While attending Malice Domestic in Bethesda, MD last month, I overheard a small group of authors gathered in the hotel bar discussing the issue of whether family members or friends thought a character was actually a portrayal of them. It seemed each had a story to share. One author’s sister felt a character was based on her. The author, however, stated the two–the sister and the character in question–had very little in common. The sister had picked up on one particular behavior and, from that point, assumed the entire character was based on her. It caused a bit of a family kerfuffle.
A quick online query about the topic will reveal many writers discussing how someone–a loved one, a friend, a colleague– believes a character is based on her and is unhappy about it, even when the author assures her it just isn’t so.
That’s not to say that certain authors haven’t based characters on real people–it happens all the time and often the author will reveal that information outright. After all, Anne Lamott once wrote, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” That said, this topic becomes further complicated when the book is a work of fiction and no intent to base a character on a real person was made. So, what happens when someone in your circle believes a character–one with one or more negative traits– is based on her?
If the character is a benevolent superhero with skills that put all around her to shame, letting your aunt/sister/friend claim that character as a portrayal is no issue. Let her enjoy the idea. However, what if the character is difficult, angry or passive-aggressive? How does an author help those around her understand that it is indeed a work of fiction?
While I can’t speak about the experiences of other authors, as they are as vast and layered as the works in our genre, I can share my general thought process when writing fiction. If this post helps neutralize a heated conversation, I’m happy to help.
I tend to be drawn to the dynamics between people, to specific conversations, to behavior and to moments in time. I might take one particular spark–a discussion, an encounter–and run with it. The result may be a compilation of my own experiences with several people over a long period of time, and I find that my characters take those behaviors and use them for their own purposes. No one in any of my work represents any one person. However, one person may have traits from several people or have experiences from several people all wrapped up in that one person. That’s a pretty wide net. After all, each one of us can be angry, difficult, funny, sarcastic or rude at any given time. Each one of us may have experienced the shattering loss of a parent, the sharp tongue of a hostile work colleague, the exhaustion of a demanding career. It doesn’t mean a character with those traits or experiences is based on a real person.
Each writer brings to her work a culmination of experiences, heartbreaks, conversations and issues and those tiny threads are bound to weave themselves in the story somehow.
But not in the way others might believe.
My primary purpose is to encourage the reader to care about the characters and what happens to them. That is my goal. Creating characters based on real people isn’t part of my process. I may appreciate how one friend handles difficult conversations while another friend’s compassion with animals makes me smile, but that doesn’t mean those same people show up in my work. The particular behavior or personality trait might but that is only because it belongs to the character. That’s where it ends.
Writers study the world around them, taking note of interactions and exchanges, tucking them away in the hopes they might be useful in a story one day. What happens next is complete fiction, and isn’t that one of the best things about being a mystery writer?