Update FIRST, Blog AFTER. Right? Am at 3232 on word count for BuNoWriMo. That is only 102 words shy of being twice as far as I need to be... WAHOO! And NOW, back to your regularly scheduled blog...
Write what you know, ja?
We’ve all heard it a bazillion times, and I can’t argue. It is a thousand times easier to write familiar versus unfamiliar, at least for me and my lack of imagination. But there are a few problems that I see, at least where familiar characters are concerned.
I normally don’t write people I KNOW—I make up characters, which usually works fine, but some characters need to be a certain TYPE. I think in hitting the ‘type’, but avoiding the ‘stereotype’ we often look to REAL PEOPLE to make these familiar characters ring true. But this is risky. Why?
That’s right—you are getting an ethics lecture from a Tart. You’ll just have to deal with that.
When we do this… use a real person as our model and insert them into our novel—at least if we really KNOW them, as opposed to making up 90% of it... that is, in a way, theft. That person created his or her ‘self’, insane stage moms, aside. We each ought to have a right to ourselves, doncha think? Add to that the fact that you are probably going to do really ROTTEN things to this person (at least on paper), and that they have friends and family who might recognize them and attribute your plot (fact or fiction) to that person. It just isn’t okay.
It might be sort of okay if you asked permission… but I would argue you probably need to renew the question each time you submit them to a new plot strand. You do not get to be Rick Castle manipulating Nicki Heat for your fantasy pleasure. It’s unethical.
(note ALSO that I just broke my ethics rule, writing in a real person for my fantasy pleasure… I love irony)
But I stand by the assertion that real personalities, even with different names, are not our own. Except maybe... you know... our own… which brings me to my next point.
Next Issue… YAWN
Real life personalities are probably good for one book… possibly a series, if it’s a really great personality. Then they’re done. Book characters are LARGER THAN LIFE, unless you plan on being REALLY horrible to them, and REALLY HORRIBLE to the same person book after book will not sell.
But back to my point...I think there are dozens of early novels or works I’ve read where the writer sticks HERSELF in as the MC. A person who doesn’t know the writer may not notice on a ‘book one’, but we don’t need to read many works before it looks like the author has a pretty darned limited range.
And if people DO know the author, there will be readers *cough*yourstruly*cough* who roll their eyes and recognize this for the literary masturbation that it is. (see how far I can stick my foot in my mouth?) Sure, we all want to have a scene with the hot guy we made up. Write a short story. Get it out of your system. Heck, if it is in the domain of writing practice and your friends will indulge you, have atter. But the WORLD will get bored quickly. Just look at Twilight. Oh, wait… erm… *shifty* Okay, so sometimes it works from a commercial perspective to let somebody know just how boring you really are…
At the very least, I try to write somebody more flawed than I am *cough*
(Have I now alienated my entire readership?)
So What To Do?
How do we go from what we KNOW, through a generalization process that STRIPS the specificity of the person… Un-me-ing our heroine, un-friending our MC, un-enemying our antagonist… so they are no longer recognizable, even though they share key, story-important qualities, and then add back in the details to make them seem real again?
Just like that. Out. Then in again.
What makes your BFF appealing enough to star in your story? What doesn’t matter much? What can you change to alter the specificity while keeping the spirit you want for your book? Now add back in DIFFERENT details on the stuff that matters less.
How Bout Some Examples?
Without naming names, I confess to having a couple crazy people in my life. Since I just blogged about my crazy mother, maybe I will leave her out of this particular mix, but I am a veritable nut magnet. And my crazies are VERY interesting. However, they are also people I LOVE. I could NOT display their drama for the reading public. It would be wrong.
But there are interactions that will make it into my nutty characters. There are events that will make it. There are MY THOUGHTS, as someone who loves a nut, that will definitely make it. There are things I’ve LEARNED through loving these people that my MC may need to learn—painful lessons make for GREAT LITERATURE.
What I need to do is draw my character sketch from core qualities, then change the details and apply different experiences to this altered person (this person I love, so I KNOW how they'd respond. There is enough there to make a really vivid character. And yes, my loved ones may recognize something familiar, but if I’ve done my job, others won’t—even others who also know them, because there will be details that are too different.
Let’s say, in my infinite delusion (stranger things have happened) that I decided to write myself into a book, just for that fabulous sex scene…
What is the ‘essential me’? I’m independent, rebellious, a little ‘out there’… those are good character qualities, ne? What DOESN’T matter as much? Does it matter that I’m sloppy? Neglectful? Hard working? Probably depends on the story. I’m not a traditional beauty (which for a story is good) but nothing annoys me more than an MC who looks like the author… gotta change that up a little… so I want my character to be physically flawed, but with DIFFERENT physical flaws than I have…
What about history? Are there things from family of origin that matter? Politics? Religion? Again, depends on the story… Life philosophy? Depends.
One thing I DO tend to draw on my history for is career—I don’t really want to devote a ton of research time to being an expert at something I’m not interested in, so my MCs tend to have studied things I’ve studied, or worked in fields I’ve worked in. That isn’t as conforming as you might think—Confluence has an academic (science guy) and a PR Freelancer. My trilogy has an academic (but poli-sci) and a newspaper sales rep (and a bunch of art thieves and spies *cough*). Deniability has a psychiatrist and a spy.
So the SPY thing is interesting enough to research, but all my regular Joes have professions related to academia, media or psychology—my fields, past and present—public health works, as does social work (my WiP will have psych and health types). Maybe I will venture into other fields at some point, but this would be such a minefield to trip me up—writing a career that I don’t know CONTENT wise, or, more importantly, how a ‘day’ goes…
I guess though, to get back to my point, if you spend enough time thinking about someone (yourself included) as a character, and tweaking this or that detail, you can create DOZENS of different and unrecognizable characters. Maybe you take the personality and add a tragic event in the past, and alter the person as it would change them… maybe you change their family and see how they change as a result.
Just remember, you want repeat readers, so no matter HOW interesting you are, you are probably going to need to shake it up if you want to keep appearing in your own book… And you are going to have to change up your friends before you alienate all of them... even crazy people like their privacy.