I had a coffee mug made for my writer’s group years ago that said, “I’m a writer and I will fictionalize you.” It was a hit, perhaps because it was true.
The best characters are real in some fashion. People who have left deep and undeniable impressions on our lives craft their own versions of heroes and villains in our stories.
But once these people, good and bad, come forward to live again in our work, do they exert any power to change the course of what we’re writing?
Sometimes that’s exactly what they do.
For instance when we write about a relationship gone wrong (and who hasn’t had one of those?), the perfect character is right there in our memory. But is that memory giving us a good fictional character?
Do we see that person only in the way they were in our relationship and nothing else?
Or a beloved family member who can only be remembered exactly the way we saw them. If that’s the case, then fictionalizing them goes right out the window. They can’t be made different because it wouldn’t be the same Uncle Harry, or Grandpa or Mom.
Marilynne Robinson, author of Housekeeping, said in an interview for the Paris Review:
“In the development of every character there’s a kind of emotional entanglement that occurs. The characters that interest me are the ones that seem to pose questions in my own thinking. The minute that you start thinking about someone in the whole circumstance of his life to the extant that you can, he becomes mysterious, immediately.”
There is very little mystery in the people we know. In order to make good fiction we have to make these characters mysterious even to ourselves.
And most important, characters have to transform in the course of a story, and there’s no way to accomplish that transformation, unless at key points in a plot, characters surprise themselves with revelations.
Without changing, characters end up the same at the end of a story as they started out at the beginning. Who wants to read about that?
There is of course, no way to leave out our own autobiographical fingerprints on any character. There’s often a blend of a little you, a little me, and a little whoever in every character.
Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections and Freedom, draws a lot on his own life. In another interview in The Paris Review he talks about this when asked about the nine-year interval between his last two novels and how he felt about maturing and “doing better” at the job of portraying characters:
“… I still had my own deep autobiographical material, which I’d employed in well-masked form in the first two novels. Eventually I realized that the only way forward was to go backward and engage again with certain very much unresolved moments in my earlier life. And that’s what the project then became: to invent characters enough unlike me to bear the weight of my material without collapsing into characters too much like me.”
So what’s the verdict? Do people around us live in fear and wonder as to their fate as another character in one of our novels?
Absolutely. That’s what makes writers so interesting as dinner guests.
Caution: If people come across recognizable in a novel it is necessary to get their permission even if their real names aren’t used and especially if they are used.
Fashioning an irresistible protagonist and antagonist will always be a challenge, and the more compelling the traits are that we give them, the more empathic we make them, the more real they will become, and the more the reader will potentially make our characters into new friends and sometimes sense they are like family and perhaps, treat them like imaginary lovers.
Christina for PenPaperWrite
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