Where does the writer end and the character begin? My characters are NOT me. But I do infuse bits and pieces of myself into all of them.
I’m not a monster or a killer or, for that matter, a man — and yet I’ve written about monsters, killers and a whole lot of men. Putting myself in the “shoes” of my characters is part of the process, as going inside the character’s head makes their world view real and motivations, actions and relationships make a great deal more sense if you start from the inside and work outward.
Of course outsides — appearance, experiences, education, geography and other external factors play a huge role in making a character real. In my opinion, that’s how the writer’s life becomes source material for characters. I can draw from my own life to flesh out any character. From a dedicated physician to a devious con artist — they all need back stories, family histories, hobbies, hometowns, preoccupations and passions.
Because a sense of place and time is so important to me (both as a reader and as a writer) I usually set my stories in New York or other locations I know well. Many of my characters dance, enjoy the theater, go to art museums and travel for fun. I don’t have to do a lot of research in these areas as I dance, enjoy the theater, go to art museums and travel for fun.
I use my knowledge and first hand experiences as a baseline and focus my research on the area (idea, place, time, hobby, etc.) that best suits the character. Starting with something I already know about is more than a convenient shortcut — it helps provide me with a framework for my research.
That’s why my characters wander around the museums I love, take subways around New York, travel to Berlin, work out at the gym, and go out dancing. I set a pivotal scene in the new Monster in the sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art. My familiarity with the place added veracity. When I needed a specialty for a doctor character, I picked dermatology because I’ve been a patient often enough to know the drill and I like my skin cancer doc.
I’m much more likely to write about a baseball fan than a football fan because my dad is a huge baseball fan and I grew up understanding the nuances of the game. This brings me to the importance of tapping other sets of likes, experiences, geographies, etc. My passions are mine and I often need to explore something outside my realm for a character. Fortunately, I have friends who are football fans, technology whizzes, car people, suburban homeowners, carpenters, financial planners, filmmakers, bartenders, hikers, photographers….
Writers & characters — we have interesting relationships!