The People We Think We Know (and the Characters They Inspire)

From Writer Unboxed:

Basing fictional characters on people we know carries both distinct risks and unique rewards.

The risks include potentially offending the person inspiring the character, especially if unflattering facts are revealed and the characterization is not adequately camouflaged—or poorly executed.

That said, a great many writers I know have reported that the people on whom they’ve based characters have seldom if ever recognized themselves, if only out of misguided vanity.

On the other hand, the rewards of basing characters on people we know include the ability to use personal, real-world knowledge and observation in the characterization, with the added plus of being able to use one’s own distinct intuitive impression of the person.

Obviously, there is no guarantee that knowing someone assures that you know them well. How much of someone’s life goes unnoticed by even intimate companions? Absent clandestine surveillance, we can’t know the secrets of others unless they’re divulged to us, either by the person herself or by someone betraying a confidence. And the violation of trust revealed in the latter circumstance is only enhanced if the secret is passed along by us, fictionally or otherwise.

I first began thinking of these matters when I was working on The Art of Character, specifically in response to the question of where our characters come from, i.e., are they created or discovered. (Answer: they’re a little of both.)

And while I was working on that section of the book, I happened upon a poem John Updike wrote late in his life, titled “Peggy Lutz, Fred Muth.”

. . . .

In that poem, Updike remarks:

Dear friends of childhood, classmates, thank you,
scant hundred of you, for providing a
sufficiency of human types: beauty,
bully, hanger-on, natural,
twin, and fatso—all a writer needs

These thoughts came crashing back to me recently when I returned to Columbus, Ohio, to attend my 50th high school reunion. (Yes, I really am that old.)

In particular, I was repeatedly struck by how much or how little many of us had changed, and in both instances why.

Link to the rest at From Writer Unboxed

PG found the entire text of Peggy Lutz, Fred Muth here.

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