Creating Characters: Use the Family

By Michael Schilf · June 10, 2010

My uncle spent two years in a Texas penitentiary for stealing a cab with a butter knife, driving it to a whorehouse, only to get pulled over later for a DUI. When he was in prison and someone asked him what he was in for, he would just say, “I gave crime a bad name.” This is a true story.

The same guy lived in a motel room for twenty years because it had a view, once asked his mother in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner if she arrived on a spaceship, and counseled me on the dangers of drugs, yet had a heart attack – TWICE – from snorting cocaine. I love my uncle, and even when he arrived at his own mother’s funeral in ripped jeans, a flannel shirt and a mini-Igloo cooler filled with Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, I still loved him, because despite all his eccentricities, he has a gentle heart, he’s grizzled yet insecure, and he’s smart. But he’s also a dead-beat dad and an alcoholic.

This is a real guy and a tremendous character, one we would love and hate, hope and fear for – no research required. So before you dive into creating characters from thin air, try taking a closer look at your own family. You may discover you already have a diamond in the rough.