Real-Life Characters

Have you ever met a person who is so interesting that you had to incorporate him into a story?

We’ve just returned from a one week cruise on Allure of the Seas. My review and photos can be followed on my personal blog. It was a fabulous trip on the largest cruise ship in the world. But despite its size, we often ran into the same people.

We first saw the man at dinner. Although we had My Time Dining, we’d reserved a spot at 5:45 in the Adagio Dining Room, deck 5, each evening. My startled gaze landed on the guy as we passed him by seated at a table with a younger man.

His shoulder-length wiry black hair inevitably drew my attention. He had a black moustache to match that curved down to the edges of his mouth. His dark eyes and facial features were Asian. My imagination instantly pegged him as a karate master. Was that his young disciple with him? The younger guy had light brown hair in a short cut with sideburns and looked like some fellow you’d meet on the street in the States. A more unlikely couple couldn’t be found.

What were they doing on a cruise together? The long-haired man looked like he’d stepped out of a movie screen. He could have played an ancient conqueror, a great warrior who’d landed incognito into our time. Or perhaps he really was a foreign film star and the young man was his manager. Then again, maybe he was a secret agent or private investigator on a case and the younger guy was his sidekick, likely a computer expert. 
Oh, my. I could create so many stories just from this one person. This had happened to me once before on a cruise. I saw a lady with coiffed white hair and a perfectly made up face who wore elegant Parisian ensembles. She became a countess in my cruise mystery, Killer Knots. How could I use my karate master? Time will tell, but no doubt he’ll show up in one of my books. And his role will be a lot more glamorous than in real life, where he probably was on a pleasure cruise with his partner.

Have you ever met a character so compelling that you had to put him into a book?


24 thoughts on “Real-Life Characters

  1. Oh my, yes Nancy! I lived in San Francisco at one point in my checkered life, and the streets are full of them there. I’m frequently in New Orleans, and just walking on Canal Street from Rampart to Decatur you could find enough characters to fill three books! But. But. My younger son’s restaurant clientele after 11:00 PM tops them all. Characters abound for any genre, from military thrillers to dark fantasy to romance and mystery and everything in between.My favorite of all of them: the woman with the tattoo of the cobra wrapped around her upper leg…

  2. That’s a cool one, Joe. A cobra, huh? Symbol for a secret cult? An assassin? A snake charmer? Oh yes, it’s fun when you see someone so interesting that your imagination takes flight.

  3. Nancy, pulling characters from a crowd is one of my favorite past times. I’ve taken a handsome young man, eating a simply meal in the sunshine while waiting to board a ferry, and made him a rich tycoon who was looking to buy the ferry line, then a two-bit criminal who was scamming the lady he was with, to an escaped convict. lol His persona changed with every little thing I observed (his accent, a bulging wallet in his back pocket, and the fact that he asked the waiter for the train schedule).
    It’s so much fun. Glad you enjoyed the cruise, and you’re dark warrior.

  4. Brilliant how your mind works, Nancy! I also like to give my characters traits of people I know. Sometimes they notice, sometimes they don’t Funny, but my mother never noticed how, in my first book, my heroine’s mother liked to rearrange her house and straighten her curtains whenever she visited. 🙂

  5. Aleka, it’s amazing that you could create so many persons from one mild mannered man. James, very funny! Allison, it’s interesting how you used your mother’s traits and she never noticed. On the opposite side, my husband always assumes he’s some character in a story when he was never my basis.

  6. A few weeks ago, one of the kids I was working with at church tried lying to me about something. He is about 10 or 11. He isn’t a very skilled liar, but he is sure determined. Most people, when they are caught in a lie, will back down or try to explain it away. Not this kid. I did everything short of calling him a liar to his face and he stood firm on his statement. It occurred to me that such a person could make an interesting character in a story.

  7. There is so much inspiration in the world around us all the time. That guy really give me the perception of a mercenary and the fun part is you could end up being right and you would never know.

  8. Timothy, maybe that kid believed his lie. Some people are so smooth at lying that they believe their own stories. The interesting thing about this kid is to wonder what kind of adult he’ll become.

