by Mary Jo
For this month's Ask A Wench, I selected this question by Molly in Ohio from our blog topic file:
"We all know that writers frequently pull from life experiences when creating their characters. Have any of you had a friend or family member recognize themself in one of your books or stories and call you out? :)"
I had a strong suspicion what the consensus will be, but I thought it would be fun to hear what the various Wenches have to say.
Starting with Jo Beverley:
No, because I don't do it. It often feels that writing is magic and that my characters appear from another dimension, but I accept that they bubble up from my life experiences somehow. However, I'm not aware of drawing on people I know, or even characters on TV etc. If I felt that happening, I'd strangle it before it could progress.
However, I think novels can worm into the brain, because reading the best sort of book happens inside our brain, with us co-creating it there. Perhaps a bit of the Duke of Avon slid into Rothgar, and I'm aware that Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond character had a bit to do with the way Nicholas Delaney is in the Rogues books. I'm sure there are other influences.
That said, though I don't consciously use people or pictures, sometimes I find ones that fit. This is from the movie Perfume, set in the right period, and the actress was the right age -- 20 -- for Georgia in A Scandalous Countess. Absolutely the spitting image! And this shows Georgia being woken up to the news that her husband's been killed in a duel.
Next up: Patricia Rice:
I cannot remember ever deliberately featuring a person I know in a book, because I like most everyone and wouldn’t want to torture anyone the way I do my characters. But with my very first book, my father decided the heroine’s parents represented him and my mother. Since the father character was essentially weak and useless and the mother was a nagging harpy, it was an insight into his psyche that I didn’t need! I’ve been killing off parental figures ever since.
I think, more than anything, I draw on situations that I read or hear about—in the news, in other novels, in history. I want to know the inside story, so I invent it. Honestly, I know it’s difficult for non-writers to understand, but these characters are in my head, talking and acting out. I just give them something to do!
Now Nicola Cornick:
This has happened to me because several family members and friends have fondly imagined that I based characters on them, especially my gorgeous heroes <g!> and asked me if it was true. Unfortunately it isn't. I've never consciously based any character wholly on someone I know.
What I have done inadvertently is use a mannerism or form of speech that's derived from a real person, a gesture here or a character trait there. These go into the mix with all the other aspects of the character as it develops and so those individual traits become part of a larger personality and it isn't possible to single them out as originating from a real person. In fact sometimes I don't realise what I have done at all and other times much later down the line I can see that thread of influence. So much goes into the creating of a character - it feels a bit like an alchemical process - that I don't think it's possible to pin down how it all comes together. Not for me, anyway.
I suppose I draw on my life experiences for my writing, but not as much as people might think, and rarely is it a conscious choice. A lot of what I do involves imagining myself into the situations my characters find themselves in; imagination can take you most places, and research provides concrete details.
As for using real life people as characters in my books, I've never done it and would never try to. I think trying to fit a real person into an imaginary story would interfere with the character coming to life. They need to be free to become who they are, if that makes sense. I've included the odd famous person, such as the Duke of Wellington, in a book, but only as a walk-on character, not a main character.
I have occasionally pinched an interesting physical feature or mannerism from a real person, but that's as far as it goes, and it's usually someone I don't know well. And in my story collages, I use photos or portraits of real people, but I choose the photos more for the emotion they evoke — sadness, or vulnerability, or intensity for instance — than for the appearance or personality of the actor.
What I have done, just for fun, is to name an occasional minor character after friends who I know will read the book— and whose names fit. So I referred to the Countess of Morey in a book once, because I knew my friend Trish Morey and her daughter would read the book and get a kick out of it.
As an example of the kind of image I use for inspiration, here's a portrait that I imagined was my hero Freddy as a youth - only with different colored hair)
Echoing the other Wenches, I don’t create characters based real people. The nuances of character, motivation and conflict come from the story, and as that develops in my head (yes, I’m a total pantser, so I don’t always know exactly where it’s going!) the people involved evolve too. That said, I gather inspiration for all sorts of elements from real life—the houses, the carriages, the clothing, a unique artifact or piece of art that might become important in the plot. So of course snippets of personalities can show up in my books too. The point is, we write about life, so our actual experiences get processed inside our quirky little brains and . . . well, it all gets shaken up and mixed around, like a potent punch, and then served up to our readers! Each of us comes up with a unique concoction that really has no formal recipe. Quite frankly, it’s more fun that way!
From Susan King:
Some writers may base characters on friends or family members, but I've never borrowed a group of specifics for a recognizably derivative character. I have borrowed an interesting quirk or two, a physical characteristic, a quality, an ability -- but creating a character is not the same as painting a portrait. Copying a real person's characteristics in a story character just seems like a lot of work to me, unless that book is about that person.
There's an old cliche that writers can gain revenge on someone by writing their evil-arse into a book, but I'll bet it's very rarely been done. It wouldn't ring true -- characters are grown from a combination of elements real and imagined, in an organic way, woven from bits and traits and details observed and collected from many sources, and blended with all the made-up stuff that keeps a writer happiest and most creative.
I've drawn interests, tendencies -- a healer, a warrior, a rebel, a nurturer -- from those I know and admire, and I've used some physical characteristics, but more often the model is from a movie, a photo, even a historical painting. I might tap a habit of speech, the slant of a smile, eye color -- but it's always complementary and used to enhance the story-person. The best characters are wonderful pastiches of what the writer knows, finds fascinating in people, and/or simply completely imagines -- elements all blended together into a unique character who exists very comfortably within the integrity of the story.
I'm very much a 'One from column A and One from Column B' kinda person. I figure we make our characters of 50 Legos. If we have more time and space and plot and words, we put the fictional folks together with 200 Legos and they are deeper and more complicated and more real and self-contradictory.
So I'll take a gesture I've seen on TV and a skill somebody has in a book and a philosophic outlook of my very very own and the body type of a friend of mine and a dialect and cadence I've been listening to all over the web and that's some of my character. There's action the plot calls for so I load my guy or gal up with motives and tendencies that make that action plausible . . . and all that needs backstory to account for it so I come up with that.
The person I've created from all these bits and bobs fits neatly into the spot in the story where I need him. My friends and the people I know well -- not so much.
Here's a different angle on the subject from our intrepid webmistress and cat wrangler, Sherrie Holmes:
Ha ha! I’ve never had anyone recognize themselves in any of my stories, but I’ve had a lot of friends recognize me in someone else’s book. <g> It’s quite funny, because the author (a long time friend of mine) has absolutely no idea she did it and would deny it if asked. It was, I’m sure, purely unconscious. However, everyone in my writer’s group, plus several others who have read the book and know I’m the author’s friend, have all pointed it out to me. That many people can’t be wrong. Thankfully, the book’s character and I both have a sense of humor. :-)
From Mary Jo:
I'm not going to add to what has been said so ably above: though writers might take quirks and bits from real life, like a mosaic, ultimately our characters are just about always spun from our creative imaginations.
But I will add an old writer's joke that Jo Beverley mentioned since it's relevant here: If you're basing a villain on some man you know, give the villain a tiny penis and the man will never claim it's him. <G> (I suspect that women find this funnier than men do.)
So that's the inside scoop on whether or not Wenches base characters on real people! Molly, you get a free copy of one of my books, including an ARC of my September book, A Not Quite a Wife, if you so desirechoose!