Familiar Strangers: How Turn Your Muse into a Character

Illustration by J. Tamaki.

You know the story. It's too good to pass up! It happened to someone you know, or even to yourself. It has all the right elements. It is "fiction-worthy." It transcends the moment, inspires you, and now you can't wait to get it down on paper.

Except, when you go to write it down, the people you know so vividly in life fall flat on page.

Now what? 

In addition to making the truth believable, as well as deciding when theright time to tell a story is, when writing "what we know," we must often tweak our initial inspiration.

Although seemingly counter-intuitive, we need to drain the life out of a memory before the distraction of what we know will subside enough to write it. Then, we must revive it with new life, puffing our characters up into different shapes. We can do this with time and distance, but we can also speed up the process by simply changing the details.

Names

Using names we know for the people we are basing our stories on only limits us. I have seen students simply change the names of a friend or a family member in their fiction and immediately their prose gives way, allowing them to push farther into the emotional complexity of their characters, where previously they were too afraid - too close - to go .

I think of one student who was writing about his beloved and deceased grandfather. He was unable to move past his childlike, worshipful perspective until he changed his name. Suddenly, he was no longer "hurting" his grandfather, but describing the fictional man on the page, a multidimensional man who had lived a life like we all do: making both good and bad decisions, often eating too much for dinner, and sometimes (but not always) unable to fall asleep at night.

Flaws

If the person you are writing about seems to read as a caricature, comes off too nice or too "one note," simply give them a flaw that the person in real life does not have.
One example would be to write about an internal flaw that has symptomatic effects. If you give a character frequent stomachaches, you immediately give them something to deal with psychologically or emotionally or physically.

What is creating this symptom? How do they deal with it on a daily basis? What are their stomach aches brought on by? Their lives become complicated in a way that they weren't before. Their days are colored now by the prospect of pain, and the desire to find relief from it.

Physical Detail

With a deletion of one word and insertion of another, you can change your character's life entirely: simply turn them from a blond to a brunette. Just as simple: make someone who is short, tall. 

Once they look different, you - the writer - see them differently. They are no longer who you knew. Now, they see with brown eyes instead of green, as they look into a different mirror and find new things to love and hate about themselves.

Location

If you are from Texas you are not from New Hampshire; if you are from Oklahoma you are not from New York; if you went to Stanford you did not go to Boston College; if you grow up near the water you know something you don't if you do not.

It is an illusion that any change is actually small. Once you turn your characters into familiar strangers, they will move in ways you did not expect. Suddenly they are looking out a different window in a desert town, with a whole new set of wishes, a new name being called from another room that they will now have to answer to.