Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Character or Caricature?

by Cricket McRae

The other night my guy and I went to a birthday party. A few minutes after we got there, a man I will call TJ walked up to us.

“Hey there.” Points to himself. “TJ. I’m here as R’s date. Not that we’re you know, dating. We’re just ----ing. Hahahahaha. I don’t know you. I’d remember if I knew you because I always remember good lookin’ women.” Peers around. “Where’s my friend Jack?”

And off he went to find his fifth of Jack Daniels, which he carried with him all evening, swigging directly from the bottle until it was gone. I kid you not. Why, after all, dirty a glass?

Then he passed out in the backyard.

Between his delightful greeting (we had, in fact, met before, and it was just as unpleasant the first time) and his blessed unconsciousness, he yammered loudly to anyone within listening range, insulted several of the other party goers, made out with some woman who was not his “date” for the evening, and had his face slapped.

Now: this was a large party with lots of people. Most of us were well over the age of forty, with a few thirty-somethings tossed in. There were martinis and mojitos, chatting and catching up, lots of laughter and a little dancing later on. It was, in short, a fun time.

Except, of course, for TJ. He was obnoxious, loud, and rude when sober, and then he and Jack managed to exacerbate those marvelous qualities as the evening progressed. And to make it worse, the woman who was supposed to be his date was the birthday girl.

At one point my S.O. breathed into my ear, “Oh, man. You have to put that guy in a book. He’s a perfect asshole.”

Ruefully, I told my dear one that however much I’d love to mine such an extreme character, he was, unfortunately, too perfect. TJ was simply too much that guy: a caricature of himself. A real person who could only be a cliché in fiction.

At a recent reading, a woman asked whether the people I base my characters on recognized themselves in my writing. Her question presupposed that I use friends and family as characters, and I had to explain that I really don’t do that.

She insisted that you have to write what you know, so my fiction must reflect actual people. I pointed out that I also know all the other folks I’ve met in a lifetime of reading fiction and non-fiction, as well as watching movies and television. So if you take that into consideration, the questioner was probably right.

Last week my aunt called. She said she’d read Lye in Wait, and she’d finally figured out who everyone in the book was.

I made inquisitive noises, though I suspected where the conversation was headed.

“Tootie is your great grandmother McCoy, isn’t she? But are you Sophie Mae or Meghan?”

Neither one. Both. In fact, I’m everyone in my books, to a degree, because I can’t help but write from aspects of myself. Sophie Mae isn’t me, though we share some of the same interests. And Meghan isn’t me, though I’m short and have brown hair. Barr Ambrose isn’t me, though I’m originally from Wyoming. And Erin isn’t me, even if I was a smart ass ten-year-old.

Maybe I can't put TJ into a book until I get better at being a jerk. I'll try and work on that.

So where do your characters come from? Are they alter egos? Have you ever put someone you know directly on the page? Do you get to know your characters as you write, or do they come to you fully formed?


Keith Raffel said...

One interviewer asked me if the characters in my book were based on real people. I said no. The next paragraph a good friend was quoted as saying, "I don't care what he says. I recognize at least six people in the book."

Mark Combes said...

I recently had a chat with Lee Child about dialogue in books and how they must "sound real" but without all the things that go into a real conversation. Think of all the spacers (ums, coughs) and uncompleted sentences we use in real life dialogue. These conversations would be incomprehensible if written on a page. We construct dialogue that "sounds real" without even being remotely real. Characters are the same way.

It's really odd if you think about it. We try to make something unreal sound real because the real is unreal.

Bill Cameron said...

What Mark said. You know, I was thinking, see . . . right, well, about character, I know. Yes. He's not that way at all! That's exactly what I think—, yes, sure. Um. Unbelieveable! Ha ha! Wait, you saw that too?

Mark Terry said...

I, on the other hand, am exactly like Derek Stillwater--handsome, charming, in great shape, and I regularly save the world. What the hell are you guys talking about? You make all this shit up?

Mark Combes said...

For those of you that have read Lost Dog, I hope to hell Bill made that stuff up! Bird watcher my ass!

As for you Mark #1, some of us have to play make believe.

Bill Cameron said...


Felicia Donovan said...

Great post, Cricket. Like everyone else, I've had people swear they knew who the "real" Black Widows were. T'aint necessarily so.

Writers are like artists - we use a dab of a physical characteristic here, a splash of humor there. Considering how deeply authors delve into their characters' psyches, it would be lethal (and a bit libelous) to so accurately portray a real person that they were recognizable (though it is tempting...).

As to the group here, all I can say is that they're a bunch of characters, alright.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

When my latest book, Thugs and Kisses, came out, several people in my office said they just "knew" that the character of attorney Carl Yates was based on one of the senior partners in our firm. Guilty as charged. Though the real life attorney, who has read the book, has never asked me if that was true. Wonder if he recognized himself?

And Odelia Grey's father is exactly like my late father. And Odelia is a lot like me, except she dresses better and swears less and has a better love life.

On the other hand, I've also had people close to me point out characters and try to guess who they are based on. Sorry folks. Only the characters mentioned above are based on real people. So far.

G.M. Malliet said...

I can't put real people in my fiction. I've tried. It just doesn't work.

Besides, the first thing they teach you in journalism is that the world is full of people who make a living filing phony lawsuits, or people who think everything is all about them, anyway. Why run the risk when making stuff up is way more fun?