In all my years as a romance writer, I’ve been asked every question from where I get ideas, to how much money I make. I never answer the last one. One question I’m never asked is where I get my characters from.
They can be inspired by real life, but not as often as you might think. I may borrow aspects of people I know but rarely a whole person. Not only is it legally risky, but also because I want my characters to live in the story, rather than in real life.
My life rarely inspires my characters. In only one book, Island of Dreams, did they come close. She was the daughter of Russian immigrants who had a troubled history with their homeland. Unable to relax in their new country they moved around a lot and worried about their past catching up with them. This led my heroine to develop an eating disorder she had when she first met the hero, a journalist writing her father’s life story.
The family’s history came from my own migrant parents who also moved a lot and used food as a distraction from their problems. When the book came out I wondered how they would respond to my soul-baring. Short answer – they didn’t. The heroine’s family was Russian and we came from England. Nor did they connect their children’s eating issues with my heroine’s. From then on I created characters as I chose and didn’t give family concerns a second thought.
That said, you can use parts of your own background to create a believable character in just ten minutes.
You’ll need one other person for this exercise. A writing friend is ideal and you can work together off or online. If you have no other options, choose an interesting character from a TV show or movie, plus yourself.
Each of you starts by listing three “good points” you think you have. For example, you may see yourself as a good cook, a hard worker and trustworthy. Your friend makes their own list. If using a TV or movie character, make the list based on your observations of them.
Next you and your friend list three “bad points” you want to change. Or look at your TV character and work out their “bad points.” Don’t worry about being right or wrong, simply make the lists as you see them.
For example, things you want to change about yourself may include often being late, being forgetful or bad at managing money. None of the points need be drastic, just normal human failings.
Once you have your lists, exchange yours with your friend’s, or work on your TV character’s lists. It’s okay to use your own list provided you can be sufficiently objective. No, you can’t change the lists, you work with what’s on it.
You may be surprised by what your friend sees as their good and bad traits, probably different from the way you see them.
When you have the lists, the person who made them ceases to exist. The lists now represents a character in a story. Sometimes the good and bad points contradict each other. Like the person who sees themselves as a reliable friend despite often being late.
Use the lists to imagine a heroine in your story. Do their qualities suggest a name for them? What kind of work would they do? A poor money manager may not thrive in banking. But if they were in this job, how would they cope? Perhaps their boss is frustrated by the heroine’s failings but she’s the CEO’s daughter. How would this play out?
Already this character is coming to life. You could then make a “good and bad” list for her boss. The scenario so far suggests he might be a bit uptight, preferring computers to fallible humans. What if he and your heroine must work together on an important project? What if it’s something outside work, where he gets to see her good points in action, as well as her weaknesses? What might their task be? Perhaps a charity project that doesn’t suit the hero at all, far less having to work with this ditzy woman. No doubt you can imagine dozens of ways they could clash as their attraction builds.
Doing this exercise gives you real people to work with, because the good and bad aspects came from real people including yourself. It also beats listing aspects such as hair and eye colour and height.These can come later when you have a handle on who these two people are. The essential conflict also comes from who they are – in this case, one an uptight executive, the other an airhead with money. Now work out how they got to where they are and why they must cooperate on the project. You’re well on the way to having an original story.
How do you develop characters and stories? Share your thoughts in the space below. They’re moderated to avoid spam but your comment can appear right away if you click on “sign me up” at right. I don’t share your details with anyone. Happy writing!
The 2019 Valerie Parv Award run by Romance Writers of Australia opens April 8 and closes April 29, open to members and non members. I mentor the winner for the year they hold the award.
Details:Valerie Parv Award 2019
For more like this check out Valerie’s online course, www.valerieparv.com/course.html