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How to navigate the complexities of drawing inspiration from real-life people in works of fiction.

Gathering the parts of a fictional character is an exciting process. While doing so, you may have one real-life person in mind or your character might be a conglomeration of people from all walks of life. Drawing inspiration from the people in your personal life can be a challenge. On the one hand, you know how their body language and inflections communicate more than their words. On the other hand, you may be too close to them to realize the most effective details to focus on. There’s also the question of whether your loved ones will be offended by being the subject of your inspiration, so tread carefully and use your interpersonal instincts in these cases.

I find the most exciting way to gather details is to sit down in a busy public place and watch people as they go about their business. Sound creepy? Maybe. But you’re a writer—you have an excuse. And you can always pretend you’re waiting to meet someone, or reading a book. Watching people, searching for their distinctive features, their subtle movements, can be like an extravagant shopping spree. All the details are there for you to choose from and you can have anything you want. The wealth is incredible. Seeing the way a man holds his dusty baseball cap, curling and rolling the bill nervously in his hands. Watching two people make eye contact and dance as they try to avoid bumping into each other. Or watching two people bump into each other and noting the difference in how they each react. How do their appearances change as they walk away? You might even recognize other people watchers. They’re taking in an entirely different scene simply by sitting in another location viewing from a slightly different angle. The possibilities are endless.

Be sure to also make note of when you’re making assumptions. Appearances aren’t enough when you’re creating a full character. If we make assumptions, we often create flat characters who run the risk of becoming a cliché. When you notice yourself quickly assuming the inner workings of a real-life person passing you on the street, take a moment to analyze your own reaction. Would this assumption ring true to your reader? Would it be an interesting portrayal of a character? Chances are if you made a snap judgment, the observation will lack a certain depth. Question your assumptions and push yourself to take a moment to come up with other explanations of a character’s appearance or action. Readers love the unexpected. They love to be surprised by human nature. Draw on the people you see in the real world and find a way to push beyond the obvious. Tweak the truth until it’s true for your reader. That’s the beauty of fiction.

Originally published with The Loft Literary Center.


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