Every author draws from personal history when creating characters. The main character, the protagonist, along with the antagonist derive from your experience to emerge as rich, engaging people in your story. Behind the list of characteristics, flaws and shortcomings, physical makeup, and the like, intentionally or unintentionally the author draws from personal experience.
Often the tiny details, some never revealed in the story, or mere hints, emerge from the author’s own life experience.
My childhood heroes were without superpowers. The Lone Ranger, Sky King, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon on the radio. And the non-human Lassie (in books). And in newspaper comics, Brenda Starr, Reporter
A little later my father, an Episcopal priest, who devoured Georges Simenon with the Larousse by his side listened to The Whistler
and The Shadow
as we drove each Sunday from services in Arroyo Grande to services in Atascadero, California.
As we drove along the oceanfront and then inland to rolling hills and oak trees, the mysteries and revelations of human behavior gone wrong fascinated my young imagination. The question The Shadow asked at the beginning of each episode made me wonder about every person I met: Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?
That question was the start my lifelong pastime of making up stories about strangers I saw. As an adult, my notebooks filled with sketches of people I saw who sparked some mini-story in my head. An innocuous looking housewife who harbored a secret jealousy that ate at her heart. A hobo—now street person—who had once been (fill in the blank).
Observation: The Author Skill
Both detectives, The Shadow and The Whistler, watched and listened. I’ve been a mystery fan ever since.
I didn’t find my voice as a fiction writer until I started writing mysteries with a central character who delves into moral ambiguities in a time when murder was not a crime.
All those mini-stores over the years were accumulated into flawed character background to challenge my protagonist with their secrets. A person can do good in the world and yet perform a base evil like murder.
Those observations of strangers—how they moved their hands, or walked, or stood at attention ramrod straight or with drooping shoulders—help populate stories with characters with idiosyncrasies and deep or shallow motivations.
Other than Brenda, I never quite found a female heroine until around 10 years ago when I read John Julius Norwich’ The Normans in Sicily
. And then, Sikelgaita
Her’s is not a name on everyone’s lips. However others have romanticized her. (See image above)
When Robert Guiscard saw her he dropped everything stunned by her presence, divorced his wife, and married her.
Married with children (9)
Fought at his side in full armour in battles
Loyal to the end over many years (27) until his death
I admired her because she was not a single woman with superpowers defying all odds but an embodiment of a multi-faceted woman.
Real People, Heroes, and Imaginings
Your story begs for believable characters. Writers can borrow from real life, observations, their personal hero set, and imagination to create characters who resonate with readers. When it comes to Write What You Know even your heroes have a place in rounding out characters.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Argolicus thinks he has retired, but he and his tutor, Nikolaos, are drawn into puzzles, politics, and murder.
She consults with a select group of writers as The Story Bodyguard.
The bulk of this article was originally posted as a response to David Amerland’s Sunday Read: Superpowers, June 4, 2017.