real people =/ fictional characters

There’s a very nice reader review of Tied to the Tracks up at Amazon, and in it is a question:

I don’t need to go in to the details of the story since the other reviewers have done such a good job, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the story. As a big fan of Deborah Smith (who wrote A Place To Call Home, and many others) I had high expectations, and Rosina Lippi didn’t disappoint. From reading the authors blog I know she had a career in academia so my one burning question is, who was the secretary modeled after?

This question is particularly relevant because the relationship between real people and fictional characters is a strong theme in the novel itself. There’s an ongoing discussion of Miss Zula’s habit of writing people she knows into her novels. There’s even a verb: My daddy was buttoned by Miss Zula. Another character claims that the residents of Ogilvie read her novels primarily to see who gets buttoned.

You’ll note, though, that Miss Zula never participates in these debates. Whether or not Button Ogilvie was in fact the basis for a character in one of her novels — to that she has nothing to say.

There are a couple reasons an author will keep out of such discussions. First, it’s just fun to listen to the debate. People with strong opinions about a novel you wrote, who get into arguments about them — that’s a huge payoff. To write a novel that arouses such emotion and interest in readers, that’s a sign that you did good.

Another reason not to answer questions about character inspirations: It’s one thing to use a novel to get back at somebody (not me, never me, nope, unuh, I don’t go there), and it’s a whole other other to find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit. Or a hysterical accusation thrown across (say) a crowded restaurant.

Finally, sometimes people see a connection where there is none, and they are so committed to their own vision that they won’t listen even if you break silence to dissuade them from their erroneous assumptions. So it’s better not to get involved in such discussions in the first place.

So for the record, I will repeat: with .75 exceptions (which I will note below), I didn’t base any of the TTTT characters on real people. Patty-Cake is a force unto herself, and has nothing, absolutely not one thing to do with any of the fine secretaries and office people I have known in the course of my academic career. Every one of them a diamond, a peach, a selfless, non manipulative, self possessed humanitarian.

We clear on this?

The .10 exception: Miss Zula does have a few small traits in common with various Southern women authors of the last one hundred years, but only very tangentially.

The .65 exception: Tony Russo, on the other hand, is vaguely based on my cousin Tommy V. Not in terms of his job or family, but personality? Yes. Anybody who knows Tom will have no doubt that the wisecracking guy from Hoboken with a flair for the visual arts and a strong interest in the opposite sex is him. Tony is my small tribute to Tom, who always makes me laugh.

The bigger question — where characters come from — is something I want to talk about in more detail in the next couple days.

One Reply to “real people =/ fictional characters”

  1. Do you think that writing science fiction, fantasy or historical fiction helps to reduce the likelihood that people will interpret a character as someone they recognize from real life? I’ve been under that impression, but as I read your post, I realized that perhaps that’s not the case. Just like I am probably mistaken when I think that if I wrote a fantasy story, my mother wouldn’t read it. I know I’d review ANYthing my children created. Regardless of whether it’s created out of words or Kraft Dinner. It seems so exposed to be a writer. Turning your thoughts inside out for others’ pleasure.

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