As a fiction writer, I am sometimes asked by readers “where do you get your characters?” Usually that question is followed by “are they based on real people?” My answer is “I make them up.” Followed by, “I would never use a real person that I know as a character.” However, all of my characters are based on the sum total of my knowledge of humanity. I build my characters’ appearances, personalities, speech patterns, and behavior based on humanity as I know it or can imagine it. The limitations on my ability to create characters, then, are the limits of my own experience plus my ability to imagine and extend my knowledge to its extremes.
Part of my job in writing fiction is to create fully formed, believable characters that people can recognize, identify with, or at least be able to envision as a functional being. The more types of people I can imagine, the wider will be my casts of characters. So how do I improve and increase my casts of characters? I have to improve my knowledge of humanity as a whole by increasing my knowledge of the unique individuals whose quirks and personality extremes exemplify the wide variations in human behavior. I have to read. I have to read widely on varied topics, particularly about people who aren’t like me, people who live in places I would never live, doing things the I can’t imagine doing. This means reading histories, biographies, memoirs, news stories, and magazine articles about people from all walks of life.
For example, I am a reader and writer of mysteries. Mysteries are what I prefer to read most of the time. However, a diet of strictly mysteries wouldn’t be enough to help improve my writing, so I read a lot of nonfiction in an effort to broaden my horizons. I read Red Platoon by Clinton Romesha, American Sniper by Chris Kyle, and 13 Hours by Mitchell Zuckoff. These books gave me glimpses into the lives of ordinary soldiers, special forces soldiers, and former soldiers working in dangerous parts of the world. They also illustrated the varying responses of people, both trained and untrained, when pushed to their absolute physical and emotional limits.
I read Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches by S. C. Gwynne. Only the most stubborn, most fanatical people were willing to settle on the Texas frontier in the 1800s, an area that saw 300 years of territorial conflict. The brutality of modern warfare could be matched blow for blow by what was historically referred to as the ‘depredations’ of the Comanches in Texas. That people, like Quanah Parker and special forces operators, can go from the visceral brutality of killing in warfare and step into lives as businessmen says a lot about the plasticity of human nature.
I also read The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis about the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, a pair of Israeli psychologists whose work developed the field of behavioral economics. I read The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb about the random, unpredictable events that impact our lives in huge ways. And I read Isaac’s Storm by Eric Larsen about a meteorologist’s failure to predict the 1900 Galveston hurricane. These three books include the issue of scholarly hubris. They discuss how wrong scholars and scientists can be when they think they have all necessary data, but don’t, and the damage to society as a whole that this overconfidence can cause.
Writers, be diligent readers, particularly of nonfiction and particularly of subjects that aren’t already familiar to you. See the world through someone else’s eyes. Expanding your reading horizons will expand your ability to imagine new, unique characters to populate your own stories. Many people live in neighborhoods that are socioeconomically homogenized, work with people who do similar work, volunteer with others who support the same causes, and participate in hobbies, sports, or social activities with those who enjoy those same activities. When you look beyond your own circumscribed lives and interests, you may find personalities that you never knew existed and a range of people you never could have imagined. Step outside your own world and into a wider one to improve your writing.
Let me know your suggestions for great nonfiction books. I’m always looking for more great characters.
N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Her debut novel, All in Her Head, was published in 2014, followed by her second novel, For the Children’s Sake, in 2015. In 2016, For the Children’s Sake was selected as a finalist for the East Texas Writers Guild Book Award in the Mystery/Thriller category. Most recently, she has begun writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories and the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017).