Sunday, June 17, 2007

Who Are These People?

I was having an interesting email exchange with a blogging friend about how much our own experiences inform our fiction and we touched on the subject of memoir. Coincidentally, I’m reading The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, also a memoir. Just a few minutes ago, I was checking in on Kristen Nelson’s blog, Pub Rants and memoirs were the subject of posts for three days running.

The subject got me thinking about how much of ourselves and the people we know creeps into our fiction. Writing my manuscript has been an iterative process. About eighteen months ago, a hypothetical situation occurred to me. The incident was something that could potentially happen to any business traveler and that person would have to choose one of two actions – both with devastating repercussions. Having never previously attempted a novel, I started to build the story. At the beginning, the main character was modeled almost entirely after me by default. I didn’t intend to make her me, but because I was juggling all the challenges of plotting, pacing, structure, etc. it was easiest to start with someone I completely understand. Some of the characters I developed aren’t based on anyone I know at all. Others are based almost entirely on real people. Not coincidentally, the characters with the most dialogue are the ones based on people I know. I suppose it makes writing dialogue for them easier because I can hear what they’d say and how they’d say it. Through ongoing revision, I’ve continued to make changes and evolve most of the characters a good distance away from their real world inspirations. I’ve moved them to new locations, changed their back stories, added and subtracted spouses and children, reinvented how they know the main character and taken them further into the realm of fiction. But although my main character is involved with people who aren’t real and is doing things I’ve never done, it’s taking me much longer to separate her from me and give her a completely unique persona.

When it comes to place, I’ve stuck with locales I know a lot about. At one time, a large part of the story took place in a city I’ve spent time in, but am not intimately familiar with and I recently cut that entire section and began rewriting it. It seemed too overwhelming to introduce one more unknown into the equation. Familiar people and places are easier to deal with while I’m being challenged with so many other issues.

I’m self-diagnosing my ongoing experience as a natural tendency of the beginning novelist and I anticipate that as I develop more skill, it will be easier to create characters completely out of thin air and to take the time to research other locations to represent them genuinely. I suspect that as I continue writing and revising, the story will come more into its own and the characters will mature into independent beings, their genesis unrecognizable to anyone but me.

Many well known authors write characters who are thinly veiled versions of themselves. John Updike and Philip Roth come immediately to mind. Quite a few writers admit to basing certain characters on people they’ve been close to in their lives.

The origin of fictional characters has me fascinated and I am hoping to hear from those of you who write. How much of your main character is you? How far away from you can you really get with your main character? Does your ability to create leading characters who are not like you at all develop over time? Where does the inspiration for your characters come from? Are they based on people you know? Are they a conglomeration of more than one person? Do you invent them in their entirety? How has this process changed for you if you've written more than one novel?

I'm hoping, as always to learn a lot from you.


kristen said...

Oh yes, me too. I want to know the answers as well. Great post Lisa, I'm so glad you always ask the questions!

Patti said...

i once wrote a story with an elderly black man as the main character. he was nothing like me. my thought is that all of my characters are a combination of all i know and those who i have had interaction with, even if it was a guy at the checkout line. i tuck these traits and sayings into my brain to use when they are needed.

the other thing for me is that when i write, the characters usually reveal themselves to me to be someone other than I might have originally supposed they were. it's as if my head is full of this other real life of other real people and they need a space on a page.

i try to listen to where i should go instead of pointing the way.

i am always jotting down interesting snippets of overheard conversations. at times it serves as a starting place for me.

the funny thing tome about writing novels is that i rarely discuss a current work, as it takes the life out of it for me, but when i am asked about past works i seem to stumble all over myself in trying to put to words how i do it. i always feel as if i am failing to explain things properly. like here...

Therese said...

Inventing characters from scratch has always come easily for me, but I wonder if it's more a matter of practice for some writers...

Surveying the stories and novels I've written, I see only one where the protagonist resembles me in any substantial way...and substantial, here, is a very relative term.

I start with a vague idea of what kind of person belongs to the story, whatever it is. The character's particulars evolve with the story, organically.

And then the story takes shape based on the character's psychology.

It's a pretty cool process, I have to say. :)

If you want to separate your protagonist from yourself, you might think about your story's situation--that hypothetical you began with--and ask, "what sort of person would experience the most dramatic consequences here?" Unless the answer is "Lisa Kenney" you might discover an entirely fresh character.

I find that all my main characters have bits of me in them, good and ill. But none IS me, and some are so far removed that when I re-read the stories I'm startled that I created them.

My thoughts, for what they're worth. :)

Lisa said...


It's pretty easy -- I have a lot of questions! :)


You explained it very well and thank you for taking the time to do it. It sounds like you are always watching and listening and absorbing everything around you and you never know when one of those filed away details will reveal itself and be useful...aha. I like that. I think I've tended to focus far too much on characters based on likable people -- not always though. I do have some women my character doesn't relate to at all, but you make me realize I need to open the net wider and pay much more attention to the cast of characters who are nothing like the people close to me, but can make things much more interesting.


