A long time ago, I was approached by a writer I knew who asked if it was ok if she based a character in her young adult novel on me. Of course I said yes, though I had no idea how “I” would be portrayed. She didn’t do me wrong; as it worked out the character was only superficially about “me” anyway but even if she had made “me” out to be a villain, I would not have complained.
The thing is, she asked.
I also have a fat book that identifies who the characters in famous novels “really are”*. And I am sure that in many, even most, cases, the authors didn’t ask. This can be risky actually – the proviso in the front of most novels that they are works of fiction and that similarity to any persons, living or dead, is coincidental, is no defence in itself. Australian novelist Frank Hardy was prosecuted for criminal libel over his novel Power without glory, though he was acquitted.
When I started writing fiction, I decided that I would never base a single character on a single person, not so much for legal reasons as for personal ones: it just didn’t (and doesn’t) seem fair, even if the character is portrayed favourably. Yet I haven’t just made them up from thin air. My characters have emerged into fictional life courtesy of a number of people, even different aspects – physical, temperamental, interests etc – are often amalgams from people I know or have seen. This has not been easy to do, and critics might complain that it makes the characters inevitably artificial. As I write in a “sub-literary” genre this is inevitable to some degree anyway: it is part of the definition of the genre, or of any genre
Just lately, however, I have been thinking about writing a novel that is perhaps outside my usual “thriller” genre, and could even qualify as so-called “serious” literature. This is shameful on my part really – in my opinion the trouble with modern fiction, the thing that sets it outside the reading habits of most people, is precisely that it is “serious”. There is a literature in control of “serious” people whose elitist notions of what is good can squeeze out what is really good storytelling. Successful writers “don’t count” because they write “genre”. Well, I write genre and am not successful, so don’t count twice! But I would rather be read and enjoyed by many people than critically acclaimed and read only by a few. Anyone reading this blog should know that my aim has always been to square the circle of popularity and “serious intent” and one of my sayings about my writing, dreamed up for this, is that I have a serious purpose in a frivolous genre. But that too is unfair as it is only frivolous to those who sneer at it.
Anyway the central character of this novel would be drawn much more from life than any of my other previous characters: I am thinking about this, both as a moral issue (is this ok?) and an artistic one (can I do it successfully?). Of course I can write it, and if it doesn’t work, just shelve it as I have one of my other books.
One of the things I’m interested in with this particular idea is that it breaks the boundary between life and death. The initial flash of inspiration was of a person talking to another person across this boundary, only to see it dissolve in a very direct and surprising way. That’s the first page taken care of (joke). As I have written earlier in this blog this isn’t entirely new even among so-called serious writers. Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo dies in the middle of his novel yet continues to play a part in the action. B Traven’s The night visitor, a story the German wrote in Spanish, also features a dead person coming to life. I am sure there are many others, The lovely bones being a famous one I’ve never read.
To wander outside one’s genre can be both thrilling and scary. Before beginning to write thrillers I read hundreds of them, to get “how they work” into my unconscious so as to be able to make my own work. But to be honest, if there i a “dead as live” genre that is not about vampires, and I would not be surprised at all if there is, I’m not really all that interested in it. I’m just interested in this one idea, that I would like to write.
But maybe it’s time to shake some dust from my heels and head out yonder, where grizzlies roam and coyotes howl…
*This is The Originals – Who’s really Who in Fiction by William Amos. My paperback (Sphere) is dated 1985.