  9. PW, you’re correct in that the guy we saw could have been a merc as well as the other characters I’d mentioned. I’ll never know, but it’s just as well! He probably wondered why I kept glancing his way everytime we passed each other on the ship.

  10. Two people I have met over the years stood out to me more than any others. Both were very unassuming men. Definitely not the Hollywood warrior types.

    One was a 46 year old Marine Staff Sergeant entering forced retirement. He had a penchant for exotic flowers and his barracks room was like a mini-jungle. Beautiful smells always emanated from his room and to sit in there and have tea with him and chat was like sitting at the feet of a sage. 5’5″, 140 lbs, lean and quiet. He’d left the Corps after 6 years (4 in Vietnam, 2 as DI), to please his wife who later divorced him anyway. He re-enlisted but had to start his career over (including re-doing boot camp) because too many years had lapsed. He told us tales of war and survival and gave advice that might keep us young guys alive when we found ourselves in those situations. By the time he retired has was the same rank he had been the first time he got out.

    The second guy came into the local VA where I was working on a copier in the Voc Rehab office. At the counter the thin and energetic bearded 40 something smiled in a genuinely friendly way and told the clerk, “I just retired from the Army and need some vocational training so I can get a civilian job.”

    “What did you do in the Army?” replied the clerk.

    “It doesn’t cross over into civilian life,” said the young retiree.

    “Oh you’d be surprised,” said the clerk. “Most military specialties translate nicely into civilian jobs.”

    “Not mine, trust me.”

    “We have to know your MOS before we can write up an education plan.”

    The man handed the clerk his DD214 (discharge form showing all previous jobs, training, deployments, and medals). I glanced over and noticed it was full, with a page of addendum attached. The clerk’s eyes widened and his mouth dropped open.

    The man’s smile faded to a peptic grin, “Eighteen Bravo,” he said. “I killed people. For twenty two years.”

    The clerk blinked a few times and opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out.

    “Now,” said the retired Special Forces sergeant forcing his face to smile again, “how ’bout some of that job training?”

    Both of these guys end up as portions of, or complete characters in my work.

  11. Basil, those truly are interesting men. Too bad the first veteran couldn’t resume his old rank when he reenlisted. As for the second guy, his background would be really cool for one of your characters.

  12. Timothy and Nancy,
    Those folks are known as Antisocial Personality Disorders – picks of the litter for villains.

    I’m so intrigued by what I’ve learned about psychiatric diagnoses in my worklife, and how our favorite villains of all time fit the mold for the perfect diagnostic criteria.

    There’s so much to choose from…

  13. This is such a fascinating topic & your observations are so interesting.

    And, yes, I have definitely pulled some future characters out of a crowd.


  14. A friend of mine from college: smart, witty, with that “bad boy” charisma the girls loved. Got suspended for a semester for “inciting a riot” following a hockey game; bummed around Europe in his time off. He ended up enlisting after graduating and did a tour in Iraq. Now he’s going for post-graduate education in my old hometown.

    I think there’s a slice of him in several characters of mine: the kids who are too smart to pay attention to their teachers, who get in trouble early on and who end up drifting the rest of their life. The rebels we can’t help but admire.

  15. Sadly many people I know think they are the inspiration for my characters:) seriously I love overhearing conversations at restaurants – couples meeting for their first date provide many, many ideas…not all of them happy! Airplanes and airports also provide opportunities to see people at their worst which I find inspiring for characters – both the victims and the murderers!

  16. Clare, I love eavesdropping on conversations, too. Hearing a woman sobbing on her cell phone in a hotel corridor one night inspired my story for Perish by Pedicure. Thanks John, Brenda, and Paula for adding your comments.

  17. In one short story I threw in a bunch of Ozarks-style obscenities gleaned from my husband in a scene where the men were hanging out and playing cards.

    A reviewer just had kittens. She was practically sobbing when she said that she didn’t believe that married men could actually talk like that.

    A 100-word flasher was based on a story a Marine told my brother at the bar in Vietnam.

    Stories and characters are everywhere.

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