A chipped tooth here. A southern drawl there. A tendency to put too much sugar in one’s tea. A habit of correcting other people’s grammar.
These are all characteristics that someone, somewhere possesses. In fact, several people probably correct grammar whenever they can. And think of the millions of people with chipped teeth. That’s why it’s so hard to come up with a completely original character. While I’ve never based one of my characters on a particular person I know in real life, I do create characters that are a blend of several people I’ve known or seen on TV or read about in books. It can’t be helped.
Our lives are full of past experiences and exposure to a variety of people and places. This colors the way we see the world, whether we’re aware of it or not.
When I sit down to think up a new character, I usually start with the physical characteristics. First, should it be a man or a woman? Let’s do a woman this time. What color should her hair be? Blonde. This immediately brings to mind all the blondes I can think of. Let’s give her the same shade of color that I noticed the receptionist at the dental office has. That was a nice honey color. And so I continue with all the other physical features, like height, eye color, and whether she wears glasses. In almost every case, these characteristics will be based on ones I’ve seen before.
Even when it’s time to decide on a personality type, I think to myself, “Let’s make her one of those people who’s always meddling.” That statement right there tells me I’m building this character on someone I’ve met in the past. While I strive to create a wholly new personality each and every time, bits and pieces of others have a way of sneaking in and taking over.
And that’s okay. I don’t think readers mind one bit. As long as the character I’ve created isn’t a complete copy of someone else, I like it when a reader says to herself, “Oh, I know someone like that,” or, “That reminds me of so-and-so.” A little familiarity helps a reader connect with the story. It makes her feel like she’s part of what’s happening, even if my character reminds her of her annoying Aunt Sue or rude Uncle Harry.
They say familiarity breeds contempt. But sometimes, familiarity just makes people feel comfortable.