The Great Character Co-opt

JT Ellisoncoming to you from a beachside tavern in sunny central Florida…

I’m away this week, celebrating a most blessed event. My parents have been married fifty years today. FIFTY years! Can you imagine being with the same person for the vast majority of your life? (I can, but I’m lucky.) What an amazing example they’ve been to me, both in life and in love. Thanks, guys!

I love creating characters. They come from within and without. Today I’d like to talk about the characters that are inspired by people you may meet — the ones with personalities, looks, language abilities (or lack thereof), even smells — the strangers who flit through our lives. How many have you come across who are so striking you feel compelled to co-opt them directly into your manuscript?

Simon had a great post a while back about people’s hidden superpowers. I said at the time that I had none. Since I’ve had time to think more about it, I realize that my secret superpower is to be in situations where strangers feel it necessary to share their innermost secrets with me. I also seem to attract people very different from myself. I’ve always seen that as a blessing. Now that I’m writing full time, it’s a bit deeper than that.

I’ve had two of these run-ins this week alone. It got me thinking about the effect these chance meetings have on my writing, and the simple fact is I co-opt these people, fictionalize them and slap them into my books or shorts.

The first was a woman, late forties, bleached blond hair in a Farrah flip, lots of make-up. That was my first impression. I watched her stand in front of a mirror, a large make-up bag at the ready, reapplying another layer of foundation. She moved on to her lips, then refreshed her eyeshadow and mascara. She turned to me and I thought she looked a bit like a Kewpie doll, all dressed up and nowhere to go.

I was getting a pedi, in preparation for this trip. She came and sat next to me, shoulders slumped. She dunked her feet into the water and I noticed her wedding band, on her third finger. I saw the veins running under her nearly translucent skin, blue and sluggish, and realized she was terribly thin. And pale. She spoke in a whisper, telling the tech that she’d just left the hospital. There was a problem with her heart. They didn’t know what it was. She talked about the tests, the uncertainty, how very alone she felt.

She was in the shop the entire time I was there, and I overheard most of her story. Her husband was cheating on her and had just filed for divorce. A sister was dumping problems on her which seemed like minutiae compared with possible congestive heart failure. She felt taken advantage of by everyone in her life, was complaining bitterly about how bad things were. I started to wonder if perhaps she just had a broken heart, a real live broken heart.

Snip. She went directly into the mental tertiary database.

The second was as disturbing, but in a different way. Hubby and I went out to breakfast on Sunday. Our usual spot had a long line, so we went to a different place, a same name chain store two exits up the highway. We took a seat at the counter, ordered our cheesy eggs, and I started looking around. The non-smoking section was made up of an amalgamation of typical middle Tennessee — a middle aged woman in capris, with a Coach bag and fine highlights; an interior designer meeting with a client; two young couples: one with two adorable little boys dressed in madras pants and polo shirts with the collar up, the other childless, faces pinched at the noise.

The smoking section was more ethnically oriented, with several Hispanics and African-Americans sitting along a low counter. Smack dab in the middle of the line-up was a skinhead and his woman. And I’m not talking about some wanna-be young kid trying to look cool, this guy was the real deal — Aryan Nation, prison tats all over him, two giant swastikas on his neck, and a "White Power" T-shirt. And he was yapping. Loudly. Rudely. Enough that the poor African-American waitress behind the counter burned four waffles in a row because she was blinded by tears at the outrageous goings-on. The rest of the folks gamely ignored him, and left quickly. There was one man, with a doo-rag and tattoos so thick on each arm that no flesh showed, sitting with his son, who engaged in a friendly battle of intellectualism with this asshole, but the rest of us sat stiffly, not knowing what to do. To be perfectly honest, I wanted to go tell the skinhead what a jerk he was, but I was afraid. My God, this guy could snap my neck with a single hand. And isn’t that where the problem lies? They can have power, and control, through intimidation alone. What kind of power is that?

But when I put him in the book, and create a scenario around him, my tough as nails cop can engage him. Physically. I’m looking forward to meting out some fictional justice in honor of the innocent people sharing my brunch. Maybe I’ll dissect what made him who he is, how he came to be on that path, search for a reason. Maybe I’ll let him be a stereotype; that’s certainly how I reacted to him in person. Hmm. Maybe I’ll be the one with the power in the end.

I can’t help but steal these strange souls for my tertiary characters. I don’t know who influenced me, but I’ve always felt that it’s vital to a story to make every character count. If they are going to exist in my pages, they need to have worth, big or small. Characters can be drawn with simple strokes or complex explanations. I do a little of both depending on what the scenario calls for.

Do you have a favorite ripped from real life character? And if you’re a reader, what makes these sometimes nameless characters sing for you?

