One of my readers, a Cambria resident, remarked to me recently that she’s having a good time trying to figure out which Main Street Merchants characters were inspired by which real-life Cambrians. When I assured her that all of my characters are purely fictional, she brushed me off knowingly. She remains convinced that I’m only saying that to avoid getting myself in trouble with anyone who’s unhappy about how they’re being portrayed.
I’m taking that as a compliment, because if my characters seem so authentic that readers think they must be based on real people, then I’ve done my job making them seem true to life. But the fact is, none of my characters are based on anyone I know. Certainly, I take inspiration from real people, but so do all writers.
If I had to explain how, exactly, I come up with my characters, I’d have a hard time telling you. Mostly, I start with a profession and a general physical description, and then they spring out of my brain fully formed from there. Once they’re on the page, I don’t even seem to be in control anymore. They tell me who they are, what they plan to do, and why. And if I try to go against their wishes, it doesn’t end well for me—I end up with manuscript pages that feel false and fall flat.
I’ve even scoured the Internet looking for images of people I can use to “cast” my characters, thinking that if I had a picture in front of me, I could draw on it for inspiration, and I could even show you here on the blog, so the person in my head would be the same as the one in yours. But as I scan the images of people whose descriptions match those of my character, I think, “But that’s just not her.” Of course it isn’t. I’m not going to find a picture of Kate or Gen online because that’s not where they live. They live in my brain, and Google hasn’t found a way to catalog that yet.
I think it’s probably a good thing that I haven’t found the right images to post, because the Kate that’s in my brain is going to be a little bit different than the one in yours, and that’s okay. Maybe your Kate looks like your cousin Sarah, or your brother’s ex-girlfriend. And attaching those relationships makes the experience more real for you. That’s the goal: an experience that seems as real as possible. You’re not going to get that if I make you see the same Kate as I do.
A little mystery is good when it comes to characters. I’ll imagine my characters my way, and when you read about them, you’ll imagine them your way. That way, Moonstone Beach (or Cambria Sky, or Nearly Wild) will be a slightly different book every time it’s read. That’s kind of magical, when you think about it.
Just like fiction should be.