all your characters should be similar or speak or think in the same way, but they should all have a truth to their motivations and goals.
For example, in The Devereaux Dilemma, I created a character called Sister Ezekiel. I’m not a nun. Never have been. So how do I create a believable nun? I started with a nun who taught me in grade school – Sister Isadore. She was slim, with gray hair and glasses, and rarely demonstrated a sense of humor to her students (I assume because she wanted them to take school seriously).
I added in what I knew of Mother Teresa – how she struggled with her faith despite being a nun and in service to God – a woman who was iron willed and unyielding when it came to protecting her charges.
Finally, I asked myself, if I were a nun (or a Christian brother or priest or monk or in some way in service to God), how would I approach the challenges that Sister Ezekiel faces? I had to imagine that I possessed the faith she possesses. I had to imagine that I cared for her guests as much as she did. I had to put myself in her shoes to determine what moves she would logically make.
By doing that I was able to construct what I think is a believable character with the proper motivations and decision-making processes. Many people have told me they love that character. That’s very gratifying. But it took a lot of work, a lot of sitting around thinking about what I would do if I were in her place. That’s where the part of me got inserted into that particular character.
And that’s how each character must be approached – as a separate challenge and a unique individual. If you do that and you do it well, you will have created something to be proud of.
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