I was sitting in a popular lunch spot near the train station in downtown
, having a light-hearted lunch with a couple of longtime friends. Brunswick
Starkey (his real name is James, but I’ve never heard anybody call him that) and
Laurel (her real name is ), are charmers: gregarious, witty, kind, fabulous conversationalists. Laurel
They’re also hungry readers – they read everything: fiction, non-fiction, biography, essay...they simply love books, love to read, love to talk about what they’re reading.
When the man at the next table took off his jacket, revealing the print on his T-shirt, we three lapsed into respectful silence.
“Careful,” it read, “or you’ll end up in my novel.”
“I want one of those,” I said.
We laughed, took a couple of bites, swallowed.
“Is it true?” Starkey asked, suddenly, turning to me. “Do writers put people they know in their books?”
It’s a terribly loaded question for a writer, and answering it brings up a veritable minefield of possible responses, most of which are vague, and all of which carry a germ of truth.
I’ll answer as best I can.
The names of characters are irrelevant – I mean, they’re just names – but what comes after the names? How do I turn those names into recognizable characters; how do I make you care enough about them to become involved in the story I’m telling, in what I have to say?
The answer is fairly obvious:
I borrow bits and pieces of people I know – how they walk, or sit in chairs, how they button their shirts or put on their jackets. I take note of how people twirl lengths of their hair, chew their fingernails, or tip their heads when they’re thinking; how they fold the newspaper and hold glasses of water, how they talk to their children, their spouses, their friends.
I borrow characteristics from people I know who drink too much, eat too much, swear, yell and cheat too much; abusers and enablers, dreamers and high achievers, those who do good works, who volunteer, who do what they can to build community for us all. I adapt attitudes from friends who are doctors and cafeteria workers, farmers and attorneys, grocery store cashiers and retirees, from saints and sinners and fools.
I borrow their use of language, their words, their phrasing, their rhythm and timing; their senses of wit and humor (or their lack of both); I pay attention to their acts of kindness, selflessness, their indifference and, sometimes, downright cruelty...
...I could go on, but I’m sure you get my drift.
So, be careful.