Last week I wrote about how I use my own experiences to shape my characters’ behaviour. If you missed it, you can read it here. While the internal workings of a character will always be shaped to some extent by the author’s experiences, the external characteristics can be derived from a far greater field. Any person who crosses an author’s path may inspire a character.
Of course, friends and family are the most obvious muses, being most often in the writer’s mind, as well as passing acquaintances and people you see often – a cashier at a favourite shop, that guy who walks his dog past your house every day etc. If you have an idea for a character’s personality, but not their physical appearance, it can also be useful to imagine them in terms of which famous actor you imagine playing them in the film adaptation.
A warning though…when writing a character, even in fiction, you need to be careful what you say…if a person you know is portrayed in a negative light, and they find out, they may be upset (even to the point of calling a lawyer upset). In many cases this can be avoided by using the ‘small penis rule’.
Characters can also be inspired by total strangers, although this sometimes requires a ‘Sherlockian’ level of observation. I sometimes attempt this on the train when I’m bored…trying to deduce things about a person just from their appearance. For example, the other day there was a woman on the train wearing business clothes, and dragging one of those wheeled suitcases. My immediate first impression was that she was probably either a lawyer or legal assistant carting a load of legal documents, or a pharmaceutical representative traveling with a bag full of samples. On further reflection she could have been on her way to some kind of overnight conference, and the bag may just have contained clean clothes… I never did find out which (if any) of these was the truth, but that doesn’t matter…if I’d been looking for inspiration at the time, any one of those characters could have been a starting point for a story…it certainly wouldn’t hurt to file her away in the ‘for future reference’ pile.