Monday, June 15, 2020

Stealing Characters

Q: Do you ever base characters on real people? Famous or people you know in your real life. And, if so, how do you deal with that?

-from Susan

I think I’ve talked about this before. Yes, I have. In each of the Dani O’Rourke novels, there is at least one primary or secondary character who is drawn fairly from someone I know. In the first book, MURDER IN THE ABSTRACT, the villain was based on a real artist who tried to make my S.O.’s life difficult with his temper and baseless if trivial accusations. It was one day when Tim came home truly annoyed that I got the inspiration and said, “Honey, I’ll kill him. In my book.” In my fiction, the man’s transgressions were more serious and were aimed at different people, but the character hewed closely to the real guy. The man didn’t know, but an artist friend of Tim’s who knew them both guessed and begged me to tell her if she was right. I didn’t. 

In THE KING’S JAR, there were quite a few characters drawn from my work with a scientific research organization. I moved the science from one discipline to another but had a great time skewering a bunch of very unpleasant, dishonest people, and gently ribbing a couple of my friends, one of whom is famous. Who knew? Well, he did and thought it was great fun, but I am positive none of the bad folks would have deigned to read it. Some close friends and associates figured it out and were delighted, and I never got sued, so I guess that was okay!

Smaller appropriations of character in MIXED UP WITH MURDER, which was set on a college campus. But I have had to deal with many puffed up deans, so even though only one on the book was anywhere close to a real person, it was fun. And the villain was drawn from a real man who has been called “a snake” in a major newspaper profile. I knew him somewhat and I can tell you what a pleasure it was to cast him a new snakeskin.

Not all of my character-stealing is negative. The wife-husband duo in the French series, LOVE & DEATH IN BURGUNDY, and DRESSED FOR DEATH IN BURGUNDYare openly and admiringly based on a real couple, to whom the first book is dedicated. I’ve talked a lot about their adventures in a small town in France, where I visited them many times. I showed them the first draft of the first book and they were flattered and delighted, even though I had fictionalized them. David said he was so happy I gave him blonde hair again, since his had turned gray! 

I obviously get inspiration and ideas from real life and real people. The important thing is to start with something but transform it enough to serve my purposes and to avoid litigation! I don’t do what some authors do, which is to introduce a famous person like Winston Churchhill, which several writers have done, then put my words into his mouth. That for me is pushing a bit far. And a live famous person, say, Beyonce? Um, no. Living people speak for themselves, are actually living their lives. 


Paul D. Marks said...

Susan, not all of your character-steal may be negative. But isn't it great fun to skew those A-holes we come across in real life. At least this way we don't go to jail for it.

Susan C Shea said...

The best revenge, Paul!

Paul D. Marks said...

It is great revenge. And I see I blew a couple of words. That should have been 'stealing' and 'skewering.' I need an editor!