When you’re friends with a writer, you run the risk that they’ll steal from you, especially if you like to tell funny stories. My imagination has limited fertility. When I come across great stories, I have no choice. I have to jot them down for future use.
My short story “The Back Up” was based on one friend’s account of finding out her sickly state at birth lost her the chance of having the favoured name. “The Sneeze” was based on another friend’s experience in Catholic school. I have a few other gems I am storing up for the future. I just have to figure out how to incorporate the story of my friend’s aunt who had a penchant for pinching things, including a sequin bathing suit.
Other people call it inspiration. Using that word makes it far more palatable and less likely that friends will stop having coffee with me – or worse, they’ll stop telling me their stories.
But now I have to write character sketches. I need to work out the lives and personalities of about 10 characters. What they like, what they fear, how they’d react to situations, even how they talk – it all has to come alive. They need to be sympathetic and interesting. While the plot for my novel was inspired (there’s that word again) by a distant relative, I don’t want it to be her.
The characters can’t all be based on my cats’ traits. They are interesting, but bringing me dead mice only goes so far. So I’ll have a look around, comb my Facebook friends, and see who has interesting bits and pieces that I can borrow.
Some people have habits and personalities just too delicious not to end up in a book. It’s why we love them, or better yet, it’s the little thing they do that make us want to twist their necks. It’s the friend with the verbal tick that makes you roll your eyes. Or the friend who can’t help but mess up innocent phrases and turn them into filthy, yet hysterical statements. Or the friend whose irrational fear of bees puts you at jeopardy when you walk down the street with them. That’s what makes characters real.
But it can’t go too far. I started to write a character sketch the other day and wrote down “Could be like X, but less uptight”. No, no, that’s just a horrible idea. The details need to be fuzzy enough around the edges that the person doesn’t recognize themselves. I really don’t want a friend to read something and think, “Holy crap, that’s me. She made me the villain. That bitch!”
So if you know a writer and read their work and think “Hey, wait a minute, that sounds a little too familiar”, take it as a compliment. Something about you stands out. You’ve left an imprint. Honestly, it’s out of love.
Oh, and if you ask me if a character is based on you, I’m just going to deny it.