This is one of the questions that I get most commonly at book signings or convention events. I suspect its because fans meet me and anticipate spotting some aspect of their favorite character in me. They’re most likely very disappointed because none of my characters are based on me.
A few years ago a fan asked me, “So which character is you? Jenni or Katie? Or is it Nerit?”
“None of them,” I answered. “They’re just their own person and not like me.”
The fan turned to my husband, who was standing behind me, and asked him, “So for real. Which character is her?”
“None of them,” my husband answered.
“C’mon,” the fan persisted. “One of them has to be her.”
“Nope,” my husband answered in his stoic way.
“So then who are her characters based on? You?”
My husband, who likes to keep to the background at these events, shook his head. “No. The characters are creations of her mind. None of the characters are like any of our friends or family.”
The fan stared at us incredulously.
As a matter of fact, I would never base a character on me because I’m pretty boring and would not make an interesting character in a book. I spend most of my time writing, playing video games, marathoning TV shows with my hubby, shopping, and reading. That does not make for an interesting character. I have no desire to self-insert myself into any of my works. The mere thought is very disconcerting.
But how do you get your characters then…
I often feel like my characters are like Athena. They burst fully formed out of my head and land on the page of my book demanding their place in the plot. The characters are their own people with their own likes and dislikes and even hold different belief systems from me and sometimes aren’t even human. Not one character has yet to embody my political, religious, or personal viewpoint on the world. I might share a traits with some of the characters, like PRETTY WHEN SHE DIES’ Samantha and her love of Betsey Johnson, but they’re definitely not me.
Inspiration for characters come from weird places. A picture might inspire the sudden birth of one, or a voice I overhear in a store might create a brand new character. I also dream from the viewpoint of the characters sometimes and that’s how I uncover them. I dreamed of Amaliya and Glynis before I ever knew their names.
So do you base characters off of friends, family, people you know…
A few years ago the answer to this question would have been a firm no, but now three characters have been deliberately crafted off of people I know. Rune from AS THE WORLD DIES is based off my friend and former co-worker, George, Olivia from THE MIDNIGHT SPELL is based off cabaret dancer and friend, Wendy aka Ginger Snaps, and Ashley from THE MIDNIGHT SPELL is based off of Ashley (aka the Zombie Queen) of The Bookish Brunette blog.
Rune came into being because George was reading the online serial of AS THE WORLD DIES and told me point blank I should include him. I started to tell him that I never base characters off of friends until I realized George would survive the zombocalypse. Rune is not George, but I could definitely see them hanging out. I gave several of George’s traits to Rune, such as being a biker, the long white hair, and the cocky attitude, but Rune isn’t as sweet or kind as George.
Olivia in THE MIDNIGHT SPELL looks nothing like Wendy, but she does share her flare for pinup makeup and cute outfits. She also has a sassy/snarky aspect about her that my co-author, Kody Boye, and I stole from Wendy. Also, the big epic reveal about Olivia was directly inspired by a certain obsession Wendy has.
Ashley in THE MIDNIGHT SPELL was a no-brainer. The real Ashley is so damn cute, funny, nuts, and amazing, we just cloned her and shoved her into the book. Kody and I cannot claim to know the inner workings of the real Ashley’s mind, but a lot of her personality traits, her likes, and her appearance is in the cloned version of her. One of our Beta reader’s recognized her, which I thought was a hoot.
Yet, I don’t know if I will want to do this again. All three of these cases are the exceptions to my usual process.
So your characters are nothing like you? Really…
I do share a few traits with some of my characters like I stated before. My love of Betsey Johnson is shared with Samantha. My snarky humor is infused into some of the characters. And since I am writing for the characters, its inevitable that they might share some of my favorite phrases.
The one character that I am probably most like is Travis. I didn’t really realize it until I was reading the final version of FIGHTING TO SURVIVE just before publication last year. Travis and I share a need to help people though we also tend to be loners. Also his frustration at being pushed into a position he’ll actually be good at is something I, too, have experienced. I also “knew” when I met my husband that he was someone very special and that my life would never be the same in much the same way Travis knows the same about Katie. Those are the similarities we share, but much else is different.
Sometimes a character is so removed from who I am I struggle to connect to them. Jenni from AS THE WORLD DIES, Amaliya from PRETTY WHEN SHE DIES, and Mackenzie in DEAD SPOTS were incredibly difficult to write. I felt like I spent a good portion of the first half of the book discovering who they were. At points, I had to read over what I had already written to get a bead on what was really going on with the character. I’m often surprised to find out that the difficult character is actually fully fleshed out in the story, but I’m just having trouble understanding them.
Characters are sometimes very easy to write. Katie from AS THE WORLD DIES, Maria in THE LAST BASTION OF THE LIVING, and Christy in THE MIDNIGHT SPELL were very easy to plug into and understand their motivations. Though I had to research Katie’s sexuality, she was still much easier to get to know than Jenni.
But you must give your characters something of yourself, right…
Where my characters probably benefit from me is my life experience. I grew up in a very abusive household and I know what real, true, stark fear is. I’ve lived with the desperate awful fear and depression that makes you pray that you’ll die before you wake up the next morning just so it will all end (I was a kid, btw). I literally felt like the banner over my childhood read “No one gets out of here alive” to quote Jim Morrison. I experienced living with the devil and living with an angel. I saw cruelty and evil in its worst forms in one parent, but also love, compassion, and strength of faith in the other parent. I stood between heaven and hell.
Because of my childhood and a near fatal car accident, I suffer PTSD. It used to be crippling, but over the years I have healed and become a much stronger person. I still have my triggers, but they’re rarely tripped. I’m very happy in my life now.
So you might think I’m like Jenni because we share PTSD, but we’re not. Jenni’s PTSD manifests itself very differently from my own. So much so I had to do heavy research for her. PTSD makes me overly cautious and I tend to over think situations. Jenni’s reaction is to not think about anything and to just act. She careens toward self-destruction while I do everything I can to preserve myself. In fact, Jenni’s reactions to things around her was so far removed from me, I wanted to smack her half the time! I honestly didn’t know if she was even going to make it through THE FIRST DAYS when I first wrote the story because she had little, to no impulse control.
I do believe that because of the abuse I suffered, I am able to accurately portray people in life threatening situations. I understand the psychology and the actual emotions of a survivor. Imagining staring into a gun barrel and how you would react is very different from actually experiencing that sort of event. (Not to say that some writers can write about things they’ve never experienced with accuracy and brilliance). I suspect the emotional depth of my writing adds a layer of reality to the narrative and that is why fans feel so immersed in that world.
So where do your characters come from…
I honestly have no clue. They just show up in my head, talking away, revealing who they are and I have to figure out if I want to tell their story or not. Yes, I have voices in my head. Entire worlds. Universes. Where it all comes from, I have no clue. But I definitely like being along for the ride.
So in closing, my characters are not me. If you want to know where I am in my novels….well…this picture sums it up.
Just ignore the person behind the curtain…