In loving memory of Curly Howard (Jerome Lester Horwitz), who left the material world 69 years ago today.
Part of my development as a writer was the realisation I couldn’t keep dumping in incidents from my own life, sometimes almost play-by-play. Just as a good character shouldn’t be a cipher of yourself, a good overall story also shouldn’t be a thinly fictionalised version of your own life.
I’ve previously mentioned the dreadful novel in verse Purple Daze, which I disliked even more after a friend of the author responded to my Amazon review to explain it was the real story of their buddies in the Sixties. No wonder I didn’t connect with the characters or their stories! Why didn’t the author just write a memoir then? She was way too close to the subject to make any attempt to go in original directions.
I was really embarrassed to reread the third grade graduation scene from the first two drafts of the book formerly known as The Very Last, since it was my junior high graduation with a few details changed. Nothing about it felt right with my characters or the overall story. I later based Adicia’s elementary school graduation in Little Ragdoll on this as well, but the key word is based. Not a blow-by-blow recreation.
Still, I don’t regret immortalising that awful judge who gave our graduation speech. He thought it was relevant and appropriate to bring up the recent O.J. Simpson Bronco chase, and point-blank said “The person you’re sitting next to might not be there in four years” because they were lazy, ignorant, didn’t care about education, used drugs, joined a gang. I’m proud to report most of my classmates did indeed graduate high school!
Many of the happenings at school in the first draft of Saga I of Cinnimin and many of the Max’s House books (which I’ve renamed The Saga of the Sewards) are also quite strongly based on things that happened to me in my ninth grade Studio Art class; my junior high tech ed, music, and health classes; my ninth grade Spanish class; goings-on in the hallways and stairwells between classes at junior high; the junior high bus; and a couple of things from upper elementary school.
It’s not that those incidents aren’t funny, well-written, or well-incorporated with the rest of their respective books. It’s about them not feeling right with these characters and the ultimate direction I decided to take these books in. The stuff from Spanish class (transmogrified into French class) was also just a petty, rather disturbing way to get revenge on a teacher I was increasingly annoyed by.
There was also the real story of my seventh grade social-studies teacher finding a little baggy of pot in her locker room, and burning it with matches from her desk to see if it were real. Right there in class. Many of the other people who were there also still vividly remember this. But why did that have a place in any story of mine? Just because it was wild and funny?
Instead, what you want to do is use real people and events as a jumping-off point. Maybe have a fifth grade teacher similar to your own, but change it up with a few differences, and let storylines and personality naturally develop from there. Making an exact carbon copy is just you forcing your own life, down to the last detail, into your story and pretending it’s fiction.
You never want to use a real name for such a character either, unless you have full permission from the person and s/he’s seen the entire book. Even if this is a sympathetic character, someone could still take offence.
I based many of my original Atlantic City characters on people I knew in elementary school. Some were only loosely based, with similar appearances and general personalities. Others were much more strongly based, but eventually developed into their own unique characters.
Think about who your characters are, really are, and what your intentions with the story are. Those real-life people and events might read really well in a memoir or published journals, but odds are, when you just blindly plunk them down into a purportedly fictional story and have your characters doing and saying these things in place of you and your friends, it’ll feel flat, unnatural, out of place.
Your characters will tell you who they are and what they ought to be doing if you grow to know them well enough. That doesn’t include acting out your own life.