I’m a thief. When I write, I don’t build characters like a sculptor might fashion statues – from raw materials. Instead, I steal the essence of a real human being and mold that into my story. I want to populate my books with people who seem to be breathing as they careen across the pages. The best way I’ve found to do that is to pilfer.
As with all writers, part of the planning process for my novels involves identifying the players. As I do that, I think of someone I know (sometimes well, sometimes from a distance) and build a skin that person will wear during the action: a description, their age, and what they do for a living. This skin is seldom like the real-life model. But what is like the original template is that person’s unique decision-making process, their approach to life and its issues, their moral code, and their attitudes. I simply gift wrap the real deal to reflect the time and place of the story.
In a recent interview with BookTrib, I conceded this “heist” is easier than creating a person from imagination only. As I write, I ask myself “What would so-and-so do in this circumstance?” and that is often the basis for dialogue, action, and certain plot points. When I’m stuck, I repeat the question – and the answer often reveals something new and exciting for my tale.
By creating a character from reality, I hope to avoid stereotyping. I don’t have characters who are formulaic because I’m not personally familiar with anybody who might easily be pigeonholed: “the hard-boiled detective” or “the gold digger” or the “saint.” My “villains” can be likable people, my “heroes” very flawed. Instead of resorting to a creation that has no basis in reality, I use the personalities of ordinary people with both good and not-so-good traits, who make both brilliant and stupid decisions, who can simultaneously hold beliefs that contradict one another, who keep dark secrets, and, on occasion, have a self image with no basis in reality. To know them is to love them. And I do. Even as I pinch their souls for my books.