The sources that inspire characters are as varied as the characters themselves.
A lot will depend on the setting you have chosen and the period.
A demure young virgin might fit better into a Victorian drama, than into a racy modern rom-com but there is a need for caution in all eras. We have all heard of film-makers that have been caught out when a modern aeroplane has been captured by the camera during filming of a war scene. Similarly, we must not dress our Elizabethan heroine in denim or mention anyone going to a nail-bar or contacting a friend on Whats-App before these became available, so set dates carefully.
Characters in books, films, catalogues, magazines and other media can be an inspiration to us. Sometimes we think ‘Yes, that’s how I imagine my character would look’, as we watch a shampoo advert or browse garden furniture.
We can question what we see in a picture. Did our great grandparents ever smile? Were their children always as sombre as the sepia picture suggests? Does our version of ET have more than one head? Does he speak in a mechanical voice? Is he dressed in the fashion of Planet Splash or is he trying to blend in with the Earthlings?
We are not going to use the real picture, of course, but it can help us to add detail. Would she have her hair cut in that style? Has he got a bald patch that can only be seen when he bends over?
It’s good to keep the picture, if possible, for reference. It brings the character to life in your mind, and raises questions. How would he look first thing in the morning? How would she look if she was frowning?
Consider body shape too. The petite girl who only came up to the hero’s shoulder in chapter one, wouldn’t be seen stretching out her long legs until her toes reached the end of the sun bed in chapter four.
Inspiration is all around us. What is the story behind the hunched old man who always sits alone in the same seat on the bus? Who is the beautiful young mother who rushes into the playground just before the bell goes? We don’t know their stories but we can build one for them.
In a short story, or especially in a poem, we can only describe a character briefly so we have to show the reader what we are seeing in a few, well-chosen words.
In a longer story or a novel, we have time to develop the characters more fully. We can look at their background, explore their traits more closely and watch them change as the story unfolds. Will she ever recover from that trauma? Can he really be trusted now we know his history?
Characters in today’s books seem to have moved away from the stereotypical goodie with flowing locks/baddie with a scarred cheek. They are not so easily defined. The reader looks for a more complex mix. Might the heroine be suffering from depression? Why has the hero got a slight squint in his right eye? We can also take time to explore their values, principles and the changes that occur as they interact with other characters and adapt to their influences. What will they be by the last page, more tolerant, more street-wise, more trusting? They live in the reader’s mind as you choose to portray them. What a responsibility but what an opportunity?