Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Using Real People in Fiction

More than ever before, mystery stories are about the characters.  Readers like – they demand – characters they can identify with, that they recognize as “real,” that are memorable.  So where do writers come up with them?

I confess: Most of the time, I don’t know.  I need a brave and competent female in her middle years and suddenly there’s Betsy Devonshire, overweight, newly-divorced, broke.  I need a male to work with her in her needlework shop and suddenly there’s Godwin, name and all – and he’s gay (I didn’t know that until I put my fingers on the keyboard to write about him).  I’m inclined not to delve too deeply into it, reminded by a little rhyme my mother used to recite: “A centipede was contented quite / Until a frog in fun / Said, ‘Which leg comes after which?’ / This raised his mind to such a pitch, / He lay immobile in a ditch, / Considering how to run.”

But sometimes I base a character on someone I know, or a celebrity, or someone I met at a gathering or saw on a bus.

And sometimes I am asked, or offer, to put a real person, name and all, into a book.

Years back I was writing an arson-murder mystery and a very good friend, on hearing that I was thinking of making my arson investigator Jewish, said, “Use me.”  So I did.  Captain Kader started out looking and acting a lot like my friend, but when I met a fire fighter named Captain Caple in our local firehouse, I unconsciously “borrowed” him, too.  He was an older man, wise and kind, who quickly became a good friend to my hero.  The problem was, there was already a running character who also filled that role.  How to break up Peter and Captain Kader by the end of my book?

In my research of fire fighters, I discovered that many of them develop heart problems because years of inhaling toxic smoke damages their lungs, which overworks their hearts.  So I wrote that Captain Kader had a weakened heart.  The fire department had given him the job of arson investigator to last until he could retire on full pension.  Then, during an exciting car chase with Peter, he had a heart attack and died.

Well, soon after Ashes to Ashes was published, I heard that Captain Caple collapsed at work and was to be given a desk job to last until he could retire on full pension.  Then my friend Sherwin Kader had a heart attack – then another – and ultimately had to have a heart transplant.

To say I was shaken is an understatement.  I immediately made a strong resolve that if I ever used a real person in my books again, he or she would be depicted as strong and happy.  I have kept that promise.

Does that make me superstitious?  Probably.  But it’s not my fault, it’s the way the human brain works.  Case in point: Studies show that people are much less accurate when throwing darts at pictures of JFK, babies, or people they like than when throwing darts at Hitler or their worst enemy. Another study found that people start to sweat profusely when asked to cut up photographs of their cherished childhood possessions. Lacking millions of years of practice, our brains fail when it comes to separating appearance from reality.  There are numerous cultures in which the “real” name of a person is a carefully kept secret, because the people believe that wicked magic can be worked on a person if you know his name.

Anonymous left a comment that sort of relates to this: "Maybe you could use the experience you plan to relate to us next week in a future book -- a newcomer to Excelsior could be a popular novelist on the run from an acquaintance who was put in one of her books and didn't like it. Just a thought."
That's a good idea - and there’s another reason to be nice to the real people who turn up in my books.

Saw a sad thing last Monday driving home from water aerobics.  A small heap of fur and worse in the middle of the street, too big to be a squirrel.  A small rabbit came out from between parked cars to crouch beside the fur – its mother?  Cars were passing on either side, but it didn’t move.  When I drove up the street later, there wasn’t a second heap of fur, so apparently it did eventually leave.


Linda O. Johnston said...

I try very hard not to use real people in my stories, Monica, although I have in the past raffled off using someone's name for a pet-related charity. I got a release, of course. It's the lawyer in me who worries! But I can see how you could become concerned over the real people underlying your characters when things go wrong for them.

Mollie Bryan said...

I never set out to write real people into my characters. But readers who know me do seem to have fun trying to figure out who I based my characters on. In truth, I think there's a little bit of me and a little of everybody I know in my characters. Great post!

Chrystle Fiedler said...

The characters in my stories are made up in my mind but I'm sure experiences in life have contributed. I did an interview with a reporter for the local paper here when Death Drops came out and she was convinced that some of the characters were real. I told her no and she seemed disappointed. But she liked the book, which was good!

Monica Ferris said...

When I use a real person in a story, I always document what I'm doing and get it in writing that I have permission. I am surprised at the number of people who volunteer to be the murderer!

Betty Hechtman said...

I think it's interesting to note things that real people do and then use that with some character I create. When I was in DC, I went to the American HIstory museum and it was flooded with school groups. I sat on a bench and watched them like they were one of the exhibits. One kid about fourteen was carrying a pair of drumsticks and was drumming on everthing - his friends backpack, the big button one of he cohorts was wearing and even on himself. Someday I'll use that.