Friday, March 8, 2019

Character Incognito – Or: Revenge is a Dish Best Served…On Paper (if you don’t want to go to jail)

Do family and friends and their lives become fodder for your stories and, if so, do they ever recognize themselves and complain? 

by Paul D. Marks

Of course I use family, friends, frenemies, enemies, and virtually anyone else who crosses my path! Don’t we all. That’s not to say there’s a 1:1 relationship between a character and a real person. And most characters are composites of more than one person. But characters are definitely inspired by people I know, people I come across. Everyone I come across is fodder, the way they look, the way they talk. Their character, etc. Not just people I know, but people I may cross paths with for only a few seconds or a few hours. A clerk, someone on a street corner. Someone in a bar.

It’s like we costume our characters, disguise them and send them out into the world incognito. Most of the time people don’t recognize themselves and sometimes they think a character is based on them when it isn’t. People don’t see themselves even when it’s pretty blatant because they don’t see themselves the way you portray them, especially if you portray them in a less than flattering light. They are, of course, too wonderful for words so that evil villain could not possibly be based on them. Yes, I’m thinking of a real person right now. Someone who is barely disguised in something of mine, down to the exact words the character says. And this person read it. If they recognized themselves they never said anything to me. Of course, maybe they sent a hit team after me. I’m sleeping with one eye open.

I was in a very famous LA eatery and bar, Barney’s Beanery, when two guys got into a fight. You can bet that made it into a story. And sometimes I might ‘borrow’ a story someone’s told me and use it. I had a friend who worked in Hollywood who told me that her boss was on the phone with a certain big name movie star and, when the boss inadvertently called him by a shortened version of his name, he hung up on him. That became the inspiration for Joseph – don’t call him Joe – Hartman, the producer that Duke works for in Broken Windows. So be careful what you tell me. If I like it I might use it. (This story is modified to protect the innocent…and guilty.)

But not only do I base characters on family and friends, but on people I dislike, too, enemies. And isn’t that fun? We get our little revenges against people who’ve wronged us and, as long as we disguise them somewhat, we get away with it. What’s better than that? Sometimes just naming the bad guy after someone can be a satisfying way to get back at someone who wronged us.

Some of my favorite stories are revenge stories, The Count of Monte Cristo being the prime example. In it, Edmond Dantes exacts revenge on those who’ve wronged him in very clever ways, hoisting them on their own petards (whatever the fuck a petard is – just kidding, I know).

Once upon a time there was a fellow, let’s call him John Doe. He was a total asshole, though I didn’t know it when we first entered a business arrangement. He totally flaked on me and he made it into a screenplay I was working on at the time. And he didn’t come off very nice. And I didn’t change a thing about him except his name. So I enjoy petarding people in my work.

The first novel I wrote, about a screenwriter trying to make it in Hollywood, was basically a roman a clef. All the characters were based on people I knew, some very well known, others obscure and struggling, including little ol’ me. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but that novel was accepted for publication at a major house. Then a new editorial staff was brought in and like a new broom sweeps clean, my book was swept out with the bathwater. And because it was a satire and the humor was topical it was too late to get it to another publisher. Lesson learned: don’t use topical humor.

And let’s not forget the places, objects, clothes, cars, etc. that I’ve borrowed/stolen. I’ll set scenes inside a friend’s house, only now it’s not their house but the house of one of my characters. Duke Rogers, the private detective and main character in White Heat and Broken Windows, lives in a house that’s very much based on the house of a friend of mine, though with some authorial remodeling. And Jack Lassen, the main character in my story Windward lives in an old 50s bomb shelter. I actually had a friend who lived in one. The one my friend lived in was in someone’s backyard. Jack Lassen’s is under his office in Venice and much larger and nicer. Still, the idea came from my friend’s very cramped, but unique, living quarters. Then there’s the black over orange classic Firebird that Duke drives in White Heat. It was my dream car for many years (well, that and a Porsche Targa). So, one day Amy and I are visiting a friend in Arizona. I’m telling him about that car, my dream car. And it’s like that scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen pulls Marshall McLuhan from behind a sign in a theater lobby. My friend says, “Come with me.” We walk back to his garage. He opens the door and sitting in there is a classic orange and black Firebird. In this case the story came first, but it was one weird coincidence.

So, yes, everything, everyone, is fodder. So be nice or reach a gruesome death…at least on paper.

What about you? Tell us about how you base characters on people you know.

And now for the usual BSP:

The third story in my Ghosts of Bunker Hill series, Fade Out on Bunker Hill, appears in the March/April 2019 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. If you like the movie Sunset Boulevard, I think you'll enjoy this story. In bookstores and on newstands now:

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Anonymous said...

Paul, I’m still laughing over the petard bit. I could have written this post, it’s so true to life for writers. I had a character in my first novel modeled after an especially odious boss I once had. Then my agent said the middle sagged and I had to do some serious editing. I didn’t set out to improve the boss character, but she emerged from the editing a much nicer person and became a series regular. Go figure. I’m sure the boss would NEVER recognize her new and improved self---that’s assuming she’d even recognize her true self.

Lanny Larcinese said...

When you've lived in different towns, had a variety of occupations, been a risk-taker all your life, changed some stances, made a lot of mistakes, done a lot of good things, then brother, your whole damned life is a writing prompt. I have never created a fictional character that wasn't inspired by somebody I've known or had dealings with along the way.

GBPool said...

A few of my characters are based on real people. My spy trilogy is loosely based on my dad's career in the Air Force. The CIA used Air Force pilots to fly them hither and yon. We lived in various foreign countries. I had a lot of facts to use. I made up the rest. My detective novels have some real characters as role models, but since I used to be a private detective, I again had real stuff to use. But most of my work is out of my own imagination. I can control that world.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Maggie. And glad I could give you a little laugh. As for your boss, well, if you made her nice I’m sure she didn’t recognize herself ;-) . Though, as I say, most people don’t see themselves in a bad light so she probably wouldn’t have anyway.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Lanny, for your comment. Yeah, I guess everything we do and experience is fodder for our writing. I know it is with me, too.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks Gayle, for your comment. You’ve definitely had a life of adventure and have a lot of experiences and things to base characters and stories on. But yes, we have to fill in the blanks with our imagination too. And it is nice to be able to control that world.

Susan C Shea said...

As someone or many writers have said, if you don't want a man to know you're using him in your story, just say the character has a small penis. I'm sure there are other ways to throw a real person off the scent and avoid complaints!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Susan. Your comment made me laugh out loud!

jake devlin said...

Nice article, Paul. In my first novel, I used the names of several people I know with their permission for characters, one in particular who kept bugging me to use him; "I'd make a great Secretary of Defense (in my fictional Cabinet); I was in Vietnam." He happens to be an arrogant annoying jerk, so I put him in the book almost exactly as he is, in part so he would never speak to me again. It worked; not a word from him since 2012. Whee and whew! And I apologize to anyone I meet whose name is Ron. (I also apologize to Steves and Debbies for how I used those names.)

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Jake. Love your story about the guy you didn’t want to hear from again and how good that worked for you :-) . I hadn’t thought of that but maybe I should try it too… I’ve never used anyone so directly, but some characters are definitely close to their counterparts.