Writing Templates

For as long as I can remember I’ve always modeled the characters in my stories after particular actors or actresses that struck my fancy.  Sometimes an entire story would suggest itself to me when I watched a given performance of my favorite actors.  Not exactly a retelling of the thing I saw them in, but a variation.

Quilting: The Ultimate Template

For some reason a little voice at the back of my head has always considered this cheating.  Are you really creating an original character if you’re modeling them off of somebody else?

Imagine my surprise the other week when I finished reading Eloisa James’ novella Winning the Wallflower and there in her notes after the story she mentioned that some of her characters in this latest series were based off of House and Forest Gump!  Wait a minute, maybe I’m not the only person who does this.

In fact, I already knew that I wasn’t.  Last year while attending a writing workshop taught by Jenni Holbrook she mentioned that she uses what she called “templates” to create her characters.

I love this idea of templates.  Templates exist everywhere, from Word documents to architecture to fashion design.  All sorts of industries start with one thing and make it into something else.  I’ve always worried that there is a sort of plagiarism in the way I have become enamored of a character and then taken them out of their original setting and made them into something else.

Take, for example, the character Danny in my Grace’s Moon sci-fi series.  I’m not gonna lie.  That character started out as Ben Linus from Lost.  Yes, creepy Ben Linus.  But I love Ben.  I loved Ben from the moment he first appeared on the screen.  Probably because Michael Emerson is an amazing actor and as someone with a master’s degree in theater I know acting and I appreciate it when I see someone who does it well.

But those of you who watched Lost know that Ben was a nasty little man, manipulating things behind the scenes, ruthless in his pursuit of what he wanted, dedicated to The Island, and at the same time tragic in everything that life had thrown his way.  There is no way that character is ever going to be considered a hero.  But as I said, I love him and I wanted him to get his moment in the sun.

I wanted it so badly that I created Danny.

Now Danny is not Ben.  There are some fundamental differences in everything they stand for and the way they act on it.  But the essence of what spawned Danny began in Ben Linus.  That’s what a template means to me.  I saw something I liked in a package I found attractive and morphed it into a whole new character.

I did the same thing with Crispin from my novel The Loyal Heart.  Crispin started off as Richard Armitage.  I saw a couple of episodes of the BBC Robin Hood TV series he was in and spun it out in my imagination in an entirely different way.  Throw in about four other versions of the Robin Hood legend, A Knight’s Tale, Shakespeare in Love, one of my favorite childhood novels, a dash of The Princess Bride, and the actual history of the time period and voila!  An entire Medieval trilogy.  But it all started because I think Richard Armitage is the sexiest man on the planet.

I think people do this with more than just characters.  We’ve all heard that old saying that there are no original stories.  So in essence every story out there is based off of a template.  In Romance these days there seems to be a trend of basing stories off of fairy tales.  And why not?  There is very little difference between a fairy tale and a romance novel.  Girl meets boy, obstacle gets in the way, girl marries boy.  It’s a template.

I do like to use celebrities and other well-known people (and a few people I know in real life) as my character templates though.  It’s fun to throw together really odd pairings.  I think I mentioned before in a post about Character Pics that the aforementioned Michael Emerson has been the template for more heroes in my novels than any other man (with Richard Armitage a close second – now how’s that for two entirely different men!).  Well, in my very soon to be published novel Our Little Secrets Michael Emerson is indeed the template for the character Michael.  And as you can see, I am not at all subtle about it.  And guess who the template for my heroine is?  Zooey Deschanel.  Now seriously.  Who in their right mind would ever think of putting those two together in a romantic situation?  That would be me.

So who else here uses templates for their characters?  And who do you use?  I’m dying to know which celebs out there are getting the most action in the imaginations of the writers of the world.

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5 thoughts on “Writing Templates

  1. I put all of the really irritating people in my life into a murder mystery. Not sure who I will use for the victims in the next one… ; )

  2. I think everyone uses templates (whether they know it or admit to it). Even if it’s just the smallest piece of someone we know or an actor or character that interests us.

    The fiction series I’m doing on my blog has character interviews, and one of the characters looks like Richard Armitage, and has his voice. His mannerisms may not be any one character the actor plays, but having his voice in my head when writing his dialogue makes it easier to make him sound right. (particularly since the character is British, and I am not 🙂 )

    My WIP currently has a male character “played by” Craig Bierko and Robert Downey Jr. 🙂

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  4. While I do believe that many original characters have their basis in either real people or characters, I feel like it’s often better to choose one or two particular traits and evolve the character from that. Anything more, and you run the risk of confusing your readers with the original character. Honestly, this is the case with your Crispin. For someone who is familiar with BBC Robin Hood, they will see your character as being Guy of Gisborne, and your novel as simply fanfiction. I don’t mean to offend you here, but having read the sample, I became confused between your scenes and the scenes from the BBC show (for example, your fight between the bandit and Crispin was VERY similar to the scene from the episode “Turk Flu,” where Guy and the Nightwatchman fight.)

    There are far too many of these similarities, some of which were unique to the BBC show. The name Crispin, for example, might be Richard Armitage’s middle name, but it was also used as Guy of Gisborne’s middle name (see the final episode of season one.) This links it directly to the show. Your character is tall, dark, has blue eyes, wears dark clothing, there’s a wolf’s head motif, a deep voice and is the second-in-command baddie. The BBC version of Guy can be described as exactly the same.

    Frankly, this may also hurt your novel sales, too. Fans of the BBC show – specifically those who typically enjoy the Robin Hood legend – will have heard this story before. It becomes a thing of “why pay for this, when I can get all the Guy/Marian fanfiction I want for free at AO3, fanfic.net or livejournal?”

    Again, I don’t mean to offend here, but you may want to be careful with your “templating” in the future; else, you may end up with very confused readers who will consider your work not original…

    • Don’t worry, I’m not offended at all. And yeah, in the last week or so a lot of people have been bringing these similarities to my attention. I managed to get my hands on a full copy of the series and started watching it and I can really see peoples’ point. It’s a little bit frustrating and discouraging. I’ve been punishing myself with self-doubt, wondering if I was more influenced by the show than I thought.

      The funny thing is, the bits that inspired me from Robin Hood are only a tiny part of a much bigger story that has its influences in so many other things. I’m getting the impression that there might be a group of BBC Robin Hood fans out there discussing the book from that angle only, on the hunt for similarities without considering the rest of the story. It’s an understandable bias though. I’m sure if someone wrote a novel that had striking similarities to one of my favorite TV shows, Lost, I would notice those details everywhere. And on the other side of the coin, from what I have seen so far the BBC Robin Hood was hardly original. Every other romance novel you can read has a tall hero with black hair and blue eyes with a deep voice, an eccentric villan, and a feisty heroine. It’s a genre standard.

      I guess my hope for The Loyal Heart, and the rest of the trilogy, is that people take it for what it is: a medieval romance that reflects the Robin Hood legend but is more focused on revealing the true history of the time period instead of the falsified version that most modern people seem to have. That was the journey I set out on when I began writing the story.

      Thanks so much for your input! 🙂

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