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Building Composite Characters — Part One

May 20, 2008

Fiction and creative non-fiction writers are always dabbling with the creation of new characters. We study hundreds or thousands of faces, expressions and movements, either know or imagine their histories, and form our characters. Seldom is a character derived from a single person, unless we’re writing biography, autobiography or creating a minor character.

Many characters and settings in movies, books and stories combine several people or places that the author/screenwriter either knows, knows of, or researches. These are called “composites.” Think of Louis L’Amour’s Jubal Sackett, Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat, Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe or any of the serial novelists’ countless characters. The creator stitches together enough elements to build the character or place to match his/her vision for the story, then adds from his or her imagination, often seasoned with personal experience and personal traits. For example, in The Voice, my forthcoming novel, I drew from the traits, actions and styles of twenty great rock musicians of the past forty years—plus plenty of idosyncracies from my own life and my imagination—to create Tom Timoreaux, the protagonist.

Let’s create a composite character today. Imagine a character about which you’d like to write. It could even be a younger or older version of yourself. Now, think of the coolest or most infuriating traits of six people you know—traits that evoke emotional responses. Consider their words, expressions, movements. Bring them together in your mind, and write a 500-word sketch of that character. Just let it flow, as either a description or a monologue in the character’s voice.

When you’re finished, see how many of those six people are represented, in whole or part, in your composite. Then create a story wrapped around this new character. Let us know what you wrote!

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