Thursday, 15 April 2010

Characters from real life.

Where do you find your characters for stories?

Unable to fall asleep a few nights ago, I started thinking about some of the people who lived in our small town when I was a child in North West England. It was an old mill town, full of derelict factories and rows of stone houses, built during the Industrial Revolution and blackened long ago by smoke. Some of the streets were still cobbled and a few of the older people still wore clogs – wooden soled shoes that could be heard clattering along from a long way away. To live to 100 years old was quite common, mainly because everyone walked everywhere and it was impossible to go any distance without going “oop ‘t’brew” ie. up the hill.

Some characters from this place still stand out in my memory and I’m sure I’ll one day include one or more of them in a story. One who is very clear, is the man who sat every Sunday at the back of the church. He had dark hair, going grey, which stood up from his head in a stiff mop. I never knew his name, but my sisters and I used to refer to him as ‘Mr Sweep’, not because he was dirty, but because his hair reminded us of a sweep’s brush. If we turned around during church, he would catch our eye and give us a ‘Mr Spock’ greeting, which of course was very cool! My mother told us he was the Bank Manager, but we never believed her. Bank Managers just don’t look like that.

At the front of the church sat a lady I used to try to burn with hateful looks. It never worked. I’m sure she didn’t notice me. I never knew her name either, but I loathed her with a passion – just because of her fox skin stole. She wore it rain, hail or shine and I hated it. I think my mind is probably playing tricks with me, because I remember it with a fox’s head at one end, with big, glassy eyes, and I don’t think anyone would be so crass as to wear something like that, would they? But it definitely had three foxes’ tails and I mourned for them every time I saw them.

The local vicar was quite a character, too. I always thought of him as being old, because he was bald and slightly paunchy, but in hindsight he was probably only in his thirties. When he visited us, he always made himself comfortable in the seat by the fire, clasping his hands over his stomach, stretching out his legs and kicking off his shoes. I half expected him to say ‘Tiddly widdly widdly, Mrs Tittlemouse’ like a somewhat drier Mr Jackson. He’d wiggle his toes as he talked and we’d hold our breath. As soon as he’d gone, Mum would rush to open every window, no matter how cold it was outside. Then one day, he and his malodorous feet took off to work on an island in the middle of nowhere and we never saw him again.

Another man I remember, though I probably only ever saw him a couple of times was the man with no nose. My father explained that he’d lost it during the war. These days, of course, he’d not have to suffer the stares of morbidly fascinated kids like us, but in those days there was no choice beyond hiding away and never coming out. I remember he was extremely tall and thin and wore a rather threadbare brown suit. He greeted stares with a stare of his own and we quickly looked away.

How about you? Do you find characters from your life to use in stories? I didn’t know any of these people well, but they offer so many possibilities, if only as secondary characters or as a mine of traits and characteristics.


Alesa Warcan said...

Agreed, reality is a good place to start a character... It gives them a strong base of credibility.

I also like to work with archetypes that I skew or twist in unusual ways.
For example, a door to door salesman, stereotypically dishonest and pettily manipulative; I'd depict one that was intrinsically honest, then I'd have to build him so that he would be believable. He really believes that his dinky products perform as advertised and sells them as such... And his feelings are deeply hurt when they don't. He would have to be a bit dim and have a short memory so that each time he would forget about the failings, and start anew (suddenly I'm reminded of "Memento"). The funny thing would be the way his customers react. Some would be taken in by his strong faith in his products, others would take pity and buy in order not to shatter his convictions, and all kinds of quiproco and hilarity could arise. He'd probably make a decent living because of it. The story could go on many places from there...

Kate said...

An interesting idea, Alesa. I would think the most difficult part would be making the reader actually believe that he really was that innocent!

Alesa Warcan said...

To some extent, while certainly I would try to make this hypothetical character true to himself, I would expect (perhaps require) the reader to accept the character for what he is... the reader has to, because the basic elements of this character are unnatural and unrealistic.

Why did the wolf go through so much trouble to eat Riding Hood? Why not eat her in the woods? Why not eat someone else, less protected by narrative convention? Yes, I know there are other mechanisms at work there...

Essentially, what I mean is that he (the wolf, or the salesman) does what he does because his character is defined by it. It isn't especially believable but if it consistently represented, it can work.

(sorry for the slightly off-topic tangent)
And that just brought to mind an imagining of a series of books about "The adventures of little red Robin Hood"

Alesa Warcan said...

Unsurprisingly little red riding hood has been done, just checked. Still fun imagining.

Rena said...

Most of my stories are about animals. We have a lot of wildlife near our home, so I get a lot from there. People-wise, it seems I've related a lot to childhood friends, and those "friends" that were not so friendly.

Trish said...

Hey, Kate, I didn’t realise you were from England. So am I. I came to Australia when I was nearly thirteen. I’m from The Midlands where my father worked at the steelworks as a brickie. He was from Yorkshire originally and fought in WW11.

We lived in a house just like the one you described. At seven, I had a crush on our parish priest. Tall, gray, and handsome, he was Irish and looked like Carry Grant.

There were many funny characters in our neighbourhood. My best friend from primary school features in one of my MG series, but I’ve changed her name. Sometimes when I create a character, I use different people and blend them together. That’s fun.

When I first started writing Chapter books and MG novels, I wrote from my memories of childhood, but my MC evolved and became an Australian girl, who saves injured animals. That was inspired by my work with a wildlife rescue, here in NSW.

Some one recently asked me what happened to by original stories. Well, I filed them away, but I might edit them one day, if I ever get he time. They’re set in England, the home of my happy childhood where I played in the woods, parks, streets, and derelict building. Not to mention trespassing on a few allotments. Ooops!

I get inspired by anything. At the moment my two little grandkids inspire me, and living in the country, I'm always inspired by animals.

Great post, Kate. Thanks for sharing it with us. I enjoyed the read.

Joanne Fox said...

I can really relate to how those people from childhood stuck in your mind. I can think of lots too, from school and the local neighbourhood. I particularly remember an old lady called Molly who ran the sweet shop. And a woman near school who couldn't speak properly. We were all scared of her. Poor woman. She was probably perfectly harmless.

Laura Pauling said...

I think bits and pieces of people I knew in childhood enter my stories. Our memories can't help but surface.


Yes, real life is the best place to start! And sounds like you got some really great characters under your belt.

Christina Farley said...

So interesting about the people that you've met along the years. I suppose I listen to people talk or their habits and I create my own characters using these.