I’ve been writing off and on since 1977. More off than on, just like my normal mental state. The first few stories I horrifically assembled were based on some dreams with the antics of some of my friends mixed in. I was still in high school and I hung out with the freaks, geeks, and weirdos. I also spent time with some of the stoner and drug using folks, even though I never partook. (No, really, I was even sorta famous for it.) On top of that, I was friendly with many of the jocks, and even tried out for the baseball team as a pitcher. I still think I didn’t get on the team because I drilled the coach with a line shot off of his cranium during a practice. Well, that or because I had a wicked fast ball that I couldn’t control. Anyways…
Over the years, I’ve made friends and lost some, drifted apart or buried others. Most of the time I admit I was just too lazy to send a letter or pick up the phone to say hello. Some folks were just acquaintances or Friends-of-Friends.
Some folks were people I once just said hello to. A good example is Fiona. My wife and I were going through the checkout line at the North Island Commissary (like a military store), and the young lady who was ringing things up was the Uber Queen of the Goths. Every bit of exposed skin was pale, like the pallor of the dead. Fiona wore all black, of course. She was also very nice and friendly. For years my wife and I would recall Fiona out of the blue. The only reason we know her name is because of her name tag. She’s appeared in two of my books in one form or another.
All of the friends, acquaintances, and random weirdos and strangers I’ve encountered in my life at one time or another are all now living as part of the DNA in the characters I write. I never try to copy them directly — it would feel like plagiarizing meatspace. I take tiny bits of personality and blend them together. The subtle half-wink as they tell a joke; the way their voice wavers as they yell in anger; the way they smell because they don’t believe in deodorant. All of these slices can come together to create a complete and believable character. In many cases, I know why they do what they do. The old friend who never used deodorant was too poor to afford the luxury. That background adds seasoning for characters. Now I know how they may act in certain situations, like finding an envelope of hundred dollar bills in a donated dresser. That pungent friend would do his best to find the rightful owner because he knows what it feels like to be destitute.
One should be careful not to make the characters recognizable. In many cases, it can cause hurt feelings. If I copied a friend down to a speech impediment and a facial birthmark, then gave it to a horrific villain who tortures small fuzzy animals for kicks, you can rest assured that my friend would be quite irate (and probably move into the ‘former friend’ category.) Always make the characters you create a collection of traits put into a blender and hit the frappe button a few times. The froth you end up with can then be used to make believable, realistic characters that seem like they’re someone you know intimately — because they are.
There are times you have to create characters that are outside of your scope of knowledge. Take a walk around and listen to strangers. Take notes, write down interesting descriptions, and even consider saying hello. You might end up with a new friend and a protagonist outline in one fell swoop.