Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Writing Who You Know - or Not

Mug via Cafepress

You’ve probably seen this saying, or something like it, posted on Facebook or Twitter. It’s a common threat we writers make, in jest, to our friends. But it’s not actually that easy to insert a real person into a work of fiction, even if something stupid they’ve done makes the writer want to portray them as an idiotic character and kill them off in some gruesome fashion. That kind of thing is best left to private fantasies; it just doesn’t work in novel form, and I’ll tell you why.

Have you ever read a book and thought, “This character is just like my [parent, friend, ex-lover, self]”? Most writers have encountered a reader along the way who is sure they’re in our latest book because one or two of a character’s attributes feel familiar to them. But if you look closely, that real person isn’t actually in the book. Honest.

When you’re writing fiction, you have a plot that’s going somewhere and characters whose job it is to move that plot along to its predetermined destination. As Mark Twain so famously reminded us, truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense. All the strands of the story have to move forward in believable ways, and in order for this to happen, the characters have to take certain actions. What those actions are depends on the particular scene the writer has dropped the characters into.

Say I have a character in my story who is really the girl down the street from the neighborhood I grew up in. Yes, I have plenty of reasons for wanting to put her in a novel and kill her off in a gruesome way and yes, I know there’s professional help for that. Since I spent a good bit of time with her all those years ago, I can portray her personality accurately. I can also predict how she’ll respond to any fictional situation I put her in. The problem is, sooner or later, she’s going to end up in a scene I’ve created and insist on doing something that totally messes up my plot.

Real people have real personalities that are pre-fabricated, fully-rounded and other fun compound adjectives. They’re not malleable. A writer can’t put a real person in a story, realize the character actually needs to be an orphan in order to make the plot operate properly, and then kill off her parents in a flashback – at least, not if the real person happens to have two parents still living. A real person who has a spider phobia won’t work in my story if I need to have him remain rational and calm in order to escape from a spider-infested cave.

Writers don’t just create stories; they create characters, and with good reason. Like a chef who chooses the best ingredients for a particular dish so it blends well in a five-course menu, a writer puts characters together so they do their bit to move the story forward, working smoothly within the confines of the plot.

Yes, we writers occasionally take a little inspiration from the people around us. I’ve occasionally caught myself thinking things like, “Wow, the way he reacted in that situation is exactly the way my character needs to deal with her boss in that scene I haven’t finished yet.” And I don’t know a writer who hasn’t spotted an interesting stranger in a coffee shop and spun up a character based just on the person’s looks and hot beverage choices. But these are all fragments, tiny facets, and not whole people.

Writing biographies is different; the plot is laid out for the writer before they even start, and they know the characters will work properly in every scene because they did so in real life. But for pure fiction, no matter how much we might want to shove someone off a cliff or drop them into a vat of boiling oil, we have to restrain ourselves if we want to end up with a workable story, and save those oh-so-very-satisfying fantasies for the moments we daydream, in between bouts of pecking out the latest scene.