Composite Characters, Traits and Types
How many times has somebody asked me such as, ‘Is that character actually me?’ or ‘Is that her?’, ‘Did you base that guy on him?’, ‘Did you have an evil stepmother in growing up?’, ‘Were you an orphan or adopted?’ or ‘Is your mother-in-law the sweet one, or the horrid one?’ and any number of variations on the theme of, ‘Who in your life did you base this fictional character on?’
Well, not that many times. No, I haven’t faced those kinds of questions very often these last years, but still, many more times than I would have expected when I started writing stories. In fact, the first time I was asked, ‘That isn’t me, is it?’, I was stunned. Originally, before really getting serious about finishing ‘the first novel’, I did think to perhaps base a few characters on interesting or vexing people I’ve known, but, once I dove into the story river, the characters and my muse took mostly over. There’s not a ton I can do to keep complete control of the rebellious menagerie.
I can be a control freak in some things, like banishing dust bunnies and whipping the dishes into shape, but not in writing fiction. It comes more naturally and is a lot more fun to go with the story flow, and just let the characters tell me who they are and what they will do or say next as I write them. I like a few surprises around the corner, at least in my novels. No Honey, don’t give me another surprise birthday party. Not at my age. Anyway, one point is: if I’m never surprised at anything or anyone I write, neither will my readers be. Predictable writing equals predictable reading, no?
I’ve tried to explain to a few people, as I stare at their disbelief, that, ‘No, that isn’t necessarily or exactly you (or her, or him), because my characters are much more based on character traits I’ve come to know, in knowing people, over time. Quite a lot of time, to own the aging truth. And a good deal of people. Character traits have emerged in the sea of people I’ve known. The mean girls. The nice gals. The creeps. The gentlemen. The gossips. The connivers. The pompous. The nervous. The gregarious. The shy. The conceited. The humble. And the list goes on and on and on, as anyone who’s ever known many people knows.
Having lived and socialized in numerous microcosms, societal groups or subcultures, and neighborhoods in a number of cities, suburbs, Canadian Provences and United States; certain character traits and social dynamics always seem to show themselves. From grade-school to high-school and far beyond, there always seems to be at least one busybody, a self-appointed ruler, the nasty, the nice, the leaders, the followers, and so forth. When I first started conjuring up characters and stories for novels, I did think of people I knew or had known. There were exacting likenesses that I planned, and then soon there were compositions of two or a few people combined into one cast-member. But not long thereafter, I thought and so wrote far more in character types.
Whether or not I begin basing a character mostly on somebody or somebodies I’ve known, very quickly, that character shows me how they fit into a type. People have been like that too. When I’ve moved to a new place or entered a new social circle, it’s not often long before light bulbs go on, here and there – ‘ah, she is a this, or he is a that’. Even though I try not to label or judge people, at least not right away… a cat looks and acts like a cat, a dog like a dog, a horse like a horse, and etcetera. Did I just call people cats, dogs and horses? In a way, yes, and no. Well, since some of my best friends have been cats, dogs and horses, maybe that’s not so bad.
So, longer story shorter, if you think you’ve found yourself in one of my novels, you’ve only found somebody who’s something like you. And if you are writing stories, I suggest you create composite characters or types, and let them show you who they are instead of telling them who you think they should be. Don’t boss your characters. They might not want to be your best friend or worst enemy. They might be far more interesting. And when somebody asks you if this or that character in your novel or novella is them, you can say, ‘no, he or she is a composite or an amalgamation, drawing upon relatively common character traits’.