That IS a cool process and I love your suggestion. You've made me acutely aware of a shortfall in my main character. She's reacted to things far too much the way I would and I'm pretty level-headed -- handy in real life but boring on paper! I suspect this, like many of my other challenges may be remedied with practice, as you've suggested. Your thoughts -- are extremely valuable. I appreciate that you take the time to think your answers through so well. Soon you'll have to start charging me a fee! :)

reality said...

I create my characters out of thin air. I am nothing like them. One of my previous novel's MC is a boy of twelve who lives in a village. I am neither.
My MC for current WIP is a call girl and a police officer. Characters that I have had minimum interaction with in real life.
I leave it to my imagination to create a life for them. The gap between reality and imagination has to be filled up with our real life life experiences and observations. A story about two girls in Boston undergoing a divorce can be transplanted to say two girls in the Middle East. Have we had the experience to observe both slices of life.

I agree with Therese that each book, each character does speak for the author. We try to couch it and the best authors do the best job. Yet we exist in our writing.

Keep your distance from your characters and yet shape them in light of what you see not only in yourself but in others around you.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Well, in my first novel, Ellen (the main character) starts out alot like me--and I used her to examine how I might react to a nightmare. I stole from my friends and family as well--but I think that's not uncommon with first novels.

Like Therese, I pull from all experiences and all the people I know. In my current WIP, the characters are more creations of my imagination (I doubt people will say to me, as they did about Ellen, "She's you!")--I think parts of me are in all of them, though.

And yes, the process has changed--I'm now working on my 3rd novel (and what I hope will be my second in publication) and I find that I see the characters much more separate from me--it's as if I'm fascinated to discover who they are and they gradually let me in. For example, I spend lots of time just thinking about them--how would they respond to such and such? What were they like as kids? I peel away their layers so they can become who they are. Ultimately, they feel like friends.

Lisa said...


I'm beginning to believe that I am just being timid. Your choice to create characters who are very far from your realm of experience and of you is a courageous one - I think you and Patti may be similar in that respect. I thought about this a lot after I initially posted and concluded that obviously lots of people create characters with whom they have little to nothing in common and they do it successfully. I think the key is in making sure these whole cloth inventions come off as genuine, which may entail research and interviews. Evolution is an amazing thing. Some people begin with a character, others a setting, others a what-if and still others a whole story. Thank you for sharing. This helps me a lot.


You've set my mind at ease in confirming what you did with All The Numbers and I think you're right that first novels often have characters heavily based on the author. When I read it, I just knew she was a lot like you, but then again I also knew from your website that you had two boys and the sense of place you created, at the lake and in the town were so real that I assumed they had to be places you knew very well. It absolutely didn't take away from anything at all of course. I'm glad that you shared the process has changed -- as I mentioned in my original post, I suspect my inclination to stick with a character and a place that I know very well has to do with trying to keep something about writing a novel within the realm of the familiar. On your 3rd novel, I'm very curious to know if straying completely away from yourself as far as characters has been creatively freeing. The more I think about what I have so far, the more I think I've limited my imagination by drawing so heavily on reality (I'm having an epiphany -- can you feel it in St. Louis?). Thanks so much for sharing Judy!

Larramie said...

Looking high and low for characters, Lisa? Since you once commented on your ability to get a good read on someone within the first few minutes of meeting them, I would think you'd be surrounded by characters. ;o)

Seriously, though, listen for the voices, feel their presence and -- as Patti advised -- follow them because it usually leads to a fascinating journey.

Lisa said...


Actually I am surrounded by characters and people I've met briefly but stuck in my head for some reason. I think my mistake has been in keeping the characters I'm personally most comfortable with (even though some of them are pretty crazy) in real life around me in fiction and that's just -- boring!

Heidi the Hick said...

Well I'm really glad you stopped by my place today, leading me to check out what you wrote today...What a great discussion topic!

First of all, I'm terrified that readers who know me will accuse me of basing the characters on myself. And I've made it easy for them, at least on the surface. One in particular appears to be the young version of me. She's not. None of them are. There are pieces of me in them, of course, but they are not me.

I do borrow from real people and I think we all do. We can't help it- I think we're all observers with active imaginations. I'm really careful though, to not make it obvious!

I write about myself on my blog. I have no desire to write about me in thinly disguised fiction. The people I invent are SO much more interesting!

Lisa said...

Heidi, I'm SO glad you came by. I've lurked around both your blogs quite a few times and I really enjoy them. It's also nice to know that no matter how hard we try to keep our recognizable selves out of our characters, I'm not the only one who sometimes has trouble. I'm with you -- I'm probably more cautious about characters who were inspired by people I know. If I can manage to take just those pieces I find intriguing and alter them enough, I hope they're different enough not to call attention to themselves. I don't mind if someone says a character reminds them of someone, I just wouldn't want them to think it was someone.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf