Recently after reading at an open mic in Newmarket, two teenage girls approached me to ask about my writing and specifically the story, For Sale, I had just read. Before leaving, one girl asked whether the story was real and had actually happened. Although I had anticipated someday being asked this question, I still stammered through, “No, it’s completely fictitious.” Which is the truth—all except for the completely part.
Not one scene in this story ever happened, but what was true was a feeling of loss I was experiencing at the time. Strong emotions and feelings are my inspiration, my jumping off place, not actual people I know, or actual events I’ve witnessed. So it was pretty cool when Terry Fallis (a judge in the Random House Student Award) said in his comments about For Sale: “I felt the tension, the anticipation, and the daring wrapped up in her words. Then I felt the sudden sense of loss, just as Sharon Overend had intended.”
Nope, it doesn’t get cooler than when a reader actually gets IT.
I suspect every fiction writer comes up against the did-this-really-happen question at some point. After all, the work comes through us, so it seems a natural question to ask. The people close to us are bound to believe they recognize themselves, or their life situations, in our work. I don’t know how to get around it. I’m a writer and as a writer, I’m an observer. My characters rise out of the many rich, interesting people around me, but are not portraits. They are caricatures, often an amalgamation of several people.
Before you ask dear family and friends; you are not in my novel—mostly.
My story centres on a Roman Catholic, Irish Canadian family living off the Danforth in Toronto from the 60’s onward. It’s true my teenage years were spent living one block north of the Danforth and at the time I was attending a Catholic, all girls’ school downtown, and I do come from a large family, but let the record reflect; I’m only ¼ Irish Canadian and I only lived off the Danforth for five years.
Although, I may have used some family members as character archetypes, it’s important to stress this family is not my family. The similarities of place and character were reference points for me and not meant to draw comparisons to my own life. It’s a work of fiction.
Having our family and friends recognize themselves in our writing is a real danger and if left unchecked can also be the source of writer’s block. Too many good writers have been stopped in their tracks worrying what their loved ones will think. Quit it! It takes a lot of courage to write and maybe for our families to read our writing, but we have to tell our stories with the characters who are speaking to us, warts and all.
Writers, proceed with caution, but please, do proceed!
What do the pros say on this subject? I’ve read several interviews and most authors admit to having grounded some of their characters in personalities they’ve know. Others say no they haven’t.
Not only do I base my characters on people I know, I use people’s names. In Standing in the Rainbow, Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven and Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!, there’s this couple, Norma and Macky Warren. Those two people are based on my best friends who live in Birmingham. After I wrote the book, I called Norma and said, “Honey, I’ve got these two characters. Help me think of some great names to call them.” There was this silence and she said, “Well, you may as well call them Macky and Norma because everyone’s gonna know who we are anyhow.” So I said, “OK!” Well, Norma has become a local celebrity. She goes out and signs books, does speeches, and is having a wonderful time! – Fannie Flagg – Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
Not at all. The plots are not my life, those characters are not people I know, and none of them is me. My job, as I understand it, is to invent lives that are far more enlightening than my own, invested with special meaning. That’s the whole advantage of fiction over life: you get to control the outcome…
I populate my setting with characters who will serve my plot. Those characters are my slaves. They must do exactly what I want, or the story falls to pieces. No actual person I know is that cooperative. So I invent people from scratch, starting with what they need to do, and working backwards, inventing life histories that render their actions believable.
Pure invention seems straightforward to me, much easier than trying to jam an already formed personality into a mold it won’t fit. – Barbara Kingsolver
And here’s what Jonathan Franzen had to say.