I KNOW A MAN WHO ….
As I’ve remarked on other pages here, I frequently draw inspiration for my novels from situations and places I’ve personally experienced. But there is obviously a very real danger in following this through by creating your fictional characters too close to people you have met, or even only know through reputation. Especially if these characters are portrayed as being bad in some way.
Having said that, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using some of the more interesting personality traits of your acquaintances. Just make sure that the name and physical description of your character means that the source cannot readily identify him or herself. The temptation to portray them pretty darn close in most respects to how they actually are is sometimes strong, but who the heck needs an irate relative, friend or neighbour hammering on your front door at some highly inconvenient hour seeking a confrontation? Or possibly, even worse still, some aggrieved party issuing a writ for libel against you and demanding a hefty lump of compensation?
I can guess what you might be thinking to yourself right now. But what about Stafford, the Canadian pilot featured in Buried Pasts? By my own admission, he was my father in almost every detail.
Well, there are exceptions to almost every rule I suppose. This novel (and the way Stafford was depicted) was something I just had to do, and I was never in danger of offending anyone. That said, I’ll never again create any character so very close to the real thing.
Sorry to keep mentioning Ken Follett’s name, but just like Mister Kipling’s famous cakes, he is ‘exceedingly good’. And no, I am not related to him in any way. Nor is he paying me.
Years ago, Ken was apparently told by his agent that: ‘Your characters have no past’. From that point on he resolved to give each of his major characters parents and a variety of other family related history. You only have to read Pillars of the Earth, or its sequel, World Without End, to appreciate how successful he has been in this endeavour.
Now I’m not suggesting that you write page after page of fine detail on this topic, particularly if it has little or no relevance to your main story. But what makes a person bad or good – shy or extroverted – vengeful or forgiving? Apart from the basic personality we are born with, quite frequently experiences or family influences when we are still young can have a large bearing on development too. In fact, it’s quite conceivable that an inherently easy-going youngster could dramatically change nature almost overnight as a result of some kind of trauma.
Siggi Hoffman, one of my major characters in Buried Pasts is a good example of how this sudden change can come about. Following a bombing raid over Berlin in 1944, tragedy strikes her family, creating in Siggi a bitterness and inflexibility that never before existed.
On a different level but still on the theme of influences whilst young, is Alan – another character in the same novel. Constantly fed misinformation regarding his father’s death by his mother ever since he was born, he as a result grows up into a highly disturbed and dangerous teenager.
How much different might he have been without this destabilizing influence?