Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Mimicking Life?

by Bethany Maines

A few weeks ago I posted a photo on my FB page that said, “If you were in my novel, I’d have killed you off by now.” I’d like to say that was a joke, but the unfortunate part (for everyone else) of being a writer is that I really do use a large chunks of life for my writing. I just don’t use the parts people think I’m going to… or should.

Over the years I’ve had several people offer me “really great” suggestions about what to include in a novel and I’ve taken absolutely none of them. What I have taken, or pilfered, as the case may be, are people’s stories, experience, and random bits of dialogue. Don’t tell me that pine needle basket weaving is a skill you keep up in case of the zombie apocalypse if you don’t want that included in a piece of Maines fiction. Don’t invent clever catch phrases about basic life principles if you don’t want them written down (I’m looking at you Dad aka Ray “Lugnut Rule” Maines).

But when it comes to using an actual person, I try not to do that. For one thing, I know some pretty complex people and capturing them in fiction sounds hard.  And for another… I’m mean.  I really will kill people off, or worse.  I made one of my favorite characters the villain in my first novel what do you think I’d do to someone that annoyed me in real life.  Next thing you know, snooty waitress, you’re going to be a drug mule for an incompetent Norwegian drug lord and TSA will be all up in yer bidness.

That’s not to say I’ve never done it, but it seems like those “characters” never make the final cut; they get edited out before the final draft.  I think it’s because fictional revenge might be fun, but it doesn’t make a good story. It’s hard to draft a solid plot around the impulse to bash an acquaintance in the head, unless the plot is “writer kills client who looks like Toad from Wind in theWillows.”

But that got me to thinking, if I was going to put someone in a novel, who should it be?  My grandmother? My business partner? The annoying neighbor with the miniature horse? Or the highly suspicious old dudes across the street who might be running a chop shop?  Who would you put in a novel?


  1. Bethany, whenever I try to put someone I know in a novel, I wind up turning them into someone else entirely. Real people are surprisingly unsatisfactory as characters.

  2. Bethany--I am surprised that it's starting to sound like I'm in a minority of experience on this one. (Maybe more people will surface via comments, though.)

    I find that you can lift almost to the roots of their dyed hair the attributes of real people in your life and they only recognize themselves about 2% of the time! Actually, I have found a tangent of this is true: people often pick out someone not at all based on anything about them in my work as being "obviously" modeled on them, a total rip-off, etc.!

    So, I use, twist, alter, and once in a while flat-out transcribe real persons all the time and it seems to be a good thing, makes the characters more believable, I guess. But, I think you definitely hit on the biggest source of good characterization, the bits of conversation or mannerism vs. really taking an entire personality and using it, right?

    1. LOL! You're probably right! I could probably use someone and they'd never know because they just don't think of themselves the same way I do. Maybe I need to expand my horizons.

  3. Good question Bethany.

    Sometimes I draw from people I've known, not so much the details but the general concept. For example, in Murder Off the Books, we have a character who is described as the Mayor of the block. She's based on a woman who lived across the street from us in the first house my husband and I ever owned. We were young, she seemed old (probably younger than I am now!). But she knew everybody's business and ran a tight ship, so to speak, in the neighborhood. I can't even remember her name now, but I do remember her behavior and how the neighbors absolutely kowtowed to her (me included) :-)


  4. Fun post. I've based many characters on real people but no one has ever recognized themselves. In my next Deputy Tempe Crabtree book I have a real person who asked to be in it. I didn't use her real name but I bet all her friends recognize her and she'll love it. She just go diagnosed with a rare and not easy to treat cancer so we're going all out for the launch parties.