History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

08 October 2008

Relative Immortality

Last year for Christmas (because I asked for it), my husband bought me a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words "Careful, or you'll end up in my novel." Just for good measure, he bought me the companion t-shirt. They make terrific conversation-starters at the gym


My novels are, in fact, sparsely populated by highly fictional versions of several of my friends and relatives, as well as a few ex-boyfriends and obnoxious former bosses. And sometimes I create characters whose names are amalgams of family and friends, just to give them a little inside joke to chuckle over, as they read the book. My best friend from college is certain she can identify the source for several of the characters in a few of my contemporary novels--even those I assure her are wholly fictional.


With historical fiction, where most of the characters in the novel are based on actual personages, much has been written about their looks and their personalities. But because there are always a number of supporting and "walk-on" roles in the historical novels, on occasion I endow some of them with certain behavioral traits or physical characteristics that are based on people I know, have met or worked with, or who I am related to. My paternal grandmother with whom I lived for a number of years after I graduated from college, and who was immensely supportive and loving, and one of the most generous souls to grace this earth, shows up in one form or another in a few of my books. And yet I wasn't even aware of creating a wise motherly (or grandmotherly) figure as a sort of perennial in my novels until someone--probably my husband--pointed it out to me.


Occasionally, people have asked me to put them in my novels! So sometimes, I do, just for fun--like the time I met a pair of New York Mets fans on a walking tour of Chinatown while I was researching my contemporary novel, Play Dates. It's fun to "honor" someone I know by putting them into one of my novels. And, on the flip side, revenge can be just as sweet. Sometimes, when I want to create a "villain," I look to my own unhappy experiences in the workplace (or the boudoir) and see if there are some threads I can delicately extract in order to weave my character. Rarely--very rarely--do I create my fictional character from the whole cloth (or nearly so) of the original real-life personality.


Do you incorporate personality or physical traits of people you know, love, hate, and/or are related to, into your characters? If so, have your "victims" recognized themselves--or thought they did? What was their reaction?

23 Comments:

Blogger Linda Banche said...

So far, the only thing I've done is name my female villains after a particularly back-stabbing very ex-friend. She'll never even know because she brags she doesn't read.

5:37 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Linda, did it feel cathartic?

And what an inane thing for her to brag about! Sounds like she deserved the dubious immortalization for that as well as for whatever emotional pain she inflicted on you with her metaphorical stiletto.

5:57 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

She doesn't read? I hope you made her appropriately idiotic!

I have immortalized my great great grandfather as the coachman in my second novel. He was a Welshman who came to the United States in 1892 at the age of 8.

And Dash, the pet hedgehog in The Raven's Heart, is modeled after a hedgehog I had - three legs and all. Many of the people who knew my Dash will recognize him instantly as he was a grouchy, fierce one woman kind of pincushion of a guy.

The idea of immortalizing my bosses as villains is tempting, but frankly I prefer my villains a bit brighter!

6:27 AM  
Blogger Lana said...

I think everyone uses people they know, meet or observe as characters in their writing. But I also think the only characters that really work within a story are the ones that grow beyond the original inspiration and become 'their own person'.

And I certainly have used some particularly obnoxious people as villains or obstacles in my stories. My creative writing professor was really quite horrible for me. Everyone else thought she was amazing, but she would tear down my writing. And not with constructive criticism, either. Where other people would get a half page of suggestions, I got 13 words. I counted.

So the most useful writing exercise I did for that class was to include her as The Obstacle in one of my short stories, but have her disguised enough that she didn't recognize herself. Very tricky.

It can be very cathartic, but I think it's important to keep those sorts of 'inspirations' fairly quiet - just look at the Victoria Laurie controversy and how many former fans she's alienated...

6:36 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Louisa -- you're certainly the only writer I know of who has immortalized her own crippled pet hedgehog! I'd love to hear how you came to have such a pet.

I agree, Lana, that "the only characters that really work within a story are the ones that grow beyond the original inspiration and become 'their own person'." Certainly the character needs to be organic to the story to be believeable within it. And your "revenge" on your creative writing teacher seems spot-on and a creative writing challenge in itself.

I've never understood the need for teachers/professors/instructors to tear their students' work apart in an utterly unconstructive way, particularly when issues of imagination, creativity and vulnerability are integral to the creation under discussion. I had a voice teacher like that, and plenty of acting teachers who fit that description. In those cases I can't help but think that a certain amount of envy or disillusionment on the part of the instructor has pushed its way to the surface -- making the professional relationship between teacher and student both unhealthy and unhelpful.

