Saturday, May 23, 2015

How "real" is fiction? Or: Why you don't want me to base a character on you

A few weeks ago I spent an evening at the mall. I didn't have much to do there and so, like a lot of bored people at the mall, I people-watched. Since I write primarily for children and young adults, it goes without saying that those two groups tend to entertain me the most. This was thrown in particularly sharp focus when one teenager approached me and asked, "Excuse me Ma'am, do you know what the time is?"

I am not yet in my thirties. By most accounts, I have a long way to go before I truly reach "Ma'am" status, but nonetheless, this really entertained me. It drilled home how differently we see people at sixteen versus ten years later. I posted this online, along with some tongue-in-cheek observations about "teen" fashion, and received some entertaining feedback from friends and family.

One of the people who commented was a close family friend,  one of my mother's very best friends. She jokingly said that if I ever wanted to write a character who showcased the sensible attire of adulthood, I could base that person on her. The question hit perilously close to home because, you see, I don't really base characters on people that I know. It really is true that for those of us who write fiction, the vast majority of what we write about is flat out "made-up." If we were really interested in faithfully reproducing reality, we would write non-fiction.

But of course....

There are exceptions.

But what are they? How does real life influence fiction and how, in particular, do the people we know end up in the books that we write? I'll be speaking primarily for myself here, but given the conversations I've had with a lot of fiction authors, I think these are some common trends. Certainly some authors write their own lives, thinly veiled as fiction, but most of us don't.

Izzy, Sandra, DeeAnne and Chireen, a few of my "realest" characters
One of the main reasons I think people ask if I've ever based a character on them or someone else we know, is because, instinctively, we know almost all art comes from a place of lived reality. The easiest setting for me to write about is the west coast of Canada. I spend less time second guessing myself when I write from a female perspective than when I write from a male one. I have a deep knowledge of the myriad ways someone can point out to another person that they are short.

But at the same time, I don't want my stories to be populated by no one but short, Canadian women. I don't want my characters to all be white, either. Or cat lovers. Or artsy-fartsy. So where do we turn for inspiration when we want a more diverse cast?

If your answer was "real life" then yes! You are right! But on the whole, writers don't zero in on specific people and decide to rewrite them. Most of what I've learned from my friends, families, coworkers, acquaintances, and random people on the street gets taken in, digested and regurgitated in a less than familiar format. Most of the time, I'm not even aware of any similarities between the characters I've written with the people in my life. On occasion, though, I will look at someone more critically and go, "wow. That reminds me of so-and-so."

The most common place this occurs is with the families I write. When I started my current project, Rift Runners (see the Current Projects tab above if you're curious) I had been living away from my older sister for several years, missed her terribly, but was also rather excited that we now both lived in cities out East, so that meant we'd probably get to see each other at Thanksgiving. This spilled over into the central relationship of the story, which revolves around a pair of sisters, told from the younger one's perspective, though I didn't see the parallels until I was well into the story.

Of all the people who have wormed their way into my manuscripts, probably no one has turned up more than my mother. Little pieces of our relationship are sewn everywhere. Every fierce, protective, loving character I've ever written hearkens back to my Mum. But it isn't all rosy, either. The great thing about parents is that no matter how much you love them and how well you get along, you are guaranteed to have fought with them at some point. And since conflict is absolutely necessary for plot, it's pretty fair to say that my arguments with her turn up. But the stakes change. Instead of the topic being unfinished homework, it becomes a life and death scenario - something I don't think my mum and I would actually argue about. But that's the thing about basing something on real life. Only aspects of real life experience might be useful and, odds are, I'm going to have to push it to a further extreme in order to get something that works for the stories I'm writing.

In fact, if I can think of a reason that people should hope they are NOT in my stories is because of that point I made earlier. Fiction requires drama and conflict. The majority of the characters will not be the protagonist. All the other characters exist to bring either drama or conflict to the plot. So if you were a character in my novel, you would need to be ready to be misunderstood, have your worse qualities showcased or, if you do happen to be a lovely, nice person, you'd end up fulfilling your obligation to cause conflict by getting sick or blowing up or something (I write a lot of sci-fi and fantasy. People blow up. It's true.). Obviously these are not hard and fast rules, and all characters need to be well-rounded, but it's not a pleasant scenario. It's for these reasons that I don't actively look for real life counterparts for my characters. I don't want to make my friends look bad and I don't want to blow them up. I like them too much.

Also, I desperately want to avoid what I imagine would be this conversation:

"Yes, this character is based on you, but NO! Of course I don't think of you like that! No, don't worry. It's just made up.... seriously, don't worry. That's not what I meant by based on you. I meant, like... I took your hair, your birth date and your strained relationship with your aunt and wrote a book about it."

