One question I am frequently asked when I do school visits is, “Are any of your characters based on real people?”
The answer isn’t as easy as yes or no. A few of my characters are inspired by real people, but that’s not the same as being based on them. They are not usually people I know, but there are exceptions. Raynelle Cutler in EMPTY PLACES was inspired a bit by my husband’s oldest sister, and in NOT ON FIFTH STREET, Pete Brinkmeyer was inspired by my father. But once I create the characters, I have to separate them from the real people who might have inspired them. When I first created Pete I had trouble writing him convincingly. It wasn’t until I let him be Pete, and not my father, that I was able to get his character on track.
I find many writers who write stories based on themselves have difficulty telling the character’s story because they tend to tell exactly what happened to them. That’s okay if you write a memoir, but if you write fiction, you have to often forget what actually happened to you and let the fictional character have his way. I find working with fictional people much easier than basing them on real people. Life seldom has a natural story arc, and a book must have one. It’s a writer’s job to create one.
In my mind, all my characters become “real people.” I have to think of them that way to make them believable to a reader. How can I convince someone a character is real if he or she is not real to me?
My historical fiction characters are usually inspired by history. They are characters based on what people went through during the time I am writing about. I research to find out what that was, and sometimes I create a character that loosely resembles a real person.
The first thing I do when I create a character is get into that character’s head. It’s a lot like playing Pretend. I need to see through the character’s eyes, hear with his ears, think with his brain, and feel with his heart. When I can feel that character living inside me, I am ready to write, ready to tell his story.