SHELF LIFE: That’s Me, Right?
A common question I get asked is, “that’s me, right?” and the person asking points to a character in one of my stories. The answer is usually no.
While I’ve encountered a bunch of interesting people (interesting in both senses of the word, interesting fun and interesting weird), it’s hard to incorporate them into a story. The fictional situations I create don’t lend themselves to incorporating real people. I’d be shoehorning someone’s personality into a situation that doesn’t fit. What makes someone funny, scary, threatening or endearing in real life rarely translates well to the written page. Well, in my case, anyway.
I heard Lee Child tell how he incorporated all the people who fired him into his Jack Reacher books, by turning them into bad guys that Reacher kills off. I think that’s why businesses now have exit interviews…
Another reason I don’t lift people’s characters and put them into stories is because people might not like it. Although a lot of people want to be immortalized in print, there are those that don’t because the subject matter isn’t complimentary or pleasant.
I wrote a horror story about a woman’s compulsion with losing weight. It’s a dark and uncomfortable piece and has been published a number of times. A lady I worked with read it and kept challenging me about the story. Was the protagonist based on her? It wasn’t. The story was written three years before I met her. This is the last thing I want to do. I don’t want to take someone’s personal life and make fiction of it, because I wouldn’t like it if it were me used in the story. So I do have a strong reason for not putting people in my stories.
The only thing I do steal is names. I hate coming up with character names. They always come off fake sounding, so I like real life names. I steal interesting names from my friends and acquaintances and put them into the story. And I use only their name. I don’t use their physical description or anything. It’s the name I’m interested in. Some names look good on the page. Others conjure an image in my head. So beware. If you have a neat name, I’m gonna steal it.
So, if people I’ve encountered in my life aren’t the characters in my stories, then who are? The truth is—me! I’m the basis for all the characters you read on the page. I’m the protagonist, the antagonist, the sidekick, the femme fatal, the thug, the hero. The whole motley crew. I get to thinking about my characters, their situations, background, etc. and I take on their personas. I’ll sit there and I wonder to myself…if was a complete bastard, what would I do, how would I do it, how dangerous would I be? I apply the same process to the good guy and all the other characters. I must admit I get quite carried away (and I will get carried away if I don’t shake the character out of me at the end of the writing day). If I’m writing a scene from a particular character’s point of view, I do have to take a five-minute break when I switch to another character’s scene to enable me to swap mindsets.
The results can be quite startling. For Working Stiffs, I wrote a particularly nasty intimidation scene. I was quite shocked at the result on the page. From the story’s point of view, it was great. From a personal point of view, I’d created a nasty person and all based on—if I were him, what would I do? I chose not to break for the following scene. It was a remorse scene and I wrote exactly how I felt after the intimidation scene. It was very personal and satisfying. These things can only come from within and not from watching others.
So if ever you wonder if the character you’re reading in one of my books is you, the answer’s no. It’s me. They’re all me. Now isn’t that a scary thought?