It can be a bit strange when you realize you know one of your characters in real life.
I’m not talking about the way we infuse parts of people we know—their personalities, their hand gestures, their phrases—into a character we’ve created on a page. I’m also not talking about when we have deliberately created a character based on a certain someone because we plan to re-tell (with embellishment) their story.
No, I’m talking about when you are sitting at your laptop, writing a fantastically witty line of dialogue for a character and suddenly realize that 20,000 words into your novel, you’ve been writing about someone you know.
I’m sure psychiatrists could give you long, detailed explanations of what it means, but I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m just a girl, writing about a boy, who it turns out I know.
This isn’t someone I know intimately or have even known for very long, so it surprised me when I suddenly realized at breakfast the other day that when I pictured my character Milo, I had been picturing him. Milo is exactly like him—looks like him, talks like him, reacts to situations like him, laughs like him, complains like him, dresses like him, dates like him. However, I see this person almost daily, so it makes sense that some of his mannerisms have buried themselves deep in my subconscious.
Except for one thing. Milo isn’t him.
I mean, they are exactly alike except for how they’re not (Milo is an actor/waiter with eight siblings who also happens to be—well, I don’t really want to give the plot away yet, but trust me, my friend is so not like Milo in a major way).
And herein lies the problem.
I made the mistake of excitedly telling my friend (let’s call him Muffin) that I’d recently discovered that one of my NaNo characters was completely based on him. I regretted it almost immediately.
Oh, Muffin wasn’t upset. He took it all in stride, thought it was funny that I’d worked him into the book and asked if Milo was good-looking. (He is.)
But if this book ever sees the light of day, and Muffin reads it, I worry that he’s going to look for himself in the book and find all the wrong things to fixate on. (Although Muffin has reminded me repeatedly that he doesn’t read, so there’s that.)
There’s a reason fiction is fiction, otherwise we’d all be writing memoirs about everyone we’ve ever known. We turn it into fiction to make it bigger than life, to “bling it up,” to allow things to happen to our characters that probably wouldn’t happen in real life. At least not all at the same time, or in a particular order, to one single person in a compressed period of time.
So when our friends and family go looking for themselves in something we’ve written, they’re usually disappointed.
“I wouldn’t say that,” they’ll whine. No, you wouldn’t, but that’s a fictional character saying it, not you.
“That never happened to me.” So what? If you want to tell the story of your life, write your own autobiography.
When we base a character on a real person, we run the risk of turning the person into a caricature, or worse, turning the character into someone we know so well that we can’t move the story forward because we won’t make the character do or say anything that the real person wouldn’t do or say. I fall into this trap a lot because my writing background is non-fiction so the journalist in me sometimes takes over and tells me I can’t write something because it’s not true. And that saying “truth is stranger than fiction?” Quite honestly, from a writer’s point of view, that’s usually not the case.
I hope that Muffin is flattered that Milo is based on him, and I hope he understands that I’ve made Milo do and say things he would never do or say in a million years.
If not, maybe he’ll do or say something crazy to me that I can use in next year’s NaNo novel.
I also made the mistake of telling Muffin I wrote a blog post about him. So now there’s that.
**This blog post is dedicated to Muffin. You (and many others) know who you are.