A common question I get asked is, “that’s me, right?” and the person asking points to a character in one of my stories. The answer is usually no.
While I’ve encountered a bunch of interesting people (interesting in both senses of the word, interesting fun and interesting weird), it’s hard to incorporate them into a story. The fictional situations I create don’t lend themselves to incorporating real people. I’d be shoehorning someone’s personality into a situation that doesn’t fit. What makes someone funny, scary, threatening or endearing in real life rarely translates well to the written page. Well, in my case, anyway.
I heard Lee Child tell how he incorporated all the people who fired him into his Jack Reacher books, by turning them into bad guys that Reacher kills off. I think that’s why businesses now have exit interviews…
Another reason I don’t lift people’s characters and put them into stories is because people might not like it. Although a lot of people want to be immortalized in print, there are those that don’t because the subject matter isn’t complimentary or pleasant.
I wrote a horror story about a woman’s compulsion with losing weight. It’s a dark and uncomfortable piece and has been published a number of times. A lady I worked with read it and kept challenging me about the story. Was the protagonist based on her? It wasn’t. The story was written three years before I met her. This is the last thing I want to do. I don’t want to take someone’s personal life and make fiction of it, because I wouldn’t like it if it were me used in the story. So I do have a strong reason for not putting people in my stories.
The only thing I do steal is names. I hate coming up with character names. They always come off fake sounding, so I like real life names. I steal interesting names from my friends and acquaintances and put them into the story. And I use only their name. I don’t use their physical description or anything. It’s the name I’m interested in. Some names look good on the page. Others conjure an image in my head. So beware. If you have a neat name, I’m gonna steal it.
So, if people I’ve encountered in my life aren’t the characters in my stories, then who are? The truth is—me! I’m the basis for all the characters you read on the page.. I’m the protagonist, the antagonist, the sidekick, the femme fatal, the thug, the hero. The whole motley crew. I get to thinking about my characters, their situations, background, etc. and I take on their personas. I’ll sit there and I wonder to myself…if was a complete bastard, what would I do, how would I do it, how dangerous would I be? I apply the same process to the good guy and all the other characters. I must admit I get quite carried away (and I will get carried away if I don’t shake the character out of me at the end of the writing day). If I’m writing a scene from a particular character’s point of view, I do have to take a five-minute break when I switch to another character’s scene to enable me to swap mindsets.
The results can be quite startling. For Working Stiffs, I wrote a particularly nasty intimidation scene. I was quite shocked at the result on the page. From the story’s point of view, it was great. From a personal point of view, I’d created a nasty person and all based on—if I were him, what would I do? I chose not to break for the following scene. It was a remorse scene and I wrote exactly how I felt after the intimidation scene. It was very personal and satisfying. These things can only come from within and not from watching others.
So if ever you wonder if the character you’re reading in one of my books is you, the answer’s no. It’s me. They’re all me. Now isn’t that a scary thought?
Isn’t that true of most of us? We use our writing to expel our demons and to encourage our angels.
Re: using other people in my stories — I like subtle revenge. In CLOVIS, the FBI agent became a creep because when I interviewed a real FBI guy, he was coy and patronizing. The character isn’t HIM, but because of the real agent’s attitude, I was inspired to create that character’s unpleasant side.
In BELEN, I named an incompetent business after someone who’d been a particularly horrid person with whom to work. That was quite satisfying.
No, really . . . I’m generally quite sweet.
Well, Simon, I have to say…I *do* use real people. Funny thing is, they never seem to recognize themselves – and if I told them, they’d think I was kidding.
In my diet club mysteries, Ellie’s ex [Tony] is my first husband.
When I separated from my sleazy third husband, the last thing he said to me was, “I bet I show up as a corpse in one of your books.” His name was James Wiley. The corpse in FOOTPRINTS IN THE BUTTER is Wiley Jamestone.
And I used one of my restaurant managers in BEAT UP A COOKIE. The restaurant manager was cheating on his wife and my vic was…cheating on his wife. I used the manager’s name, too. Someone said, “Won’t he sue?” I replied, “Nah. He’s illiterate.”
I just got my panel assignment for Bouchercon. Guess what it is?
“I’M NOT MY CHARACTER! Am I?”
Someone must be reading this thing…
Simon,When my mom proofread my book for me (which was about a girl and her mother) she wrote in the margin, “I am not like this.” 🙂
So who else is on your panel, Simon?
And how about you, Deni?
Panel: I’M NOT MY CHARACTER! Am I?
The panelists are: Mike Abrams, Chester Campbell, Barbara Fradkin, JuliaPomeroy, and Simon Wood. Barbara Fradkin is the moderator.
Day and time: Saturday, September 30, 2006 at 2:30 pm.
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