In Real Life: Basing characters on real people has some major advantages. For starters, you'll be able to observe an actual person (or if the real life person is dead, you'll most likely be able to rely on primary source material). Not only that, if you're ever wondering what your character would think or do about something, you can just ask. That said, there are two drawbacks you'll need to consider if you decide to base a character on someone from real life:
- You could get sued. You can avoid this problem by doing one of three things. A) Avoid saying anything that could get you into trouble, which could lead to a very boring story. B) Change enough of the details so that it's no longer obvious that you've based the character on a specific person. C) Base the character on someone who can't sue you... like, say, your cat.
- You might get so caught up on being true-to-life that you'll kill your story. Remember, fiction is by definition fictional. It's not about getting the facts exactly right; it's about crafting a story that reveals a greater Truth about life, humanity, all that good stuff. Of course you can base certain elements of a character on a real person but in the end, you may have to discard some details that echo reality in favor of ones that will serve the story.
Pictures: I love looking at a picture and trying to figure out the story behind it. Some of my favorite artists for this exercise are Edward Hopper, John Singer Sargent, and Edgar Degas. Photography is also a great resource--especially antique portraits or work that's photojournalistic in style. Every time I go to a museum, I'll get a handful of postcards that I think might spark interesting characters. These days with the interwebs at our fingertips, we can find inspiration without even leaving the comfort of our office chair. Here's one of my favorites:
Quotes: One of the great things about living in a big city is that people will say the craziest things in public. Seriously, it boggles my mind what some people will say while riding the subway or talking on their cell phones. I used to feel bad about eavesdropping but now I figure, if these people are talking that loud, it's because they want me to hear and use it in my book. Whenever I hear a good line, I jot it down right away. Here's one I recently rediscovered in an old notebook: "What do you mean she's pregnant? I thought she was just getting fat." Even though I just wrote down the quote and made no notes about the speaker, I get a clear mental picture of this character right away.
What about you: where do you go to find characters? I showed you my sources, so now you show me yours, k? Awesome.