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  • Writer's pictureAssistant to Alisa Valdes

Crafting Characters: Drawing from Real-Life Encounters for Novel Inspiration



In my fiction-writing, real-life encounters sometimes serve as inspiration for make-believe characters. As Isabel Allende once said, "It's the writer's job to betray everyone who has ever loved them." In this blog post, I'll describe how I transform ordinary encounters into extraordinary characters, in hopes of prompting you to reflect on the memorable characters in your own life.


When I was first starting out as a novelist 20 years ago, I could be fairly direct in borrowing traits from real people I knew in order to craft fictional characters. I'll never forget the day I got an email from a man I had dated in graduate school, Scott Aikens, congratulating me on the success of my first book, The Dirty Girls Social Club, which he'd read about in the New York Times. I hadn't spoken to Scott in more than a decade, and he hadn't read the book yet, so he didn't know (yet) that I had based the character of Brad (Rebecca's husband) on him. He figured it out after he bought the book, and sent me a second and very unhappy email saying, in essence, "never mind, hope your book fails."


No one likes to feel like a fictional character has been based on them, especially if that character has some less-than-positive traits -- and in order to be interesting, most fictional characters will have at least one obvious flaw. Most of us know the worst traits of the people we know, but we don't usually mention them because good relationships require a great deal of not saying certain things. I know what it feels like to realize a writer friend knew more about me that I thought, because the great New Mexico writer John Nichols, whom I dated when I was in undergraduate school, based his character of "The Girl" on me in his novel An Elegy for September, and I absolutely hated how she was depicted. Over the years I've come to understand that it wasn't personal, though; when writers draw inspiration from real life, it's less a commentary about the source of the inspiration that it is about the writer and how they see the world.


Twenty-five years and sixteen published novels later, I still draw inspiration for characters from the people in my life. I am a bit more subtle about it now, however. Or at least I hope I am. I do a lot more mixing and matching and outright invention, and my writing is less and less about me and more and more about The World.


But at the end of the day I will always be a writer, which means most people who know me well might find bits and pieces of themselves in my novels. Even when I try to disguise the person I've drawn inspiration from, the source sometimes figures it out anyway. That's what happened with the character of Olivia's mother in my second novel, Playing with Boys; she was based loosely on my own father, in that they were both immigrants and professors, but she lived in Los Angeles and he in Albuquerque. Still, he recognized himself in the way she neglected her yard work, and asked me point blank if that was about him. "Her house sounds familiar," he said. He seemed hurt. I felt terrible.


Writing fiction isn't a great job for diplomats or people-pleasers. Novelists always draw upon their own lives in some kind of way, and even though most of us do this because we are fascinated by human psychology and relationships, it means that no one is safe from being "painted" by our pens. At least our friends and family can take some small comfort in knowing that we are usually the most ruthless in writing about characters we base upon our own spectacularly flawed selves.


Have you ever based a fictional character on a real person in your life? And if you haven't, who among all the people you know do you think might make a good character



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