7:01 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Amanda, what a fun post! I have to admit, I feel like Dr. Frankenstein sometimes. I put together scraps of people to create my own monsters, but on those very, very few occasions when I've set out of replicate someone I know, the character has always turned out subtly different. I think it's because we can't ever really entirely plumb the depths of someone else's psyche, even those we think we know well-- like grandparents, or old friends. And it does help stave off those libel suits! That being said, I did base the heroine of my second book loosely on my little sister (instead of her longtime stuffed animal, Doggie-the-Doggy, my heroine had Bunny-the-Bunny), but it's more the externals that one can replicate-- hair color, turns of phrase, stuffed animals-- rather than deep, deep character.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Linda Banche said...

>>Linda, did it feel cathartic?
<<

It felt like I was getting back at her a bit. But the bad part was I had to remember her to do it. And I want to forget about her.

>>She doesn't read? I hope you made her appropriately idiotic!
>>
Yes, she was definitely an idiot, among other things, and I doubt time has improved her. And the character I named after her got her just comeuppance.

>>
And it does help stave off those libel suits!
>>
The name is very common, so she'll never make a connection.

8:15 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Speaking of staving off libel suits, none of my characters is such a full blown potrait of the original, especially of course when you get into their psyches and motivations. In my most recent contemporary novel, CHOOSING SOPHIE, I did use the actual name of a guy I knew when I was a kid who was a friend of my father's, an Italian-American who peppered his sentences with Yiddish. But I made him a New York Supreme Court judge, and my father was certain he'd be flattered at the promotion. I used the cadences I recalled and the Yiddishisms behavioral trait, but beyond that, the character of the judge and the way he ran his courtroom were an amalgam of the various judges I encountered during my many years as a legal assistant.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Margaret Evans Porter said...

I've got that "Be careful" t-shirt too, a Christmas gift last year. Several other multi-published authors were sporting it at the Novelists Inc conference in NY in the spring. It's become a ho-hum thing in writerly circles, but always gets interesting comments from non-writer family & friends!

I have placed people in my life in my fiction often. And I'm there, too. Sometimes these characters are physically the same with different personality traits, or the personalities are packed into a different physical type or even someone of another gender. (I'm masquerading as a gentleman secondary character and a male protagonist in 2 of my novels.)

I turned a bad person in my life less bad and made him more heroic, which to me was a greater and more interesting writing challenge than taking the "punishment and revenge" route.

Nobody has yet made a connection, probably because these novels are set over 200 years in the past!

9:04 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I've brought aspects of myself into some of my characters as well, Margaret -- both male and female.

I'm not surprised to learn that the t-shirt is popular among other authors. Since I rarely get the opportunity to mingle in person with my colleagues, when I wear the shirt in the presence of family and friends, or folks at the gym, it becomes a no-pressure way for me to do some spontaneous promotion of my books. Sometimes people will exclaim "I love historical fiction!" so
I always have promotional bookmarks on hand to give them, if they sound genuinely intrigued by what I write.

I admire your ability to transcend a difficult friendship, "redeeming" that person by giving them heroic aspects. That in itself is both noble, and a challenge.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

In The Bookseller's Daughter, the hero's father -- dying, bombastic, frustrated -- was definitely a combination of my father-in-law and the father of the Marquis de Sade. I hope that portrait comes off as compassionate as I meant it to be. In the same book, my heroine's brother is a medical student with "a doctor’s personality -- confident, observant, eager to take command and send everybody scurrying to do his bidding." Duh. It was only after the book was well underway that I realized I was writing about my own three siblings the doctors.

In Carrie's Story, I make a cameo appearance when Carrie remembers an oldies radio cut that her mother "used to annoy me with by loudly singing along with whenever it came on the car radio." And I can still see my own son rolling his eyes in an agony of embarrassment when I'd do the very same thing.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a great sweatshirt/tee-shirt and a great topic! When I was first published, I remember going to a family party and people asking with a combination of fascination and horror, "do you base characters in your books on real people?" I was co-writing with my mom at the time, so to our family it was a particularly pertinent question. Then, as now, most of my characters come out of my head (and my mom's at that time). I've never consciously based on a character completely on someone I know (except, I guess, for Charles and Mélanie's cat, who is based on my cat). Sometimes I do consciously use traits of people of I know. More often, it's unconscious, and I look back later and see connections to people I know in the characters I've created. Mostly, I think, there are bits of me in all my characters, because, going to Lauren's point about not being able to plumb the depths of another's psyche, I'm the only person I really know on the inside.