But there are exceptions. In a few instances, I have used real people as a jumping off point for characters I've written. I'll list a few examples below:

1) Nolan Ciora - a plucky, trade caravan leader struggling to hide that he's half-elf in a very pro-human world.
Based on: I spent a summer working in a garden center where I had a coworker whose name was Nolan. I made up "fake" Nolan within a couple days of meeting the real one, largely because I loved the impression I got of my new coworker and didn't want to know him well before writing out my own interpretation. Fake Nolan was never meant to be a faithful retelling of Real Nolan. Instead, all I know for certain is that they share some similar surface details - name, aspects of appearance, general pluckiness. Any of Fake Nolan's inner motives and daemons are entirely made up, because Real Nolan and I only knew each other for a few months and never worked in the same department. It was a pleasant acquaintanceship and no more. I don't even know Real Nolan's last name.

2) Izzy, Sandra, DeeAnne and Chireen - I once wrote a play largely based on my experience of being a young, single lady and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. These girls were the protagonists.
Based on: Because it was a play and I have a lot of friends who love theater, the four main characters were designed not so much to resemble my friends in personality, but to resemble the types of characters I could see them doing a good job of playing. But there were a couple of inside jokes thrown in for good measure. DeeAnne is a girl waiting for her boyfriend to come home from his mission and when I started writing the play, one of my friends had a boy on a mission as well. Their personalities, however, are VERY different. Of course, there were aspects of the various Mormons I know sewn into the whole play, but I don't think any of the characters were a retread of people I knew on any deep level.

3) Kenton Adler - A minor character. The younger brother of one of my protagonists.
Based on: While I was living in Pittsburgh, a friend of mine invited me and some other people over to watch some movies. I arrived late, but underestimated just how late everyone else would be. The host wasn't even home when I got there. I rang the doorbell and my friend's roommate - whom I had never met before - barreled down the stairs to open the door... wearing nothing but a towel. He'd been in the shower, knew his roommate was expecting people and profusely apologized for greeting me nearly nude. I wish I could say there was a deeper story beyond that - that we went on to star in a screwball romantic comedy or something. Life doesn't give you a lot of moments like that. But in truth, we never met again after that awkward encounter that night. But it was so funny and so entertaining to me, that I thought I would honor it by naming a minor character after him. Once again, I don't know Real Kenton's last name. Regrettably, it would not be appropriate for Fake Kenton to show up half naked in a story, as Fake Kenton is a thirteen-year old boy and guys, that would be gross.

So as you can see, most of these stories involve people who I either don't know well or I was only grabbing aspects of them. I honestly can only think of one time, where I took a look at my plot and what it needed and said to myself, "you know, what this story needs is a person like..."

4) Patience Lyle - The leader of the Rift Runners, an undercover, anti-government, morally ambiguous group of revolutionaries.
Based on: You might remember I started this post by telling a story about watching teenagers at the mall, and this prompting a joke from one of my mother`s longtime friends. A joke about me basing a character on her. Someone sensible and comfortable with her own age. From anyone else, I would have laughed or shrugged and been done with it. But as luck would have it, this woman was the one and only person I can point to from whom I consciously crafted a character.

Creating Patience was an odd experience for this reason. I certainly took liberties with the the character`s personality and, again, didn't try to hem close to anything that actually had happened. But whenever I needed further insight for writing Patience, I thought back to the woman who inspired her. More than anything, there was a certain "feel" to the character I wanted to recapture. Patience is an intense person, with a level of power to her persona that leaves you constantly playing catch-up. And this was just how my Mum's close friend made me feel, especially when I was a teen. She was smart. She spoke French. She taught high-school, which to me seemed to be one of the most terrifying occupations in existence.

She still is all those things, incidentally. But when I was younger and still trying to make sense of how adults fit into this world as people - as fully fledged, flawed human beings - she was one of the few adults beyond my parents I had the freedom to really examine and think about. She didn't engage me as a simple kid, the way some of my friend's parents did, but as a reasonable, near-adult. I think that came from teaching in schools. Kids and teenagers can tell when someone is lying to them or tippy-toeing around the truth, and she never did that. She shot straight. To this day, I love that about her.

And so perhaps it's little wonder she turned up in my writing. In Rift Runners, Patience is one of the first adults the protagonist, a teen-aged girl named Shasta, really has to make sense of outside of her family. A lot is riding on that relationship and, as Patience leads a group of rebels rather than a classroom, the dramatic stakes are considerably higher.

As the years have gone by and I've transitioned from near-adult to actual-adult, the way I relate to my mother's friends has changed. But this woman is one I still feel close to and we now enjoy a camaraderie that grows as the age ration separating us narrows bit by bit. I've often felt nervous about admitting to her that she's in my work. Patience certainly doesn't escape the pitfalls of being a character who isn't the protagonist. She's misunderstood and misrepresented through Shasta's narrow point of view. Patience's portrayal in Rift Runners is not meant as the be-all-and-end-all version of the character herself. You can only imagine how far that representation is from the person she was based on. I wish I didn't have to give Patience such a raw deal, but the story isn't hers. It's Shasta's.

Regardless, I love Patience. She's one of my favorite characters in the whole story. And since some day I'm sure she'll read one of my books, I might as well fess-up now and say, thank you, Liane Lyle. I can say without reservation that my writing would be less if not for you.