I love diving into different methods to bring life to a new character. One possibility is to base this character on an already existing person and use this person to create a realistic character. Although you do have to be cautious with this one, because you want to respect the existing persons privacy at all cost!
Where this is Useful
I find that using this method for minor character works incredibly well. You probably do need quite a number of different minor characters and creating a ‘whole’ human being each time can be incredibly time consuming. Basing some characters on someone you know makes this process a lot easier and quicker.
On the other hand I found, at least for myself, that I can’t use this method for major characters, because it feels very invasive to let those characters make decisions and display intimate emotions, even if I made those up.
I guess it’s quite obvious why this approach is so useful. You already have an image formed around the people you know. You know how they look, how they behave and probably what they like and dislike as well as (some) of their strengths and weaknesses. One thing I want to mention here is that you really only have an image of this person in your head. You will never know the other person exactly and this is perfectly fine for the purpose of this exercise.
It only means that instead of asking yourself „What would this person do in this situation?“ it’s rather a „What do I think this person would to in this situation?“. As a foundation for a character this is fine, because this way your person develops a life on its own. Having a basis let’s your characters emotions, thoughts and actions be more realistic and cohesive.
There are different ways you can use this method.
One of the most obvious ones is using someones looks for a character. This can be the hair color and style, the height or some single features such as bushy eyebrows. Or you can use the general looks and its effect as a whole. This is especially useful when you want to incorporate the appearance and its impact in your story. One example I’m thinking of here is Rubeus Hagrid in JK Rowlings Harry Potter. According to her, he is based on an intimidating-looking biker she once met and who started talking to her about his petunias. So she used this man as inspiration to create a kind of fearsome giant who is completely gentle on the inside.
Much more significant than looks is the style of a person. Although this ties a lot with the looks of a person, it is worth mentioning separately. The style of someone is kind of the representation of this persons identity. Maybe you know someone who is laid back and who loves his dreadlocks and alternative way of dressing. Or the girl who always wears the latest trends. The business owner who sticks to black t-shirts or the lady who only wears silk dresses and matching hats. As you probably noticed you already have images of these people in your head. Maybe you even formed an opinion of them. This is the strength of style and you better use it wisely.
Last but not least are character traits. They are especially helpful if you want to use an existing person to build a coherent personality. If you know how a person ticks you can use this for your character as well. If you have an exemplar who is short-tempered and easily angered then you know that your character won’t be the most patient one when things don’t go their way. Or if you use a timid and quiet girl as a role model, who can’t bring herself to speak up in class, then your person will probably do the same even in other, similar situations.
This is the part where you can ask yourself „How do I think my role model would react in this kind of situation?“.
Putting it all Together
Of course you can use looks and style and character traits together. Just the way Rowling did with Hagrid. He looks like an intimidating giant and is utterly gentle by nature. He wouldn’t harm a fly. Of course she chose a style that the original biker wouldn’t have worn, but that fits with the character and setting. Having a huge old leathery coat with tons of pockets further tells us that he is not the most mindful of his appearance and that he isn’t the neatest one as well, because he has everything stuffed into every nook and cranny. Altogether she formed a unique character that doesn’t resemble the original character that much, she incorporated both his appearance as well as his character.
Which brings me to the last, but actually most important point. Privacy. You don’t want under any circumstance to breach the role models privacy. This means not to use their name, but it also means to refrain from revealing information about them that are intimate. Thoughts to specific events or emotions they shared with you in private are a complete no-go. Don’t do it. Don’t misuse anyones trust or make them feel uncomfortable or betrayed.
The role model should be able to read your novel and not feel like this character is a representation of her. Especially when it concerns private information.
It’s okay to recognize ‘this person looks a lot like myself’ or ‘she dresses so similar to me’. He might even think ‘I feel exacly the same when it comes to these kinds of situations’, but that’s as far as it gets.
Unless you’ve talked to that person an he or she is ok with it. That’s something else 🙂
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Other than that… go for it! I hope you have fun using this technique. Let us know if you found it useful and whatever else you have to add!