Hillary Homzie: Cooking up a Composite Character

Hillary Retouch2Authors are often asked if they get their characters from real life. Well, of course, we do! The reason personalities resonate is because we’re deft observers and we’re offering up mirrors to our readers. At the same time, I think it’s dangerous to completely rip someone off. If you write up your best friend as a character and she recognize herself, she might get awfully upset, especially if you describe her as someone who always buys cheap birthday presents and is too braggy and other lovely qualities.

If you’re friends with an author, there is always the fear that you might end up in her  short story or novel. In fact, there are sweatshirts out there that say, “Careful you might end up in my novel.” I confess that I even own one. But I would never hook, line and sinker put someone I know into one of my books. Nevetheless, it is a fun writerly threat. My friends are probably always somewhat suspicious whenever I start interviewing them or fishing for information. And in some ways this fear is warranted. One of my friends once asked me if her son was in one of my books for tweens, and I said, no. Of course, there were a couple of her son’s traits in one my main characters but he wasn’t exactly her son. Winslow Fromes in THINGS ARE GONNA GET UGLY was his own person with his own agenda, backstory and personality. But it is impossible not borrow a little here and there from those around you.

My suggestion is to always be a good observer but try to build your characters as a composite of those you have observed. In other words, it can be helpful and wise to build characters compositionally.

So here’s an inexact recipe for what I do. I take, let’s say, five people that I know (it can be men or women, boys or girls or transgendered, whatever works). Then I list their traits as they come to me. Sometimes, well, most of the time, I feel squeamish about using really names, so to protect the innocent or the guilty, I just call them guy #1 or girl #1 etc. Then I highlight the qualities I want to go into my character. Then I lump them together and, voila, I have the beginning of character. In that way, I have someone who is truly a composite and not just an exact carbon copy of someone that I have observed.

For some of you (intuitive writers), this may be too clinical or calculating an exercise, but for others who are getting stuck on how to make characters multi-dimensional, this might give you a few aha moments. I hope you have fun and enjoy cooking up a new character or fortifying an existing one.

Hillary Homzie

Hillary Homzie

Hillary Homzie is the author of the tween novels, Things Are Gonna Get Ugly, The Hot List, Karma Cooper Unplugged (forthcoming), and the chapter book series, Alien Clones From Outer Space. Hillary teaches in the graduate M.F.A. program in children’s writing at Hollins University as well as for the Children’s Book Academy. Visit her at www.HillaryHomzie.com

Check out the Exercise Book for a recipe in character creation!

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106 comments on “Hillary Homzie: Cooking up a Composite Character

  1. Val M says:

    While it may feel “clinical” your suggestion for a list of traits puts us back in the observer role and lets us form a new character from what we see. Thank you, Hillary.


  2. More great information from Hillary – loved her in the chapter book class with CBA, loved this post!


  3. I’ve never broken down a character that specifically/clinically, but I’m going to give it a shot. Thanks for being a part of Summer School!


  4. Juliana Lee says:

    What a fun and interesting idea. Putting this on my to-do list.


  5. I’ve always been good at observation. Great post!


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