Over our future lifetime of writing, we'll need lots and lots of them. They need to be unique—or at least uniquely different from each other—and detailed enough to not seem like cardboard cut-outs. As we write our story and they develop multi-faceted personalities, they’ll be more real to us, and more appealing to our future readers. When one of our more beloved characters bites the dust, it should not only break the hearts of the strangers who buy our book, but our own, as well.
So how about if there are already "characters" we feel strongly about from the get-go?
Almost all of us had childhood friends who will always live in our hearts, our minds, and the scars from those inevitable friendly dares (Oh yeah? Bet you can't jump from this step to that one way over there without falling!). Some of them, we love dearly, others we barely remember, and a few make us wonder, What on earth was I thinking?! But they all contributed to helping us discover who we were and who we were going to become, and how to deal with our kid-world—a place separate and distinctly different from the grown-up world, with its own set of rules and hierarchies.
So why waste all those experiences?
Surely there’s a place in one of your short stories—or one of the many brilliant novels you will eventually write—for little 8-year-old Eugene, who liked to eat the erasers off the ends of his pencils, and had glasses so big they made his eyes look like bugs under a magnifying glass, when they weren’t sliding down his nose. You remember Eugene. How, the only way you knew if he was lying was if he opened his mouth. The cute-as-a-button story-maker-upper who could have blueberry pie smeared all over his face, yet would still insist the dog ate it. And who grew to be … 14-year-old Eugene (who at that point desperately longed for a cool nickname like Geno or Flash or Elf Lord)—small for his age, a magnet for pimples, and still covered with blueberry while insisting the dog ate it. Yeah, that Eugene. Or Leon. Or Richard, or whatever his name was. If you need a child or teen character, there he is. Or was.
Or maybe you need a backstory to explain the personality of a new character who is, say, a Congressman. Who better than Eugene, with his penchant for foisting blame off on others, while telling utterly transparent lies? There ya go.
If you stop to think, there are so many people you grew up around but haven’t thought about in years or decades. Most of them, familiar to all of us who write.
The bratty little sister of … well, whoever … who followed along after you and your gang of pals like a stalker and sprang out to declare, “I’m telling!” when you all did whatever it was that you weren’t supposed to be doing. She was just begging to someday become “The Character Who Saw Something She Wasn’t Supposed To See.” And, as we all know, good things do not happen to that character.
Your best friend from third grade, who shared sleepovers and dribbly Sloppy Joes and deep dark secrets with you, then moved away over the summer … the neighborhood bully who could take your coolest stuff away just by sticking out his hand and saying, “Gimme” … your first crush, Eric, who sat in front of you in 7th grade English without ever noticing you existed, until he freaked out when he saw that you wrote “Eric + Me” in a heart on your book bag … the 12-year-old red-headed twin girls who were always together and for some strange reason never liked you (surely it wasn’t because you found them creepy and thus gave them the nickname of The Twins From The Shining, which stuck right through high school) …
Oh, wait. Those are my memories.
Well, you get the idea.
And don’t forget the grown-ups from your past. The little old lady all the kids were sure was a witch (According to The U.S. Census, there’s one of those in every single neighborhood in America. Okay, I’m making that up. But to imaginative kids, any unfriendly, grey-haired lady might be making kid-stew in her crock pot). The cranky ice cream truck guy who obviously did not plan on being the ice cream truck guy back when he went to college and studied Liberal Arts, and really, really HATES KIDS. The writer-lady who used to come into the local library every single day one summer and then suddenly stopped. Kid theories abounded. (She was kidnapped! No, murdered! Um … Abducted by aliens?)
See … in everyone’s childhood, future characters were everywhere.
So when you’re in dire need of a best friend for your hero, a creepy serial killer, a partner for your police detective (and we all know the cop partner might as well be wearing a red Star Trek shirt, since he's doomed), an adorable little kidnap victim who must be rescued, a chatty-but-odd suspect who may or may not have done it …
Spend some time in your past.
There’s a vast supply of people back in your early years just waiting to be plucked from your memories and slightly re-arranged—a name change, maybe trade a habit from this old friend to that one, or your former high school hottie no longer has dark hair but is now platinum blonde, etc. Wouldn’t want to get sued if someone recognizes him/herself.
Oh, and don’t forget that hateful high school gym teacher who made you feel like a wimpy loser just because you couldn’t climb the stupid rope. You know you had many dark, vengeful fantasies about him. Don’t lie. He’ll be a perfect character, when you someday write the screenplay for Saw XII.