Thursday, January 28, 2010

You're Such a Character!

By Deborah Sharp

A friend got me one of those writer's sweatshirts for Christmas: Careful, or You'll End up in My Novel. Since South Florida has actually had a taste this year of what the rest of the country calls winter, my new sweatshirt's gotten a lot of wear. I'm still a recent-vintage novelist. I love to see people's eyes light up when they read the logo and find out I write mysteries.

Believe me, this never happened when I wore my newspaper reporter's t-shirt: Journalists Do It Daily. Members of the media rank somewhere between politicians and Wall Street titans on the public's love-o-meter. Sad, but true.

The logo on my new sweatshirt has me wondering, though. When did I stop thinking of people as people, and start seeing them as characters?

Example: I ride my bicycle along the river in downtown Fort Lauderdale, and spot a woman on a bench. She wears a blue-flowered dress and crumples a tissue in her lap.

What I'm telling you is I don't want to do this anymore
. . .

She pauses to listen.

It hurts too much. I just can't.

She presses the tissue to her eyes.

I pedal past, and just like that, this poor woman's misery becomes a snippet of dialogue. I tuck it away for some future cell-phone breakup scene in a book.

I continue on to meet some friends for breakfast. As they chat, I check out the cafe. There's an older couple, she in a poly pantsuit, he in a fishing cap. They never say a word to each other as they sip their coffee. He takes his black. She uses too much sugar.

I feel a quick rush of fear: What if that's my husband and me, 20 years down the road? But my next thought is how to make them work, fictionally. Forty years of marriage, and nothing left to say. Maybe there's rage roiling beneath her placid features. Perhaps he's disappointed at how life turned out. Or, maybe he's taken up with a younger woman who sells fishing lures along Lake Okeechobee. This is the last breakfast before he walks out on his wife.

My gaze moves on to assess the next group of diners -- three guys with neat hair and tight t-shirts. Male models? Personal trainers? But then my attention turns to a woman sitting alone at a table in the corner. Pen in hand, she has an open notebook on the table. She stares thoughtfully. At me. I feel a flush on my face as I realize maybe I'm fiction fodder for her. I imagine her character notes:

Middle-aged, lacks social skills. Disengages from her table's conversation to watch everyone else. Spends too much time in her own head.

I turn my attention to my friends, smile and ask questions. I am not disengaged! Stealing a glance at this other writer, I see her head is now bent over her notebook. She's scribbling away. The nerve! Who does this woman think she is, reducing me to a character in her novel?

How about you? Do you put real people in your fiction? Have you ever become a character in someone's book? Do you think those writer's sweatshirts are stupid?


Lisa Bork said...

I think the sweatshirt is funny. Some people who shall remain nameless worry now that I've become a writer, but I've only used one real, delightful person from my childhood, who may no longer be with us.

Deborah Sharp said...

Hey, Lisa ... maybe SOME people should worry! Thanks for commenting.

G.M. Malliet said...

My cousin gave me a T-shirt that I love. It says: "I do my own writing stunts."

And that is what it feels like some days.

And a friend gave me a tote that says, "Be nice to the writer or she may put you in a book and kill you." Much the same theme as your sweatshirt, Deborah!

I've never worn both items at once. Might be overkill. Heh heh.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

For my birthday last month I received that "Be Careful" slogan on a tee shirt. I wore it to work on a Friday and everyone laughed. Can't wait to wear it to the gym.

I was once on a really awful first date - a set up. Fortunately, it was just for coffee. It lasted about 20 min, which was 10 min too long. When we parted, he snapped: "And don't put me in one of your books!" My reply: "You're not interesting enough."

Alan Orloff said...

I use bits and pieces of real people in my books. Of course, I make sure to change things enough so nobody recognizes themselves!

I can't confirm this, but I think Lee Child might have used me as a model for Jack Reacher. Not absolutely sure, though.

Keith Raffel said...

Michael Lewis dedicated his book "Home Game" to his children with the epigram "If you don't want to read about it, don't do it." Perfect. Go get 'em, Deb.

Cricket McRae said...

Funny post, Deb. Nothing like having the tables turned on you. A friend and I used to make up stories about the people around us whenever we went out to eat. It was great practice for developing characters, but now I wonder what those people would have said about me!

Deborah Sharp said...

hey, y'all! Thanks for reading ... those are SOME stunts you do, too, GM! Award-winning, I'd say; SA: let me know when you meet someone interesting enough to go in your books ... he may be a keeper; A: Jack Reacher, huh? Yeh, I can see that ... K: I may use that line on my husband; and C: You never know, right?

Mike Dennis said...

Good post, Deborah. I use real people all the time in my novels.

That was a nice little slice-of-life you included from that restaurant scene. You might want to check out the song ROSALIE'S GOOD EATS CAFE by Bobby Bare. It came out back in the 70s, and was written by Shel Silverstein. It dovetails very nicely with your post.