How to Create Compelling Characters
by James L. Rubart
Have you seen the T-shirt that says, “Careful or you’ll end up in my novel”?
Darci (my wife) bought me a sweatshirt with that saying on it years ago, and I love wearing it because of the responses I get from people. For the most part, they think I’m kidding. You think they’d laugh if they knew it really happens?
I’ve done it. Often. You?
Usually my characters are a combination of people I know, but when I wrote my third novel, The Chair, I modeled one of the main supporting characters specifically after my friend Mark.
He’s larger than life, a real-world Mr. Incredible (6’4″, 265 pounds of muscle, and a stellar personality), and I didn’t need to change a thing to make him a fascinating character.
But sometimes we don’t bring in the good ones. Sometimes we bring in the people who should have been more careful.
A few years ago I ended up having to spend quite a bit of time with a woman who rubbed me wrong. That was okay. But she rubbed my wife wrong too. Really wrong. We’re talking Brillo-pad wrong. Saying she was unkind is putting it gently. She wasn’t careful.
And the more I thought about her, the more I thought she’d make a great character. So, I made her a minor character in my novel The Long Journey to Jake Palmer, which released in August.
An Interesting Side Note
A close friend (who knows the lady in question well) read Jake, and I was a little curious and a lot nervous. I thought it would be obvious to everyone who knows this woman that I modeled one of my characters after her. But my friend had no idea it was that lady!
No, I’m not saying we should take revenge on people that tweak us the wrong way. But I am saying we can create scintillating characters by continuing to glance from side to side and look at the intriguing people all around us and base characters on them.
There are three reasons this works:
- You have deep emotions about the people you know, good or bad. These strong emotions will typically translate to the page, which will help your readers feel strongly about the character—one way or another.
- The people in your life are not one-dimensional. They ALL (even the ones you don’t like much) have good qualities, and even the heroes in your life have flaws. This keeps your characters from coming across as cookie-cutter people or stereotypes.
- You probably understand a lot of their motivations, which almost automatically inserts conflict and drama into the scenes they’re in.
So, think about the people around you and how they might fit into one of your novels, and, yes, I’ll be careful around you from now on.
As You’ve Probably Realized . . .
As you’ve probably realized, we’ve just scratched the surface on how you can use real people to create characters your readers won’t forget, so I’d love to have you join me on February 25th at the Oregon Christian Writers Winter Conference in Salem where I’ll be teaching an entire workshop on this subject!
James L. Rubart will is 28 years old but lives trapped inside an older man’s body. He thinks he’s still young enough to water ski like a madman and dirt bike with his two grown sons, and he loves to send readers on journeys they’ll remember months after they finish one of his stories. He’s the best-selling author of the 2016 Christy Book of the Year, as well as the INSPY and Romantic Times Book Reviews award-winning author of eight novels as well a professional speaker. During the day he runs his branding and marketing company, which helps businesses, authors, and publishers make much more coin of the realm. He lives with his amazing wife on a small lake in eastern Washington. More at www.jameslrubart.com.