No matter how many times I hear writers state that they don’t know where their ideas come from (“they just kind of come to me…”) I don’t buy it. Maybe they don’t want to give their secrets away, or maybe they are trying to convince their audience that their minds are so enigmatic that they defy logical explanation, or maybe they’re just incredibly unaware of themselves; I don’t know, but any way I look at it, I think the answer to that question is simple. Ideas come from people. And more more specifically, (fictional) people come from (real-life) people. At least, that’s the way it’s always been in my case. To a point.
While I have never created a character that was based entirely on anyone I knew, I have relentlessly and unapologetically stolen little pieces of my friends, my family, my neighbors, my childhood friends, the lady at Wal-Mart with the thigh highs and hair rollers, and the most obvious of all, myself. I have taken their eyes, their wit, their courage, their pride, and in some cases, I have even taken their heinousness. Often times I have done this unconsciously, and only after having brought the character to full form, read him or her back to myself and said, “Wow. This guy is just like cousin Bobby!” Other times, I see some trait or personality quirk in a person and am writing it down right away, already knowing exactly which character to assign that quality to. No matter which way it’s done, I like to think of this as (politely) kidnapping my friends.
To (politely) kidnap your friends, you must first of all be subtle about it. Remember, you’re a thief in the night, not the paparazzi. To follow people around, notebook and pen at the ready, will not do. Nor will photographing complete strangers (unless you’re really smooth about it), feigning a heart attack to test their level of emergency response, showing an overt sexual interest in their spouse to assess their level of temper, or confiding to anyone, friend or not, ”I’ve killed a man… but don’t tell anyone,” to gauge their degree of trustworthiness.
To (politely) kidnap your friends, you must be respectful. Sometimes, your rapport with someone is such that you can point at the interesting trait or physical attribute, wave the pointed finger Karen Walker-style and say, “I like that. I’m going to take it,” and it’s all good. Other times, depending on the singularity or uniqueness of the trait, you may feel you need to ask permission. However, more often than not, I think the key to successfully (politely) kidnapping your friends lies in the imagination it takes to tweak the desired quality enough that by the end, it is, if not entirely unrecognizable, at least doctored up enough that it feels unique to the character you’ve assigned it to.
That being said, I’ve broken all of these rules myself. The good news is, no one has legal claim to eye color, sense of humor, height, sincerity levels, etc… even names are pretty much up for grabs. Still, I do think it’s important that, when fashioning a character after someone you know, you do so in a way that when people ask you, “where do you get your ideas?!”, you can smile knowingly, and confidently answer, “I don’t know… they just kind of come to me…”