I used to be so careful. After all, every how-to book on the art of writing provides the same advice--don't base your fictional characters on real people. While it's okay to borrow a trait or a habit or a quirk, you should never borrow the entire personality or persona--at least according to the experts. It only leads to trouble and who wants trouble? Thus were born my composite people; I was Dr. Frankenstein and they were my creations, cobbled together from spare parts, leftover remarks, and funny anecdotes from long ago. My technique had three steps. I would start with a picture from a magazine of what I imagined my character looked like, usually it was an advertisement. Next, I would choose a name, working hard to ensure that it wasn't already taken, that it wasn't the name of someone famous or notorious (Google to the rescue), and, finally, I would invent a backstory for my character hoping it was original enough to pass muster. Not only did I want to avoid basing my characters on real people, I also wanted to avoid basing them on fictional characters. Considering that I've read thousands of books in my life I could have easily lifted a character unintentionally, believing it came to me in a dream.
That's the challenge--to take traits from real people, incorporate those traits into fictional characters and make them seem like real people. Don't think about it too hard or you'll give yourself a headache--I know I do. It's all about capturing an essence, like lightning in a bottle. Unlike some authors, I focus on dialogue more than physical description because characters can reveal so much of themselves by what they say, what they leave unsaid and by their body language. An emotion can be conveyed by simply raising one perfect eyebrow or by walking away. It's difficult to portray realism in an artificial setting like a novel because most of what real people discuss is not novel-worthy--nobody wants to read about the weather or your Aunt Sally's gallstones. The rule to remember is: Less is more. Every word of dialogue should pack a punch by furthering the plot or developing the character. Ideally, it would do both.
I must confess that one of my best characters I've created is Grace Anderson, BFF to my protagonist Jamie Quinn. To bring Grace to life, I demonstrate her sense of humor and her concern for Jamie through examples. The two women have been friends since law school and in a flashback Jamie remembers some of the practical jokes Grace pulled back then. When Jamie's disabled cousin gets into trouble in the present, I show how Grace swoops in to help in concrete ways through her actions. Grace combines many of the qualities of my closest friends. As a result, my friends all see themselves in her. Grace is funny and smart, loyal and intuitive, she's a blast to be around--who wouldn't want to be Grace? But, although my girlfriends are all Grace, none of them is Grace
Now my husband is a different story, he is fair game and he knows it. If Jamie's tree-hugging, romantic, smart-aleck boyfriend Kip resembles my husband, then my husband shouldn't have been such a tree-hugging, romantic, smart-aleck. Whenever my husband says something funny, I write it down. I used to be sly about it, now I don't bother. To be fair, I write it down whenever anyone says something funny, ironic, or crazy, but he is just a good source of material. Here's an example: ever since our kids moved out, I barely cook; Suzy Homemaker has left the building (if she ever in fact lived here). One night, after I brought home take-out for dinner, my husband thanked me for doing that. To which I said, Of course! It was the least I could do. To which he replied I'm pretty sure you could've done less…
For those of you familiar with my body of work (and I love you, whoever you are), you may recall that my children were the protagonists of my first book, "The Fight for Magicallus". That book started out as a joke, a motherly tool, you might say and came about because my boys wouldn't stop playing video games. So I did what any mother would do, I wrote a story in which they were sucked into their video game and had to figure out how to escape. Ultimately, their only way out was to read a book. Not sure if they learned the lesson, but they did enjoy starring in their own adventure and I know for a fact that they read at least one book!
And so, family members notwithstanding, I have been conscientious about not pilfering people's personalities for my books--until one day when tragedy struck. My cousin's daughter died suddenly of heart disease at the age of twenty-seven. I flew to the northeast to be with them a few weeks after the funeral and it was then that my cousin's husband asked me if I would do him a favor. I couldn't imagine what it might be. When he asked if I could make Jessie a character in one of my books I was honored but also nervous about getting it right. I spent time with him poring over pictures and videos, learning more about my young cousin. I wanted to portray her accurately; she was such a free spirit despite her life-long battle with heart disease. Incorporating her love of dogs and preference for music from the sixties, I created a girl with purple hair who favored tie-dyed shirts and owned a rock-and-roll-themed dog rescue. Since her first appearance in "Engaged in Danger" Jessie has become one of my favorite characters and she makes me feel closer to the cousin I wish I'd known better.
Jessie's character opened a door I didn't know existed. Suddenly, friends and relatives were shyly coming forward to ask if they, too, could become characters in one of my books. I said, sure, if you write your own back story, pick your own name, and provide your physical description. You can be whoever you want to be, I'll make it work. And that's how my sister Jodi, a high-ranking executive at a cable network, became a master gardener at an assisted living facility happily tending to her plants in my current book, "Jeopardy in July". What Jodi doesn't know is how she will help Jamie Quinn solve the murders happening around her. All I can say is if Jodi wants to find out, she'll just have to read the book.
Cozy mysteries are the perfect vehicle for me because I enjoy writing about funny, smart, quirky characters who sometimes make snarky remarks but who always look out for each other. Their situations may not be realistic, but their relationships are and their realistic and snappy dialogue is the reason.