You know how it goes: you meet an interesting person, you spend time with the person, you learn more about the person’s personality, and sooner or later you realize this person would make a great character in your current Great-American-Novel-wannabe.
Fair enough. So you write the person into your story (not forgetting a disclaimer at the beginning: “any resemblance to real persons, living or deal, is purely coincidental”). Cool stuff, you think. Drawing from nature gives an authentic, realistic twist to the character, to his actions, to his dialogue; he won’t be a two-dimensional stereotype! Huzzah!
Have you ever met a real-life person you’ve already written as a character?
A lot of the time, it’s just physical appearance. You’re walking through the mall, the airport, the art museum (particularly conducive to wistful pondering), and you see someone. Perhaps it’s a woman with long dark curls and a red scarf. Perhaps it’s a string-bean of a boy with a look of bubbling-over enthusiasm. Perhaps it’s a small child, of sobering countenance and an already-furrowed brow. You don’t think anything of it at first, and you continue with your shopping or pondering or what have you. After a moment, though, you take a double look. Maybe your main character’s mom has hair like that. Maybe your main character’s girlfriend’s kid brother loves flying, too. Whatever it is, the image has been cemented in your mental character photo album, and you go home with a smile curling around your lips, as you silently thank that complete stranger for validating your character’s existence, giving him a physical reality as well as a mental.
Sometimes, though, it’s the full character. It’s the person’s laugh and the person’s smile. It’s the way the person walks and his turns of phrase and his aversion to tuna — or loud noises — or leather couches. What you will. And you can study the person, listen to his tone of voice, watch his facial expressions, note his reactions in different situations, and laugh inwardly as you realize that is exactly how your character would act.
Life is stranger than fiction, they say. Life imitates art. It’s one thing to observe the world around us taking on characteristics of our representations of the past world … but to meet someone and realize this person looks, acts, speaks, and thinks just like one of your brain children is, perhaps, one of the strangest deja-vu feelings ever. But no matter how tempted you are to tell the person, “You’re just like my character!” — better not. I’m guessing the character would be embarrassed for you.