Monday, March 23, 2009

Making It Personal

Question of the day: I am currently working on my second MS (the first one I should have thrown in the garbage and never sent out) and it's not an autobiographical story, but that being said, there are many behaviors and characteristics that come up that I put into my characters (positive and negative) that may be recognizable to friends or family in my life, as I collectively draw upon all the people I’ve encountered throughout my life to come up with each character. I was wondering how you deal with this as an author. While you don't write stories that are autobiographical, I'm assuming that you draw upon people you have met or even know intimately. (or maybe you don't and in that case, what is your process for character-building?) Do you fret over offending anyone in your life, or worry that they may read more into a character than you intended? I struggle with letting go as an artist and being completely authentic and sometimes find myself toning a character down to not offend someone in my life – present or past.

This is a great, great, great question, and I hope that I can answer it adequately, because truthfully, I'm not sure if I have the correct answer to this. If not, I hope that others will chime in with their own thoughts.

To begin with, do I base characters on people I know? Not really. (Which is part of why answering this is a little tricky.) I've said this before, but for me, to really delve into a fictional world, I need to have entirely made-up characters, so if I'm thinking of someone from my real life, it sort of muddies my creative waters. I do sort of get a kick out of the fact that I'm certain that there are some exes out there who think that Time of My Life is probably a lamenting love letter to them or something (sort of like Carly Simon's You're So Vain), but I'd just never do that. Like in The Department, how everyone assumed that the exes she tracked down were MY exes. Ahem. No.

But have I cribbed behaviors for characters? Well, sure, because part of what we do as authors is observe human behavior and find a way to translate that onto a page. I've found that for the most part, if it's a positive behavior that you're mimicking, the person in question is sort of tickled to have made it into the book (and to have left such a positive impression that they DID make it into the book). And if it's a negative behavior? Well, a few things. One, if possible, handle it with a bit of humor. While I've often said that Henry in Time of My Life isn't based on my husband (at all), sure, does my husband leave his glasses in the sink instead of the dishwasher (one of Henry's habits)? Absolutely. But he knows that this habit drives me bananas, and it's almost sort of funny (you know, if it didn't drive me crazy), and no one was harmed in the writing.

If it's a more negative attribute than that? Well, what I'd likely do is ascribe the nasty behavior to a different character than the one from your real life. So, if your mother has very specific passive aggressive tendencies, well, then I wouldn't write a fictitious mother with these same tendencies. Give them to someone else in the book, if possible. OR, make her passive-aggressive but in a very different way than your own mother is. Maybe yours operates by preying on guilt, but your fictional one could operate by fear of having her children leave her behind. I don't know, I'm just ruminating.

Do I let this hamper my writing? Well, again, it's a lot easier for me to spin characters from thin air than modify a real-life person to make him/her fictitious, but if I truly thought something might be offensive to someone who was important to me, then I probably wouldn't do it. I don't kid myself that I'm writing Pulitzer Prize winning stuff, and while yeah, I do like to "honor the writing process," (in quotes because it sounds so pretentious), I also believe that there are usually several ways of writing something (at least for me and in my genre). If the mother in your book needs to be reprehensible, find a different way to make her so than your own mother or consider another tactic, another ploy to get your character where she needs to go. Once it's on the page (and published), you can't take it back, and in my opinion, you don't want any lingering doubts about what is going to be read by thousands of people. So if you're unsure, try writing it a different way, and you might be surprised by what you find.

But I'm curious to hear what others say on do you handle personal touches from your real life?


Amy Sue Nathan said...

I think the key is, like you said, to mix it up. If a character has a positive attribute of your real life friend, but also a positive attribute of yours and a few that you wish you had but don't, no one will see him or herself completely -- simply because they can't -- it's fiction. People sometimes are looking for themselves in books by people they know. You can't stop that, unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

I never let reality get in the way of fictionalizing.

Trish Ryan said...

I write things as they come to me (and with nonfiction, I'm always writing about real people). But with each edit, I try to be a little stricter with myself, asking, "Is this more mean than funny?" and "How am I going to feel when this person friends me on Facebook?"

It's sort of like writing those angry letters to vent when someone has done you wrong: you don't send THAT letter, but maybe writing it helps you get to a letter you can send.

Unknown said...

I draw on my life for words and places but never people. That said, I bet I have plenty of friends and casual acquaintances who would or will point to a character of mine and say "Hey, that's me!" Whatever you do, some people will find themselves in the people you made up.

Other than that, I can only echo what the smart writers here have already said -- don't take a whole person from reality and put them in your novel, but if you're looking for traits to make your main character's best friend more interesting, you can certainly consider putting together one friend's addiction to Oreos with another friend's tendency to make a big deal out of little things and make a composite character as a starting point. Then as the book develops you'll customize her more to serve the story, and you may leave the drawn-from-life starting point behind.