Creating Composite Characters

by R.J. Lee

Character creation is one of the most difficult aspects of writing fiction. The author wants characters that fits the plot of the book, but are also real and with whom the reader can relate. We are all inspired by people we know or have known in our lives, and since they are real people, they can make realistic characters. However, one must be careful. If the description of Uncle Harry in your book is too close to your real Uncle Jake, and if the character is a child molester, people might get the wrong idea about Uncle Jake, and Uncle Jake might get a lawyer. Seriously, though, the creation of composite characters is a great way to help you develop new characters. The trick is to use more than one person. Blend and meld together qualities and traits of multiple people and create your own unique, authentic characters.

Suppose your book is about a salesman who has many extramarital affairs. You happen to have a friend with dozens of great traveling salesman stories, but none of them involve adultery. You have another friend who’s single, but has dozens of colorful stories about his dating escapades. Combining them would give your character authenticity on both levels. Of course, it could be hazardous to the health and marriage of your salesman friend, so a drastic physical transformation might be advisable.

Always be on the lookout for “characters” that populate your actual life. We all have family members who would, on their own, be as boring as the owners’ manual for a 1998 Nissan, but combined would make a compelling study in human behavior. The creator of a popular ‘90’s era comedy television show openly admitted basing his characters on composites of people he came across in real life (with enough changes to avoid having to pay them, of course.) Writing books is different from writing television scripts, but the principle is the same: base characters on reality. Don’t be afraid to combine characteristics from three or four different people if need be. And don’t hesitate to include physical characteristics. Detailed physical descriptions are very difficult for most authors to write, so utilize easy to describe physical traits of people you know or those you see in magazines. You’ll be surprised at how much easier it is to create a character whose beauty or lack thereof leaps off the page. You can also take fun field trips to the mall or the airport and watch a zillion real characters pass you by all at once. Capture what you see… clothing style, how they walk, and interesting turns of phrases you overhear. But also capture physical appearance such as hair color and style, the shape of their eye glasses, the use of beards and scarves and the appearance of scars, birthmarks, tattoos, piercings, and wrinkles. Also, be sure to capture emotion. How can you describe the facial expression and behavior of that man who is clearly troubled, the sadder than sad woman, or the nervous child?

One word of caution: when writing non-fiction, the use of composite characters is controversial, though it has been done. As long as the creation of the character is based on real people in the subject story, and not just a composite of imaginary traits you need to fill in gaps in your research, most pros would say that composite characters in non-fiction are acceptable, and sometimes necessary. In this case it is advisable to include a disclaimer. Otherwise, the integrity of your work could be questioned.

 

Information provided by the Author Learning Center.