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.
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.