How many versions of tall, dark and handsome can there be?
How many can you write and not write him like Mr. X from that book, and Joe Cool in this book, and the small town sheriff in that one?
First off, I’m very visual in my head. Having a firm idea of what characters look like, dress like, sound like is essential. Of course, during the creation of character charts it is sooo tempting to include images of actors, because the hunky heartthrob flavor of the month was such a smooth talking bad ass in that one movie and your new leading man is going to be just like him. There is nothing at all wrong with using an actor/character as inspiration, but I do something a little different.
You see, just like this week's theme, if I have seen Mr. Hottie's movie, I am very likely to start writing my book's Mr. Hottie just like him. And, for me, that always ends up being a bad choice. Because when I need my character to do x, y, or z, he doesn't want to because Mr. Hottie wouldn't have done it that way and suddenly something feels off and lacks that sense of the genuine.
So, knowing this, I use magazines and modeling sites instead. This way, I get to assemble an assorted cast just as easily, without them brining any baggage with them.
Give it a try, and see what you do with your handsome blank slate.
DIFFERENTIATING IN A SERIES
In the Persephone books, I have two male leads, Johnny and Menessos. They have to be individuals, not polar opposites, but the best of different things. So sure, they're very different creatures (werewolf vs vampire), their have different in hair color (black vs pale brown and curly), facial hair (clean shaven vs light beard--really how many vampires can pull that off?), height (6’2 vs 5’11) and other physical things (tattoos and lean muscular build vs. unmarked skin and more average/fit physique).
But it takes more than descriptors to give them life on the page, to make them unique.
Therefore, Johnny’s speech patterns are short and direct. “Yup.” Whereas Menessos has a huge lexicon of brainy, multisyllabic words and when he talks there is often much more said than his words reveal—if you know what to listen for. “Of course, dear Persephone, as always, your quick mind has come to the correct answer.” Yes, he’s wordy. He’s a vampire. He has all the time in the world to say things.
REAL PEOPLE (as opposed to actors playing characters)
The male leads mentioned above are not based on people I know.
The supporting cast of the series, though, has many who are. It gets trickier when filling in the world around our main characters. With six books in the series and over a hundred walk-ons/miscellaneous people, how do I keep them from getting stale or being cookie-cutter stereotypes?
Here is where real life gets to inspires me. I admit it: Nana is a conglomeration of my mom, my aunts, and all my mom’s friends. (And I want to do a trilogy on her younger days…) Those women, especially my mom, have experienced real hardships, real life for decades more than me. Of course I draw on what I know of them to make an older woman breathe on the page and show her grit. I've seen it in them.
What about people you don't know? Yes. I saw an oddball on some reality show I was forced to watch. (I must've lost a bet or something.) Instead of being bored by the utterly predictable amped up false drama going on, I start watching for mannerisms, tics and how the person walks, talks, and dresses. Then the imagination comes in. What do I imagine their sensibilities to be? What if this other thing had happened to change the course of their life and instead of going shoeless in a swamp this person wore a 3 piece suit every day…
NOW I’m on to something interesting. And yes, that is pretty much how the character of Jacques Lippencott Plympton was born. Inspired by an eccentric and grungy backwoods loner, my creation was a highly regarded werewolf negotiator who was quick-witted, sneaky, aware of deep layers of spies and intrigue in the upper eschelon of werewolves, and he happened to have a blind eye—a voodoun priestess tried to kill the wolf in him by pouring molten silver on his eye. (Oh, how I want to do a spin off on him!!!!)
You see, all around you are real, living breathing people with quirks and idiosyncrasies that make them interesting…and annoying…and wonderful. If you’re stuck at the airport, get your nose out of that damn device and look. You went shopping with your sister and she’s trying on everything in the store? Notice other people. You’re sitting on the sideline during a kid’s sport game? See them, their parents. Listen.
You adore this new actor and have to write about him-go ahead, but make something about his character you give him so unlike the one in his latest Hollywood hit. Give him your ex boyfriend's worst personality quirk--because you know how it will irritate your heroine. Give him your dad's favorite sport because it is also your heroine's. Give him your brother's love of pizza because your heroine owns a pizza shop. And give him the softest whisper and that little boy vulnerability you dream Mr. Hottie has because that will keep you writing about him.
You are a writer. See and hear what is around you. People are infinitely different. There is no reason any two characters should be too similar.
So get out there and make your Frankenstein with pieces of this one and that one until he's perfect.