10:01 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Funny how we do things subconsciously, Pam. Your realization after the fact that you incorporated aspects of your doctor-brothers; my inclusion of a wise older woman in more than one of my books. And now I wonder if, subconsciously I relate to the stories where those kind of women can be found, even before I create my fictional version of it. In Helen of Troy's story, Theseus's mother Aethra is one such character. Emma Hamilton's mother is another. Then I've realized that the pushy mothers with their own issues or agendas (like Mary Robinson's) tap into that as it relates to my own life with other relatives that were quick to criticize or belittle my choice of profession (both acting and writing).

10:04 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Tracy, turning the tables, did your mother ever base any of her fictional creations on you?

My aunt is a playwright and screenwriter and one of her scripts is titled MY MOTHER, MY DAUGHTER, AND ME. It's meant to be a highly autobiographical portrait of her, my paternal grandmother (who I mentioned in my original post) and one of my first cousins -- and yet I can't see any of the three of them in the text!

10:07 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating about not being able to see your family in the supposedly autobiographical story, Amanda! That goes to how every writer filters even "real" people through the lens of their own perspective.

All my mom's fiction was co-written with me, so all her fictional characters were created with me. She did, when I asked her what the heroine of our first book looked like, say "oh, sort of like you." And a lot of people though the heroine of our second book (a rather shy writer) was me, though I actually identified a lot more with the much more snarky heroine of our fourth book :-).

10:18 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I'm more likely to use pets in my novels. Most of the dogs and horses are based on animals my friends or I own (or have owned).

I did base the physical discription of the hero of my first novel on my vile ex though. *grin*

10:33 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

When I was studying acting in college, we were encouraged to bring the character as close to ourselves as possible, using emotional recall etc. which I always found limiting. However, in my fiction, I often find myself using my own experiences (as well as some of my friends) for my characters. In my current WIP, my heroine looks like my mother which was a total accident.

The one time I've tried to base a character after a back-stabbing ex-friend, I ended up with a character who was a lot more sympathetic than I had intended. I guess I got so involved in explaining the motivations for the character's behavior that she ended up less villainous.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Kalen, did you still have any feelings for your ex when you borrowed his physical description for your hero? Did he ever read the novel, and if so, did he recognize himself?

Elizabeth, I think our minds do strange things sometimes as we blend our interpretation of an actual person's character into a totally fictional one. But I suppose it certainly makes the fictional character a much richer creation for your having layered in motivations, etc.

11:46 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Great post, Amanda. I think about this alot. I think I put elements of everybody I know in some character or another. I notice the way people dress, what they eat...I was at a Jane Smiley booksigning and wow, did I hear some fantistic conversations in the "horsey" audience before she came on to read.

I whipped out my pen and started scribbling, recording as descretely as I could.

Then of course, they noticed and it stopped. ;-)

1:06 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Kathrynn, I hope you were able to distill and eventually use enough of those precious phrases!

Years ago when I was engaged to my first husband and my mother and I were at Fortunoff looking at china patterns we overheard another young lady and her mother poring over the silver patterns. With a Thurston Howell III style "accent" which back in high school we referred to as "Locust Valley lockjaw" for the uber-WASPy town on Long Island who were our sports rivals, the younger woman uttered the words "oyster forks. We must have oyster forks."

It never made it into one of my books but for years my mother and I would look at each other and mimic that woman's "oyster forks" pronunciation and dissolve into giggle fits.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Amanda, Dash came to me as a baby, just weaned. His "dad" had chewed one of his back legs off and the breeder just wanted to get rid of him. One of my students bought a pair of hedgehogs and told the lady he knew just the person to take Dash. I had just lost my paraplegic possum, Victoria, after 13 years and he thought I needed another special needs baby to love. With Dash and I, it was love at first sight, but he had nothing but disdain and aggression for everyone else! My students wanted to name him "Dammit" because every time he bit someone you could hear them scream "dammit" no matter where you were in the house! I decided he needed a more refined name - thus Dashitall was christened. Dash, for short.

8:16 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Louisa, the history of Dash -- embellished with the casual mention of the paraplegic possum -- is both touching and hysterical!!

4:57 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks, Amanda! Dash was quite a character and lived to a good old age. The funny thing was that when he passed I got phone calls from so many of my students expressing condolences and telling me their favorite Dash stories in spite of the fact that he had bitten each and every one of them at some point - some of them several times!

Victoria, however, was the opposite to Dash. She was sweet and loved anyone who had a spoon full of peanut butter! My students built her a huge floor to ceiling cage with a series of ramps and hammocks in it. She even had her own little cart for trips outside. Possums are not known to be very nice at all in the wild, but Victoria was a sweetie! She will definitely have to feature in a book some day!

6:30 AM  

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