Monday, 11 November 2013

The Problem with Writing Characters From Real Life

There are many advantages to writing characters who are based on real people. The most obvious are that you don't have to think them up, and you can finally give them the endings those people/actions really deserved. (Yes, I am assuming most people write as wish fulfillment. Just me? Really? Well, me and all the other romance writers out there at least.)

However, today I want to talk about the difficulties and problems of using real people to base your main characters on. (You can continue to use them indiscrimentently for minor characters, that's completely fine by me.)

The topic comes from my recent efforts producing my brother's book for publication: Tom Grafton Vs. The Environmentalists (available any day now on Amazon in hard copy! Just waiting for it to move over from Createspace).

The main character, Tom Grafton, is based (unsurprisingly) on my brother. I make no judgement about this, as nearly all first works of fiction are autobiographical in someway, which is why my first creative writing subject at Uni was called 'Autofictions'. However, while reading it, I came across some of the problems that occur when you develop a character from a real life person, even one who you know as well as yourself.

1. They don't always make sense.
In real life Dave acts based on a set of motivations developed from years of different experiences. Therefore, when Tom is faced with a situation he simple does what David would have done in that situation. However, for the reader it sometimes doesn't make sense, because they only know a little bit about Tom, not all the factors that have led David to act as he does. Even the most complex character does not have all the intricacies of a human being and why we act as we do. (Have you ever noticed that bad guys in real life are rarely as satisfactory as in stories, because they are generally not as clearly evil or predictable?) With too many motivations, desires and backstory, people are not going to be able to connect with the character within the space of one book.

Therefore, to create stronger characters, you need to narrow down on just one or two aspects of your personality that you really want to gift to your character, and pull out the backstory and current desires which support that.

2. You have both done things the other hasn't.
In Tom Grafton Vs The Environmentalists there is a really good scene where Tom goes deer hunting for the first time, and Dave records the emotional impact that making that first kill had on him. This gave me a very interesting insight into Dave and his love of hunting. However, I had a slight problem with it for Tom.

Tom, unlike Dave, had been in Iraq, and in a series of short stories, he had gotten into gun fights with terrorists and fearlessly rescued a captured ally, killing those who had taken him hostage, and saving the day.

The fact that he had no emotional reaction to killing a number of human beings, but then goes on to have this revelation while killing a deer caused certain problems for me. Now some of it is the difference between an action short story and a more serious novel. However, the fact remains that in any fiction story, by the end the characters should have gone through something you haven't, so you need to make sure they react appropriately.

3. All because it happened, doesn't make it a good story.  
Often we base scenes in fiction on things that really happened, because they were important to us or seem easier to write that way. However, often we also need to put on a different ending to follow the appropriate narrative arch. As a hypothetical example, imagine that you liked a girl who in real life ended up knocking you back. However, you use some of the dialogue and situations between the two of you for the romance in the book. As it turns out, this makes for pretty dull writing, because the reader keeps thinking 'wow, that really doesn't sound like she likes him that much!'

Or the other extreme is that you put all your wish fulfillment fantasies into her mouth, and it sounds even more unrealistic than if you had just made up the character to begin with. So be wary, very wary.

4. Always keep in mind that fact is stranger than fiction. 
All because it happened in real life, doesn't mean that someone is going to believe it if they read it. This is sad, but true. This isn't a trap that Dave has fallen into, but one that I've seen other people succumb to. When you give such writers feedback about it they always get defensive and argue 'oh, but that's how it really happened.'

Well, I don't care how it really happened, unless you are writing a memoir. I only care about whether it is a good narrative feature, and in this case, it isn't. It makes no sense and turns your reader off.

So, writing characters from real life can be great, but in my personal rule book, only minor characters should be exact copies of people. Major characters can contain certain elements, but don't one-for-one try and copy a person into a book. It's lazy writing and comes across as such (or takes so much work to do well, you would have been better off just starting from scratch at the beginning).

Quick update on me since I last posted:
1. I finished the thorough edit of my Christian YA, Sally Hunt Vs. God, and sent it off to a publisher who had shown some interest. Fingers crossed. (The website said they would respond to submissions in 3-6months, so have got a while to wait. Hoping for a nice Christmas present, though that is pushing the timeframe a bit).

2. I re-wrote the first section of The Nice Guys' Guide To Online Dating Profiles, made it less academic, and quite funny, if I do say so myself. That is now with one of my editors getting a thorough red-ink workout (or Word track changes, as the case maybe). Am still open to suggestions on making the title snappier, by the way.

3. I've started (/continued after my failed attempt earlier in the year) to write my first theology book, The Great Divide, a layman's guide to the fundamental differences in concepts of knowledge between liberal and conservative (Protestant) theologians, and how to protect against them. This is my morning writing workout, for 2+ hours a day. I can't guarantee this one is going to take two weeks, as it is a bit more challenging than historical romances :D

4. I am currently spending my afternoons re-writing A Little Bit Of Leaven, the book my great grandfather wrote.

(So, either I've been quite prolific, or I just haven't posted for a while. I'm going with the former.)

On the nomadic side of things, I've finished house sitting for my parents in Woodend, as they have come home from America. I am now squatting at my brother's place in Sunbury for the foreseeable future. It's working pretty well, as he leaves for work before I get up, so I have the house to myself all day. Then he comes home, we eat dinner together, then he does his own thing and I can do another few hours of work. We'll see if that is enough to get a number of things out by Christmas!

By the way, on request I've created a new cover for Tom Grafton, which is being used on the print on demand version (only tell me if you like it, as it's too late to change now. The old cover is more appropriate to the second book in the series, as it turns out, because it has the girl and guy together (spoiler alert!)).

Anyone got any really good examples of characters based on real life that totally blow my theory apart? Would love to hear your thoughts.

1 comment:

  1. In C.S.Lewis' Space Trilogy (Silent Planet, Prelandra, Hideous Strength), the main character Ransom, was based on Lewis' close friend J.R.R.Tolkien, of Lord of the Rings fame...