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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

How to use your friends

My father considers himself quite the jokester. This last Christmas he gave me a t-shirt that said: “Beware what you say to me. It just might end up in my next novel.” At the moment he gave it to me, I couldn’t purposely recall using something someone said to me in one of my books, but later that night, lying in bed, I realized I had used things my friends said in passing.

It was not a word-for-word use. Someone may have told me a funny story or said a funny line and it ended up inspiring another story inside my head, or that funny line brought to life a whole character for me. Up until a few days ago, this was the only way I used my friends and acquaintances in my stories.

Then I started reading Donald Maass’ book The Fire In Fiction, and I realized I have really been giving my friends the shaft. He has a chapter about making secondary characters extraordinary. The chapter basically tells the writer how Mr. Maass thinks we writers can go about turning our cardboard secondary character into stand-out unique character that truly enrich your story. Unforgettable sidekicks.

I’m not going to tell you what he says word for word because I think everyone should go buy his book. It’s wonderful and just a few chapters into it I feel I have gained great insight into my own writing. Without giving you all the nitty-gritty details, I’ll paint you an unfinished picture of how to make your secondary characters pop by utilizing your friends.

Look around at your friends. What makes them your friends? What are their habits, their beliefs, their quirks? Name three ways they are like you. Now, consider one way they are very different from you. Next, think back on your friendship. Was there a pivotal moment, perhaps an argument, where something in your friendship changed? How did this moment define your friendship and make it grow, evolve, or simply bring the two of you closer. Look at your friend's outer appearance. Are they overweight? Do they limp or have tons of freckles? Do they where skimpy clothes or clothes that fit like a sack? Do they love to sing and often burst out in song? *I truly have a friend that does this.*

The point is that your friends are a rich resource for creating amazing secondary characters. I know I had not tapped into this potential, and I will now. You don’t have to pattern a secondary character wholly after one friend. You can use several. Just think how interesting this character is going to be.

I recently created a character in my latest novel who is blunt to the point that she is constantly embarrassing everyone around her. She knows she is blunt and makes no apologies about it. The character thinks it’s better to speak your mind than dance around a topic with flowery words. This character, an aunt, came completely from my imagination. After I read the chapter about enriching secondary characters in Mr. Maass book, I pulled back and looked at my new character then thought of my friends. I realized I have a friend who is blunt without apology. She has a huge heart, is one of the smartest people I know, and has some very interesting quirks about her that make her uniquely her. I’m going to draw on some of her characteristics for my aunt in my book, and I have even thought of a pivotal moment in her life that I can use for another character.

Here is my personal warning. I would never paint a character so fully from a friend that everyone could recognize that person unless you ask your friend and he or she is okay with this, or there is nothing that might upset or hurt your friend about your character. I say this because as I was drawing on my friends as a resource I thought: what if someone created a character and used me as the guide. Would I be happy with the result? Are there things that I may not want the whole world to know? Absolutely. And let’s face it, you can change a person’s name, but if you are a good writer, that person will see himself or herself in the character.

Do you use your friends as resources for characters? If so, I’d love to hear how you go about doing it and if you have any caveats of your own.

Happy Writing,

Julie Johnstone, The Marchioness of Mayhem


  1. Great post, Julie! I really should start paying attention to Donald Maass...I keep hearing great things about him.

    As for friends, I think I definitely use them here and there. My latest project has a best friend who bears a resemblance to my best friend from high school. She's always loved fashion and would sacrifice her feet for the right pair of kitten heels. Such a character *has* to be part of a chicklit novel. But I'm keeping them the same only on a superficial level as I wouldn't want to misrepresent my BFF by using her own flaws or personal histories for my character. My imagination can work for me there :)

  2. Jerrica, I can't wait to read more about the best friend in your latest wip!

  3. This is something I definitely need to use more of. I have, on occasion, taken a trait or two from some of the people I'm closest to. But I tend to worry that I'll make a character into the person in my life, and I don't want to do that. I just want to take bits and pieces. Maybe I'm being a little too cautious.

  4. Great blog, Julie. :)

    I love people. I find them facinating. And my characters are often inspired by people I know or encounter throughout the day. None of my characters are ever exactly like someone I know in real life, but I borrow their mannerisms, quirks, etc. Sometimes if I'm bored in a meeting (sometimes that happens) I'll study the people around me and jot notes about what they are doing or how their voice sounds.

    I also have "The Fire in Fiction", and it is great. After I read the section on giving your setting life, something clicked with me. Now I'm focusing on scenes. I'd definitely recommend the book.

  5. Mindy,

    I think caution is good, but you can use your friends, aquaintences etc. without using everything about them.

  6. Samantha,

    I haven't gotten to that section of the book yet. Hopefully, something will click for me as well. I did forget to mention that The Career Novelist, also by Mr. Maass is available as a free download from his agency website which is: www.maassagency.com

  7. Great post, Julie.
    I bought The Fire in Fiction last summer when everyone was raving about his workshop, but I never actually got around to reading it. Sounds like time to dig it out. Thanks!

  8. Great post, Julie. I do use my friends for characterization, but usually it's just for one trait, not for the whole person.

    I always base my villains on people I know.
    And so far, no one has ever recognized himself in my story. They don't see themselves the way I do.

  9. Everyone in my stories has a real-life counterpart or ten. When I need to brutally murder someone, the murdered person may even resemble people who have irritated me at work. Less violent than yelling and far more fulfilling, lol. Great blog, Julie :D

  10. Julie, love the post! I do use people, though I don't realize it at the time. I have a book coming out next spring IT HAPPENED ONE BITE. The heroine has a young brother and the boy is my son in SO many ways, right on down to his love for stray cats and the need to help the animals.

    Like I said, though, I didn't realize I'd even used him until I'd finished the book.

    ~the Jodie 1/2 of Lydia Dare

  11. Jodie,
    I love that one of your characters is patterned after your son. Oh, and I love your signature line! Very clever as are you.

  12. Julie! Excellent post. I'm not sure if I have used the people in my life yet but I think I will definitely start paying attention to it now. And I am definitely picking up this book!