Creating a Character from Real Life

Creating a CharacterYesterday was my sweet mother’s birthday. Had she lived, she would have turned 98.

She wouldn’t have been happy about it.

My mom was a worrier. Know anybody like that? Or do you know somebody who’s just the opposite, who only worries if he or she is smack dab in danger? Most of us are somewhere in between, but in many ways, Mom’s worrying defined her. And one of her prime worries was growing old. So she didn’t. She died during surgery at age 60, and as heartbroken as I was, I knew deep down that this was exactly the way she would have chosen to go. Unaware of approaching death and still young enough that she was making her own way in the world.

Do I think she somehow aided the process? Of course not, but do I think we sometimes wish ourselves into the grave? It’s an intriguing thought, possibly worth exploring. I could see a character who purposely abused his body, hoping to wear it down faster. It wouldn’t be that hard to do. In fact I’m sure it’s been done by many.

But wouldn’t that be an interesting plot point? And wouldn’t that immediately give readers a vivid portrait of my character, without using a lot of explanation?

Mom had a terrific sense of humor, Irish wit which she apparently inherited from her father. Puns were her specialty, but she always followed even the best with “Puns are the lowest form of humor.” This, too, was a clue to the woman she was. She loved word play, but she had to denigrate herself for indulging. A small put down, usually followed by a smile. But cracking a joke, then pointing out how bad it was? This explains a lot about her, too. Sharp-witted, insightful and ready to criticize herself at a moment’s notice.

I miss her still, the wit, the intelligence, but most of all I miss the way she basked in everything I did, convincing me as I grew that I could do anything I set my mind to. She adored me, and I knew it. There’s no greater gift to give a child.

Novelists are always, always asked if we base our characters on real people. When I’m creating a character do I faithfully copy the details of an acquaintance’s life, the milestones, the physical characteristics, their greatest failings and successes?

Absolutely not. In fact I stay as far from that line as possible. But am I influenced by people I’ve met, people I’ve watched even if I don’t know them? Do I notice what makes them tick? Do I incorporate it in a novel?

I never set out to. But as I wrote The Swallow’s Nest and detailed some of Marina’s childhood, I was strongly reminded of a friend I grew up with. Ellen, another major character, wasn’t drawn from thin air either. I’ve known women like Ellen, women who consistently make the wrong choices because they’ve grown up thinking those are the only ones they’re allowed, the ones that set them apart.

And I’ve known women like Lilia, the books’ major character, who, when faced with a painfully difficult situation, put the needs of others first.

My mother was much like Lilia, protecting and encouraging, even when circumstances made it difficult. But even more interesting to me? When I presented my daughter with Lilia’s greatest challenge and asked her what she would do, I was astounded. She hardly knew Mom, who died soon after she made her way into our family, but the two of them?

My mother and my daughter would have been great friends.

Novelists find characters everywhere, and sometimes we find them deep inside our lives and our hearts.

If Alex Trebek (Jeopardy), presented me with that last sentence as an answer, my question would have to be: What is the very best part of writing a novel?


  1. Caroline Klam on April 20, 2017 at 11:53 am

    I see you in your mother!

  2. Nancy Lepri on April 20, 2017 at 12:32 pm

    My mom, also an Emily, though spelled with a “y” rather than an “ie,” was a worrier too until she hit her 80s. She always used to say, “If you want to know what the word “worry” means, look it up in the dictionary and you’ll see my name next to it! As she grew older and after losing my dad when she was 87, she became more confident and lost all fear. Sharp as a tack until the day she died, before her 96th birthday, she too had an uncanny sense of humor. Maybe it comes with the name? Anyway, thanks for sharing. And don’t you think we all carry a bit of our mothers in ourselves?

  3. Marsha Markham on April 20, 2017 at 2:29 pm

    Well, what a great blog! I totally enjoyed it and feel like I know you even better. )
    I agree with Nancy. I know some of my talents, although different from my Mother’s, sifted down to me. She has been gone for six years now and I feel I know her better than I did while she was living.
    My Mother relied on my dad a lot but he passed in ’87 and I was astounded at how well Mom adjusted. I have learned a lot from her; from the artistic person she was down to her flaws, which I hopefully didn’t make (I have my own, thank you very much!) I’ll always be glad I was her daughter.

  4. Joice Coleman Mander on April 20, 2017 at 10:23 pm

    Emilie, this is a beautiful tribute to your mom that I so enjoyed reading. As I get older I “feel” more and more of my mom in me…..and it makes me so proud! Our moms lived through some pretty hard times but were strong women.

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