Friday, March 26, 2010

Writing Friends, Family & Famous People Into Fiction

© Nancy Means Wright 2010 all rights reserved

I’ve published fifteen books to date with almost as many gathering dust in my closet, and there is hardly a character that isn’t partially modeled on someone I know. The most blatant was not a novel, but a 1988 memoir about family and a small craft shop I ran in our barn: I used people’s names without written permission and to my great relief, no one sued. In fact, the book was a bestseller in our local Vermont Book Shop because buyers thought he or she might be in it! And I did treat people humorously and lovingly. My four kids called it more fiction than nonfiction—but that’s what happens in memoirs, isn’t it? Take a single childhood event and you have half a dozen diametrically opposite points of view on what exactly happened.

I do, admittedly, base most of my fictional characters on real life people. I make a sort of collage creation, using aspects of one person, and then another, throwing in myself, and memory. I exaggerate certain behavior and try to give each character a distinctive voice. Then I make changes so that the facts are all lies, but hopefully, the overall story is true. One’s characters, I think, should come out of real life, and not from television or film where they run the risk of becoming second hand, generic, or stereotypical characters. And since I try to have my plot come out of a flaw in both the protagonist and the villain, I first ask myself: What does this character desire most of all? And then: What, or who will get in the way of this character’s desire? One must, of course, create tension, conflict.

I cull most of my characters from family and friends, from quirky neighbors, now and then a stranger. I follow people into stores or cafes just to hear the climax of their conversations. I eavesdrop; I collect voices, accents, colloquialisms. I once published a book called VERMONTERS AT THEIR CRAFT, and frequently use both artists and their particular craft in my writing: a batik maker for a story in Redbook—the way you pile color upon color makes a great metaphor. Or a part-Abenaki Indian, part-French Canadian basketmaker in my mystery novel, STOLEN HONEY; the man and his basket helped to fuel the plot. Novelist Nancy Willard famously said, “Getting to know your characters is like throwing a block party: you start with a few, and suddenly whole neighborhood shows up!” It’s true! I’m sure that happened with the great Charles Dickens, who populated his novels with a virtual cast of hundreds! And many of them through direct observation.

And even though I use other people as models, I’ve discovered that people perceive themselves differently from the way we might describe them. My mother-in-law, for example, thought she was a certain elegant older women in my YA novel, DOWN THE STRINGS, when I’d actually cast her as a bossy bus driver! (I never told her, of course.) On the other hand, my adolescent daughter Catharine, who was the protagonist of that novel, was upset that I’d described her down to her mane of carroty-red hair and size ten feet, and called her “artsy” when she “was not, no!” To no avail, I reminded her how lucky she was to have a book come out of the party that inspired the novel, to which 200 kids came and virtually wrecked the house—and still she didn’t get a month’s grounding or a cut-off allowance. All four of my children, in fact, were written into my kids’ mystery, THE PEA SOUP POISONINGS, when they ran an adventurous summer spy club and apple army in our backyard. In my novel one even had to solve a crime: Who made the pea soup that poisoned old Granny Fairweather down the street? The novel won an ’06 Agatha for Best Children’s/YA Mystery, and to celebrate, I took all four out to dinner and a movie.

For my new Mary Wollstonecraft series, I chose an historical person as my protagonist—not an easy choice, since I had to keep my character in her historical setting—time and place—and thoroughly research her background and personality in order to make her wholly convincing. And since I was writing a mystery novel, I had to make her a believable sleuth as well. That wasn’t hard in Wollstonecraft’s case since she had a brilliant, inquisitive mind, and was incensed at any injustice in the world. In fact, she even kidnapped her sister from an abusive husband, changing carriages in mid-flight to their rented rooms. Later, en route from Portugal to England she challenged a ship’s captain to stop and pick up sailors from a French ship; and strolled bravely through Paris at the height of the revolutionary Reign of Terror when heads were tumbling like stones off the sharp blade of the guillotine!

So I read six biographies.a memoir, all her letters—and countless books on the mores and idiosyncrasies of the 18th century, and leapt into the narrative, from her (third person) point of view. In the first novel in the series, MIDNIGHT FIRES, she is a 27-year-old governess to three young aristocratic girls in the notorious Anglo-Irish Kingsborough family. Lord and Lady Kingsborough were real persons as well, so there was more research to do on their lives and autocratic personalities. I had to tread carefully to keep from falling into error! But again, the latter were colorful, even cruel people. Lord K invented a punishment he called pitchcapping, in which burning tar is poured on the victim’s shaved head and then lit. Horrible! And later he killed his third daughter Mary’s forbidden lover in cold blood when he disapproved and she ran away to marry him.

So if you choose a real life person, preferably historical, with no living ancestors, choose a colorful person living in interesting, exciting times, and your work might be easier than making up a character out of whole cloth. I say might, because there are readers out there who are familiar with both period and person, and will not tolerate an error! And don’t worry about mixing real and fictional persons. In MIDNIGHT FIRES I invented a whole family of peasants who figure prominently in the plot, and a womanising aristocrat who is knifed during a bonfire feast at the pagan festival of Samhain. And real and fictional seem to have worked well together. When I’d finished the book, all the characters were flesh and blood to me, and it was hard to lift my fingers from the computer keys. I had, figuratively speaking, become my characters!

About the author:
Nancy Means Wright is the author of 15 books, including 5 mystery novels from St. Martin’s Press, and this April, an historical novel, Midnight Fires: A Mystery with Mary Wollstonecraft (Perseverance Press). She was an Agatha winner and nominee for two kids’ mysteries, and has published stories in American Literary Review, Level Best Books, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, et al). She lives in Vermont with her spouse and two Maine Coon cats.


Marta Stephens said...

Interesting post, Nancy. I'm always being asked who my characters are based on. I'll admit they may have certain people's traits or mannerisms, but they're 99% pure imagination.

Thanks so much for sharing!

Nancy Means Wright said...

Thanks so much for your warm welcome, Marta, and for posting my blog. Of course imagination forms a large part of one's characters, but so does observation and insight. You have a great blog here, as Writers Digest has obviously realized. (I once worked for the WD School, critiquing short fiction. Fun!) Cheers, Nancy

Aaron Paul Lazar said...


Thanks so much for being with us today on MB4! I loved reading your article, and related to quite a bit! My characters are often amalgams of various people I've known and loved (or hated, as the case may be, LOL!) and I also am known for using my beloved grandparents (long gone...) as major characters in my series. I find it comforting and almost like having visits with them from the beyond. ;o)

Best of luck with your future books, and come back soon!

Nancy Means Wright said...

Thanks for your comment, Aaron, and how lovely to use your grandparents as characters! Makes me nostagic...I've used mine as well. Yes, we give them a kind of immortality.
I'll look for your series.