Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Writing exercise: Use your friends

When I do school visits, I'm always asked, "Do you use your friends and family when you're creating your characters?"


While I'm very careful to never use something my friend has shared in confidence, the people I love (and, yes, the people I'm not so fond of) definitely make their way into my writing. Especially in the early stages, when I'm still trying to figure out my characters.

I'll think of people I'm surrounded by now, or people I've known, and I'll jot down one-word (or sometimes a phrase) that comes to mind when I think of them:

Rachel: Bold

Erin: The world revolves around me.

Meghan: Confident

Lauren: Chameleon (someone who changes depending on who they're with)

Josie: Desperate to belong

Rose: Optimist

Michael: Chip on his shoulder

(With the exception of Rachel, the names have been changed because I don't want to receive nasty emails from "Erin" "Lauren" "Josie" and so forth.)

After I've made a decent sized list (ten or fifteen or however many I'm in the mood for), I'll ask something like, "What actions make me describe Rachel as bold?" Usually I wind up with a list kinda like this:
  • Moving to a foreign country even though she couldn't speak the language.
  • How she always jumps in and plays with kids, even when she doesn't know them.
  • Battled to catch the bouquet at my wedding
Then I'll look at my list and ask the question that really matters in the exercise - how do I apply this? Maybe my main character is a little reserved and could use a bold best friend to help draw her out. I'll think about Rachel a bit, think about my story and my characters, and brainstorm some possibilities:
  • Best friend is always coming up with big plans for her future - like moving to South America despite only knowing English.
  • Best friend loves kids and drives to a sketchy part of town to help tutor them.
The longer I brainstorm, the farther removed this character will become from my bold friend, Rachel.

Who is also quite funny. If memory serves correctly, nearby there was a middle-aged man sunbathing in his G-string (talk about bold!) so we had plenty to laugh about. Ah, Daytona...

So if all your characters are behaving the same as each other, don't be afraid to look at the people around you, examine what makes them different, and apply it to your story.

Let's throw some one-word descriptors out there. If you had to describe your best friend using one word (or a phrase, if you must) what would you say?


  1. Great post! That picture made me laugh.

    I work similarly, taking traits from people I know and using them to brainstorm...its crazy the quirky backgrounds you can come up with for characters that way. Though I haven't done the "list" as you have, I can see myself doing that.

    To start:

    My Friend:Brassy

  2. Oo, I have a word that described both best friend and sister (and which I am infinitely aware of because I'm hence surrounded by people who excel at what I stink at, LOL): ORGANIZED!

  3. I used similarities like of the parents in my story because I wanted them like my parents so I made them like parents. My hardest problem is coming up with names that are not of anyone I know. : )

  4. My friends described in a phrase: has a mind of her own.

  5. Great idea! I've sort of done this but ive neve made a list of it or taken it as far as "what actions describe them as?"
    You could aslo do the same with characters you like in books and movies! For example, I just read one of the Sierra Jensen books by Robin Jones Gunn and was amazed at the spunk Sierra had!
    I'd describe a friend of mine as : stubborn, lol

  6. I love working on characters to my stories. It is one of my favorite parts to the writing process. :)
    I grew up as number 7 in a family of 9, so I've always had plenty of inspirations for my characters! ;) Somehow at least one of my siblings seem to work their way into my stories... :)
    The word I'd describe one of my friends as: Artistic.

    P.S. Tonya- I read the Sierra Jensen books too, and loved Sierra's character too! I loved the way she dressed... lol. ;)

  7. Rachelle, "brassy" is an awesome description. Love that. I'm so stealing it for a character.

    Roseanna, that cracked me up. Especially because I've constantly been losing my cell phone in the evenings. Two nights ago, around 11pm, I called it only to hear it ringing through Connor's baby monitor. Whoops.

    Princess, yes! Names are tough. Especially if you have a person you know in mind.

    Abbie, that could be a very interesting one!

    Tonya, great idea about using characters!

    Clarebear, 7 of 9!? Amazing. You have LOTS of personalities to pull traits from!

  8. I definitely use my friends. And also -- sometimes they give these great lines that just give me a great glimpse into their character. Take this one, for example:

    "If I'm not saying anything, I'm probably not thinking anything."

    My friend here loves to talk and have fun and share her ideas and she's awesome. Later on, she was like, "I don't know why I said that!" But I'm guessing it was because she was thinking it. ;) Just kidding. But even though it may not be true all the time, it's also a great way to understand your character.

    Whenever a classmate says something like that, that shows a glimpse of what they really think and stuff, I jot it down -- I've heard some really great lines!

  9. My friend: Creatively awesome :)

    I love basing characters of real life people. Though I'm not sure if I really do that much, I kind of just make up people I'd like to be around.

  10. It is hard to think of just one word for my best friend. I can`t think of a word that is good enough for her. She is Amazing! That word is not the best but I can`t think of any other word right now. Ha ha.

  11. I don't have any great words to describe my best friend, but she is:
    and very, very amazing.

    I don't really ever base my characters on anyone, I like to have them completely made up. I love to create characters and give them random personalities.

  12. Oh, Emii "If I'm not saying anything, I'm probably not thinking anything." totally cracked me up! I definitely lift words from my friends' mouths :)

    I'm so impressed with you writers who make your characters from scratch! Points for creativity.

  13. I loved this post. ;)
    My best friend....hmm. I suppose I would choose "Zany" or "Sweet". But really there are so many words out there that describe her to was hard to narrow it down!

  14. my best friend? well, i have three, actually. one is pretty bitter, the second probably a little immature for her age, and the third, cynical to hide how sweet she is and how afraid to get burned.

  15. Wow, Becki. You have potential for serious drama in your life with best friends like that!

  16. well, it's never boring when they're around, that's for sure :D