Wine of the Week: Layer Cake Shiraz

From the back of the bottle, a sentiment so fitting for this post — "My old grandfather made and enjoyed wine for 80 years. He told me the soil in which the vines lived were a layer cake. He said the wine, if properly made, was like a great layer cake, fruit, mocha and chocolate, hints of spice and rich, always rich…" A. Orlando

May all your stories and characters be layer cake! And please join me in congratulating New York Times bestselling author Laura Lippman on her first NYT slot (whoot! whoot! whoot!) and fellow debut author Kristy Kiernan, whose brilliant first novel CATCHING GENIUS just went into a second printing, a mere two weeks after its release! (Triple whoots to you too!) Seems I remember predicting people might like that one…

19 thoughts on “The Great Character Co-opt

  1. billie

    J.T., what a fabulous post.

    I can’t wait to read the scene where your tough cop takes on the skinhead. That must have been a very intense and distressing moment with the waitress, the burnt waffles, and his arrogance.

    About the characters – it happens the opposite with me. I write characters and then they appear in my life. It is uncanny and yet quite wonderful each time it happens.

    I love what you wrote about each character having worth in the work. I love finding that quality in books I read – where each character is drawn well enough that the story could suddenly spin off in their direction if it wanted to. Almost as though each character does indeed have their own story and world and book out there but just the tip is extending into the one I’m reading.

  2. J.B. Thompson

    Another outstanding post, JT! And what a great milestone for your parents – I hope you’re all having fabulous family time.

    Billie – awesome comment about the spin-off stories. I’m with JT on this point, that we make sure our characters could stand on their own if they needed to. The people you meet on the street aren’t one-dimensional works of fiction, cardboard cut-outs placed in our paths just so we’re not alone on the planet. Each character in a book represents a person – as real as you and I and our protagonists – and should seem real in his/her own right to the reader.

  3. Louise Ure

    First of all, best wishes to your parents, and heartfelt congratulations to Laura and Kristy.

    I, too, borrow characters from real life, especially those that anger me. I was recently helping an elderly friend get a prescription filled, and when I questioned the price they were charging her, this young Elvis-looking pharmacist came to the counter. “Make it snappy. I’ve got to pick up my girlfriend in five minutes.” Guess who’s running an insurance scam in my next book?

  4. pari

    J.T.First, I want a bottle of that wine. ‘Kay?

    Second, a couple of weeks ago, one of my friends gave me a sweatshirt with this on the front,”Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.”

    Yes, I steal from real life all the time — and, as you say, I also create from within. Remind me to tell you the “Pussy Filet” story sometime.

    Please send my congrats to your parents on their wonderful milestone.

    And a Yee Haw! shout out to Laura and Kristy. That’s just marvelous news.

  5. simon

    i think there is a lot of cause and effect in life, but we don’t notice it. when we do, there are stories out there waiting to be written.

  6. JT Ellison

    Thanks for all the kind wishes for my folks today, guys! They are thrilled and grateful.

    Elaine, too funny.I can imagine there are lots of people who “think” they are targeted, and ones whoa re who never realize it.

    Simon, you’re absolutely right.

    Pari, next trip to Nashville, you, me and some Layer Cake.

    Louise, an Elvis insurance scammer? Priceless!

    Tasha, wishes extended. xo

    JB, you’re another one whose excellent at making each character count. Keep it up! xo

    Billie, your insights are always welcome. I think you need to guest blog one of these days.

    Happy weekend, everyone. It’s getting a little stormy here : (

  7. pari

    Elaine,Isn’t that like that old saw about if you don’t want trouble from a man you’re using in your book, just give him a small winkie?

    I always thought that would be such fun to actually do. Of course, I don’t know how Sasha would know such a thing about someone.

    AND, what would be the equivalent for a woman? What physical attribute makes us the most sensitive (and that we wouldn’t fess up to)?

  8. JT Ellison

    Oh, my goodness. Signore White is correct. We had a gentleman’s agreement — he finishing his book againt me hitting 25k before I left for Florida. Of course, the irrepresible Dave won handily, beating me by several days. The cur. BTW, Dave, I’m at 20K as of today… You still need to claim your prize.

  9. Mike MacLean

    RE: The Skinhead

    Don’t you love it when you feel powerless over some uneducated a-hole with absolutely nothing worthwhile to contribute to society?

    You’ve already had your revenge. You have talent and wit and a book contract and people who respect you. He has tats that a real tattoo artist wouldn’t piss on and a few muscles. No contest.

  10. Karen Dionne

    Great post, J.T.!

    My husband and I do furniture upholstery in real life, and one of the interior decorators we regularly do work for begged and begged for a spot in my novel. I told her the only roles available were cameos where the character gets killed (it’s a thriller set in Antarctica that plays out ala Jurassic Park), but she didn’t care.

    So in the book, I used her real first name and made her a bit of an airhead; squeamish, and a Renee Zellweger lookalike (which is true in real life.)

    She’s definitely recognizable to those who know. Now that the novel’s sold, I sure hope she likes what I did with her!

  11. Kristy

    hahaha!! Yay, thanks everyone 😀

    And congratulations to Laura Lippman!

    And JT, I want to see that piece after you finish it. After having read ATPG I know you’ll do it justice.

    And I love Mike MacLean’s answer. Exactly!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *