Jen Bradlee and I were talking the other day about how weird the writer’s mind can be. Even listening to a dear friend painfully open up about her marriage, we are a mind divided. Most of us concentrates on the friend, listening and feeling with her, but one part….one small part of our mind, has other ideas.
That small part is taking notes, gauging emotion, recording nuance, and storing up language. This part is creating for itself the parts of the story we don’t have: the husband’s words and thoughts, the secret language long-term couples share.
Jen and I agree it is never our intention to use friends or relatives as grist for the writing mill. It just happens. Only once have I written about the circumstances of a friend’s life (I asked permission first, and the characters quickly became quite different people from those involved). However, little bits of all we see, hear, and touch ends up in our work, conscious or not.
Usually what happens with me is, I design a character from scratch, then later realize, “Oh, hey, that character is pretty much an exploration of my Dad’s issues. Oh, hey, that character shares a philosophy with that whacked-out lady I saw on an episode of Intervention.” It happens subconsciously. ~NaNoWriMo participant
But if writing is based on observation, is it possible not to use real people in fiction? At some level, the answer to that has to be no. Writing is founded on noticing the quirks, mannerisms and idiosyncrasies displayed by our fellow humans. The characters we create are only going to live and breathe if we give them realistic and believable ways of behaving, and there’s no other way to collect those behaviors other than by noting them in the people around us. ~Cath Murphy
So how do we handle these little additions to our writing projects? Generally speaking, I only become aware of these similarities during the revision process, and I’ll stop to make sure there are no identifying characteristics to real people or change the circumstances to be entirely different from reality.
The final issue to think about is this: fictional characters, especially main characters, almost never behave exactly like real people would. They’re smarter, more persuasive, more appealing, more sensitive, better looking, stronger, more hot headed, braver and at least twice as sensual as anyone we’re ever going to share office space or an apartment with. Make your characters too real and the reader will soon lose interest. Give them some real characteristics and they’ll jump out of the page and into your audience’s mind with a single bound.~ Cath Murphy
How do you handle the issue in your own writing? Where is the boundary beyond which you will rewrite a character to be less like someone you know? Have you ever gotten caught unaware by similarities between someone you know and someone you wrote?