Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Who Are You?

The question we are answering this week is whether we use the lives of family and friends as fodder for our stories, and if we do, if anyone has ever recognized themselves and complained. 

Terry Shames

I write books set in Jarrett Creek, Texas a fictitious town based on the town where my grandparents lived when I was a child. I loved the place, and it seemed like a natural setting for my stories. When the first book, A Killing at Cotton Hill,  came out, a young daughter of a cousin said she could hardly wait to read the book so she could find out juicy bits about what really happened in the town. I broke it gently to her that the book was fiction. That means I wasn’t writing about things that really happened, or about the real lives of the people in the town.

Still, when my sister read the book, she said she thought she knew who I had based the victim on. She told me who she thought it was, and I admitted that the person she named had never crossed my mind. Furthermore, I didn’t think the character in the book was anything like the woman she thought I had used as a model. There were, in fact, two characters in the book loosely based on real people. One died a long time ago, and one is a man I haven’t seen in many years. The connection between the real person and the character in the latter case is so small that even if he read the book, I doubt he’d recognize himself.

I don’t know how writers could come up with characters that aren’t based on people we’ve known or met. But the operative word is “based.” For me, it means I remember a tiny trait in someone that intrigues me and seems right for the character I’m creating. It may mean a turn of phrase or a mannerism, the way he tells a story, the way she laughs, a tilt of the head, the way someone walks; someone who is mean, or someone is always pleasant. Just as in real life we meet people who remind of someone else, in fiction we do the same. But if I’m doing my job, the character I’m writing becomes a person in his own right, not a copy. Most writers have the magical experience of creating a character that seems to take on a life of its own. I don’t think that would be possible if someone adhered too closely to the traits of a real person. For someone to recognize themselves in a book, it would mean that the author really mined the person for the character.

That doesn’t mean I don’t base my books on real life events, but again I use the events as a starting place for the plot, not as a template. In my fourth book, A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge, the story was based on a bit of gossip that someone told my mother, and she passed it along to me. Since everyone involved in the original story is dead, I suspect I won’t be getting any complaints. In the second book, The Last Death of Jack Harbin, the character of Jack is based on a young man I knew who went off to the Vietnam War, was badly injured, and I never saw him again. But I remembered his devilish disposition and wondered what had happened to that disposition after his injuries. I am certain he would not relate to the fictional character at all, however, because somewhere in the writing of the book his impish disposition disappeared and Jack Harbin took over.

In my prequel, An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock, I based the plot on a real life murder in the town. In order to avoid too many parallels, I looked up old articles about the event and discovered that the real story had taken an amazing turn only a few years earlier—the man jailed for the crime had been exonerated by the Innocence Project. You couldn’t make that up! In the end, my story was nothing like the original. It just provided a spark of imagination.

In the end,  I can’t imagine portraying a person or event so closely that someone would recognize himself. That’s because no matter how much we know about a person or a subject, “know” is a slippery concept. No matter how close we are to people, there is an element of the unknowable about them. No matter how long we’ve known someone, no matter how much we’ve shared, no matter how close we’ve been, it’s all exterior. Each person has an interior that will always remain known only to herself. In a way, the same is true of events. Try describing an event you have witnessed with someone else, and you’ll see that in some basic way even well-documented events are hard to “know” in their entirety. It’s what makes writing biography and history frustrating. And it’s what makes each book unique.


Susan C Shea said...

Your last paragraph is spot on - even if we try to base a character on a real person, what we know about that person is only what we can see. Their minds may be devious or pure but if they don't act out their thoughts, we are only observing what they choose to show us. The internal stuff is ours to imagine.

Terry said...

Thanks, Susan. For some reason this post was hard to write, until my computer crashed, mangling the post. When I rewrote it, it seemed easy.

James parker said...

Thanks for sharing this article,This is really hard to know what in there mind though they are our family members,friends or people we know.we just know people what they represent us.What you write, is really need to read by everyone.

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Terry said...

Thank you, James. You understood exactly what I was saying. It's hard to know anything but the surface of people.