What I like about creating characters that are not based on anyone is that they can go anywhere you want to let them go. In a way they will take over the telling of the story and show you what they have to say.
Sure, that sound a bit hokey and writerish but it's true. So allow yourself the risk of writing characters that aren’t based fully on friends and family and see how true it is.
Making a minor character from aspects of yourself (at a different age) may put you at a slight disadvantage, because it may be hard to let go of all the truth you believe about you. But it can be done.
Equally, using an old love interest or a close family member as a minor character and keeping to the facts (as you believe them) is also dangerous as far as libel is concerned. Your memories and views you base your work on should always be stretched and modified when those real people exist (and might sue you).
However you wish to build your minor characters there are still steps to be taken to create ones that are "alive" without being actual copies of living people you know. Give them roles, like you’ve done for your Heroine, or her Shadow.
Roles and the Main Question
Who is this minor character? That is the main question.
- Who Works Against Your Characters?
- How will the sidekick/fool/helper be drawn?
Here, where you make your (minor character) decisions, more than anywhere else in your stories, it’s important to draw well-rounded characters. Whether this minor character is a snooty aunt your main character hates, or the banker who’s causing your character to want to quit working for her, these minor characters can’t be shown as all bad.
- Example Toggle
One way to find out who these folks are is to get them talking to you.
This character is a young woman, an inmate in a Naval psych hospital. She is a secondary character in a novel.
Tell Me a Little About You Who Are?
“I’m Kathy, umm, nineteen. Nineteen last March. I’m 5’7”, blonde. Umm, straight, I just walk hard— but I like guys. I got into the Navy because my pop was in. Even though I’m the only girl, since none of my brothers wanted to, I signed on. For my pop, I guess…
He’s gonna kill me when I get home.
You like my hair this way? I dunno, It used to be shoulder length. I liked being in, I met a slew of new people. Liked some a lot. But well, I guess I got too free, too close to the fire you might say, on my own and all. Maybe I’ll leave it short once I get out, my hair? My pop, he likes it long, says that way he can tell me from the boys, I dunno, maybe it’s better short now…
Because I’m over eighteen? You know, adult? They don’t have to tell your folks why you’re in here, why you went over the edge. I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or not. It’s a lot to hold inside, not get any support with, you know? But still— He’d explode if he knew. Talk about over the edge…”
Intangibles/ What's In Her Pockets?
It’s just a teeny box, made of wood. One of my friends bought it at a faire, He gave it to me about four months ago. As a gift. I was sick for a while. I keep it in my pocket so I won’t lose it. Not to sound crazy or anything, but I’ve lost a lot lately.
We’ve completed the first two questions, you do the rest, use this girl if you’d like, or work on your own minor characters. Read the exercise prompts and answer them in your character’s voice.
- Lesson Exercise 1 Toggle
Lesson Exercise 1:
Exercising By Asking the Character
The gangster is more real if he’s nice to his mom. The school bully could love raising hamsters. The selfish prom-queen should fight an overbearing step-father at home. This is what is meant by well-rounded characters. But, if you don’t know this stuff you’ll write flatter minor characters.
Give these characters some (if not equal amounts) of the best lines, the telling motivations, the revealing reactions. Let them have deep secrets too. Here are some more exercises you can use to build a full-sided minor character. Use the Interview exercise we showed you, or one of these as you need to.
NOTE: Although I follow this same routine for each character I create, I rarely use any of this back-story in the piece I’m working on. This is mostly to see who I’ve envisioned, and to reveal what they are about.
A few more prompts/questions
The interview (as if you liked her, and she liked you).Here you just ask a bunch of questions of your character, as if you were hiring them to house sit your prized cat for a month, or you were planning on joining their car-pool, or they were a very distant relative, here at the family reunion. The best questions have to do with their reactions or about the stands they’d take.
Skip questions like: Where did you go to school? Any kids? What do you like to eat? They aren’t enough. Don’t go with mundane questions. Think wider than that to get a solid view of this person. This will help you describe them also.
Filling in the blanks (what they’re doing as they talk). Here you take the 200 words from that interview question and give their dialogue some actions and reactions. Attempt to supply a physical view of this character, a view that helps define them even further within your mind’s eye.
Props (what do they have/hold/seek/own)? In this exercise you poke through your character’s car trunk, wallet, overnight bag, bureau, desk, or school locker. You read their to-do’s, or shopping lists, or search through their book or record collection.
In simple terms, are your characters good guys, villains, gurus, killers, innocents? If a character has no role to play, perhaps it has no place in your story. Show why these characters chose to gum-up the works, as they steal, hate, kill, covet, or destroy.