I have a friend who feeds foxes. And mice. Some would say he is encouraging vermin. I see him as a defender of outcast animals. It has occurred to me he would make a great character for a story, but I felt awkward approaching him. Until he raised it himself. We had been discussing the way I had co-opted my neighbour into a novel. ‘You could write me,’ he said. I told him I’d love to and gave him the summary above. He offered to tell me stories about his past, but I tried to explain: I have been writing my neighbour as a character for a couple of months but I don’t think I’ve used a single thing she has said or done in the past. It’s just I know that if she sat in an executive wheelie-chair, she would almost certainly walk it round the office. I’ve never seen her do it, I just reckon she would.
What I’m interested in is personality: how that person would typically behave in any situation they are dropped into. Just recounting their life is biography. The hope is that, having set the initial character off, they will retain a consistent core while responding spontaneously to the situations they are placed in – even developing their own patterns of speech and behaviour.
I’ve had a couple of experiences of being written in this way myself, and it was not always comfortable. What had been a free-flowing relationship between me and the author was now fixed on the page with no comeback. My father characterised me as an American kid who kept saying, ‘Hi!’ Imagine my delight.
But now, as a writer, I’m seeing the benefits. The original person provides a solid model I can refer back to when it feels as if the character is slipping away. Also, as anyone who has been watching the recent series of First Dates can tell you, real people say and do things you would never think of writing. For example, the woman who, when asked what she thought of her date, said, ‘Would I, high-five, his face, with my minge? 100%.’ This is so weird, it could only be real.
The truth is that I have often heard an echo of myself within any real person I use. It becomes a way to explore that aspect without getting stuck in my own story. Like my friend, I feel an empathy for the outcast; though, I’ve never fed a fox or a mouse. Also, this recognition of my own reflection is probably useful. It mitigates against the settling of issues or harsh caricature. Though I suspect that a real writer would not be so cautious. It’s an interesting dilemma for anyone who wants to keep their friends or family.
You will often hear writers say that people do not recognise their own portrayal. But the model for one of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s characters wrote to acknowledge the truth of his con-artist depiction, while one of Stevie Smith’s models threatened to sue her. Jean Ross, the model for Sally Bowles, was well aware of her character, and took some time to decide whether she was ok with the inclusion of an abortion she had undergone, before finally giving her agreement.
Perhaps because of my own experiences, I prefer to tell the person what I’m doing – particularly if they’re a main character. It feels more respectful. But I’m not sure what I would do if they withdrew their permission halfway through the writing. The character on the page is not the person in real life – they do things differently there. But the link is so strong, it would be disingenuous to deny it. Over time, I seem to have gone the full journey from resentful subject of fictional portrayal to advocate for its use. Real people are often more interesting and unpredictable than anyone I could create from scratch. Though perhaps, as I once said to my sister, I should try writing fiction.
Thanks to Frances for examples in fiction.