One of the most common pieces of writing advice out there is ‘write what you know’. I’m going to go off on a tangent from that concept to discuss writing who you know.
In reviews of DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT, there are always comments about the main characters, Trooper Leigh Abbott and Dr. Matt Lowell, and the chemistry they share. But the second most frequent comment is about the book’s secondary characters.
The book is true to the teacher/student relationship. I love the way Matt taught his students, trusting them and respecting them but also protecting them where he needed to. As a teacher, I can say it felt...right, to me. I liked that none of the relationships fell back on stereotypes.
There is a dynamic cast of secondary characters that add depth and humor to the storyline.
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about J.D. Robb’s ‘In Death’ series is the large cast of secondary characters that surround the leads and how those characters were given time to grow and develop, and sometimes earn substantial storylines of their own. I always wanted to have that kind of feel within the Abbot and Lowell Forensic Mysteries series.
As a bench scientist for more than 20 years, I’ve had students come and go from our lab. Some passed through quietly, but a number of them made strong impressions on me. When it came to developing characters to back up forensic anthropologist Dr. Matt Lowell, I took advantage of being able to write the characters I knew.
Take Matt’s senior graduate student – Akiko Niigata, or Kiko as she is usually called. Without a doubt, Kiko is the fictional version of one of my best grad students, Vera. Like Vera, she is strong, has a wicked sense of humour, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, is skilled in martial arts, and is a fantastic artist. We always used to tell Vera that she needed to find a way to combine her dual skills in science and the arts, perhaps by illustrating textbooks or journal articles. In Kiko, we have an osteologist and forensic anthropologist-in-training who uses her artistic skills to offer accurate crime scenes sketches for the team, and to provide 2D and 3D skull reconstructions of victims. The name I gave this character is also an inside joke, and my labmates from that time will remember exactly who the infamous Akiko is.
Some grad students in the fictional series are a compilation of past real-life students. Another successful Ph.D. student, Dusan, provides character Paul Layne with his sense of humour and ability to ‘stir the pot’ (especially with the girls in the lab).
The relationship that Matt has with his grad students is really the relationship that I enjoyed with mine. Adults in their own right, these were skilled young men and women who had give-and-take relationships with their trainers, and that aspect is reflected in these characters. The grad students in the series bring their own individual skills to the group, and it’s the combined talents of the two leads and the three students that truly make the team successful in their investigations.
Writing who you know has the advantages of grounding characters in your head and giving you a spring board. While you won’t write your characters exactly as you know real people in your life, you can take aspects of their personalities that strike you as quirky, stubborn or resiliant, and build those into your fictional characters. This isn’t cheating; it’s using the world around you to your advantage. If you’re having trouble finding dynamic characters to write about, instead of falling back on familiar tropes, trying drawing from your own life experiences. You may be pleasantly surprised by how real your characters will seem, and how they will jump off the page for both you and your readers.