Somebody (was it you?) asked if I ever use real people as models for fictional characters. This question ties into the topic of Mayme (of Pajama Girls) that I raised in my last post, but first let me answer it more generally:
No. And, yes. I think it’s fair to say that any character of mine is an amalgam of people I’ve known and people I’ve heard or read stories about. All the raw material in my head comes from somewhere, after all. So for example, if I’m writing about the trading post in Paradise and the people who bought out the McGarrity family, I think about that on multiple levels: is this an individual or a big family? \Who are the primary characters we’ll see in the trading post? Where did they come from? How do they fit in, or don’t they? And the crucial question: when I close my eyes, who do I see standing behind the counter?
When I do close my eyes, there’s a kind of slideshow. The store manager at the grocery store where we shopped when I was a kid (his name was Ray, and he and I had the same birthday, and he always wore a bow tie); a woman named Anneliese who sold me a coat in Austria, she smelled of vanilla and her hands were scrubbed so hard they were a painful shade of red. A dozen different shop keepers from novels and television shows and movies. And hat is how it starts.
But there’s still the question of whether I ever take a whole person out of real life and just plop them into the fictional storyline. Are there any lawyers reading this? Go away.
Once in a while I have done this, but never for a major character. That is to say, character x may be based on person z in that I draw on my experiences and understanding of Z to create X. The few times this has happened (and please don’t ask me to be specific, because you know the lawyers didn’t go away) Z has been a very, very strong personality. And you can read that whatever way you like.
I can tell you about one set of associations, because in this instance, the connection between the real life person and the fictional character is svery loose, and also very positive. The secondary storyline in Pajama Girls has to do with Mayme Hurt, an African-American woman born and raised in the fictional town of Lamb’s Corner. She’s about thirty, divorced, with one daughter, and she lives with her mother in the house where she grew up. She goes to school part time, and she’s a full time employee at Cocoon, Julia Darrow’s shop at Lambert Square.
Mayme’s storyline is about the attraction between opposites, namely between herself and a newcomer to Lamb’s Corner. I’m going to leave it at that for the moment because the point I’m trying to make is this: I’m not African American. I didn’t grow up in a small town in the deep south. I don’t have an ex-husband, and I’m not raising a daughter on my own. So where does Mayme’s character come from? How do I channel her?
This is a rather unusual case, because Mayme is based, in small part, on Monica Jackson. You know Monica’s website? I mention it now and then. She’s an African-American novelist, somebody who is passionate about the things that are important to her and is willing to speak her mind. Somebody with a sense of humor. Somebody from the south, who has a daughter to raise (although I don’t know anything about Monica’s marital status, whether she’s divorced or married or what). I’ve read enough of Monica’s writing, her novels and her weblog, to be able to imagine (and note that word, it’s crucial) her acting and reacting.
So when I was writing Mayme, Monica was in my head.
Does this mean that Monica is Mayme? Absolutely not. Monica may read Pajama Girls and find Mayme completely unbelievable. Of course I hope that’s not the case, but it’s a risk I take — it’s the risk any author takes when they write about any character, real or imagined. Monica may tell me I’ve got the whole thing ass-backwards or that the character Mayme is unbelievable in the way she reacts to one particular event or how she talks to one particular person. There will be something that doesn’t ring true to Monica, and probably other African American women from the deep south.
This is true of every character I write who isn’t a 50 something white woman born and raised in Chicago. Unless I am writing about me, my characterizations are always open to close examination. Which they might fail.
The bigger the difference between the author and the character, the harder it is to get it done right. When the difference is very big, I personally sometimes try to bridge the gap by reading diaries and biographies (especially if it’s a historical character) with the hope that I get a strong enough sense of the character that I’ll be able to channel him or her. When he character is contemporary, I draw on a lifetime of experiences and associations. Once in a very rare while, I draw more specifically on a person I know or have some sense of.
I am taking a chance telling you about the Monica/Mayme connection. I don’t think Monica will take offense, as Mayme is a great character. She may laugh at how wrong I’ve got things, but I’m braced. In fact, I think this whole association happened in part because of her reaction to Tied to the Tracks. She wrote a great review, in which she pointed out that the cast of characters is exceedingly white. True. She also pointed out how hard it would have been for me to write the pov of an African American born and raised in a small town in the south. Also true. Maybe on some level I took that as an artistic challenge. I wanted to see if I could pull it off. One thing I am sure, Monica will be honest in her reaction.