One of the more common questions I get is “Which of your characters is most like you?” I’ve heard other authors talk about this with varying degrees of frustration. I’m not exactly sure, exactly, what the consensus feeling is, but some authors don’t like the idea that the characters they create are based on someone (or at least just one person). I’ve discussed how I develop characters, and it’s absolutely true that they all have some pieces of lots of people I know, but no one character is simply a representation of any one person. I’m frankly too afraid of appropriation lawsuits.
A lot of my friends mention that reading my book was odd because they saw so much of me in my books. I don’t mind that so much, but that’s because I always give my characters some part of myself.
There’s a common phrase in the world of writing: Write what you know. Now, in Fantasy, this seems much more difficult when you consider ancient worlds and other races. Still, the simple fact is the life you live has an impact on the worlds you create. While I normally like to do case studies, I just don’t have enough knowledge on other authors to speak. At best, I have a few vague recollections. I believe this to be true about most authors, and to show it, I’ll talk about how my life has effected my art.
In The Journals of Bob Drifter, the most direct things I pulled from my life are locations and occupations. Patience is a photographer because I’m a photographer. I understood the field, and it worked for the story. Bob is a substitute teacher. The trick he used when he first met David is the same trick I used to gain my classes’ attention as a substitute. The fact that Bob looks a lot like me is coincidental. I had a buzz-cut hairstyle pretty much the last 15 years of my life. I grew it out recently. I was at an event when someone showed me the cover and said, “Is that you?” No. While Bob has my background in education, the similarities in hair are about all we have in common. I have family near Surprise, Arizona. I was stationed in San Diego and Syracuse while I served in the Navy. I took these locations because they were familiar. It made it easier for me to write since I could actually remember some of these locations.
I want to be clear about my role in the Navy. I served as a combat photographer. While some of my friends saw combat, and even earned recognition for their actions in combat, I didn’t see any. However, I certainly trained a lot. That training was put to use in Caught while writing the scenes involving Oneiros. None of this is stuff you couldn’t learn by watching Act of Valor, but it helped me have something to draw from.
While stationed in San Diego, I did a lot of volunteer work. I did some work with the homeless, and was shocked to hear that, as of 2010, there were 1,200 homeless veterans in the city of San Diego alone. This became the inspiration for another book.
Now for the other side of the coin.
I expect most authors pull from what they know. It adds realism and makes world-building easier, but there is a line. It’s poorly defined and depends more on the author than any actual rules. I’ve been to Afghanistan. I know what the weather is like. I know the road conditions. But I didn’t take actual locations. First off, my memory (while, in my opinion is pretty darn good, isn’t good enough to remember any one of the dozens of locations I visited in the six months I was there.
I mentioned Kirkuk Iraq in another book, but only as a location. Appropriation is a real privacy rights violation and something I take seriously. Locations are one thing, people are far more important. Yes, I usually take a TRAIT or two from people I know, but I have not (well..not since I was 13 and clueless) nor will not ever simply take someone I know and make them into a character. The closest I came was an old chief of mine. I spoke to him about it. While they look nothing alike and their situations in life are not even remotely similar, the trait I gave this character is what most would know my old chief for. The point is, I felt so strongly that I approached him and discussed the matter with him.
The balance between writing what you know and creating what you can create is an art in and of itself. Let me end with a few dos and don’ts.
Do: Use what you know to draw from. Your careers, hobbies, and interests can make for wonderful world building tools. Don’t be afraid to put them to use.
Do: Use locations and cultures with which you are familiar. It’s important to build a life-like world or use real-world locations in ways that help the reader gain a more visceral experience.
Don’t: Use real people without their expressed written permission. If that sounds like the end of a football game, it should. Now, some people enter contests specifically to be put in books. The very act of entering said contest waves a persons right to having their likeness used fictitiously.
Don’t: Use real scenes. This is debatable. The point is it’s close to the line, and I tend to avoid things like that. If I write about a restaurant in San Diego, I make sure I’m using that fictitiously, and it’s not fictionalized in an unflattering way. (At least I make every effort to do that). If I can make up a place, I do. There may indeed be a restaurant in San Diego at the location I offer, but if there is, I didn’t know it was there. So long as the location is simply used as a setting, I’m not OVERLY worried, but if I have any other way to do it, I will, especially if I’m looking for a “seedy” location or something of the sort. If I write information that’s accurately portraying the location, I’m safe, but accuracy becomes my friend. At the end of the day, if you’re worried about it, if you feel a little weird about it, don’t do it.
If you’re an author, and you want to provide your thoughts, please feel free to do so in the comments section.
Thanks for reading,
5 thoughts on “The Influence of Life on Art”
I agree that there is a fine line between what is permissible to transpose from real-life to story. There is a responsibility that comes with the territory of writing for that very reason.
When it comes to interests and experiences such as photography and combat training, I agree with you. Activities and experiences like that ought to be used and channeled. Ian Fleming did it with Bond (though his life wasn’t nearly as exciting as 007’s), for example. Interestingly, Fleming has been retrospectively called out for describing Bond as looking essentially like himself. Dan Brown has confessed that he wishes he was Robert Langdon. In some ways, and to varying degrees, I think authors do put pieces of themselves in their characters. It is easy to understand how and why that dynamic works.
I agree with your take regarding things to avoid as well. There are certainly some bad characters I have encountered in my personal life who I could describe to their toes, but copy-pasting them into a story would be unethical and ultimately uncomfortable. I couldn’t and wouldn’t do that. Instead, I could take what made them horrible and work with that, or perhaps siphon the emotion from the experiences and channel that. On the other side of that coin, in a manner I would liken to your experience with the chief in your personal life, there are a couple of individuals so novel in a positive way I feel I may be compelled to use their dominant traits and adapt them in the future. Such adaption would warrant permission, though, as you said.
Now, the exception to that rule is a cheeky, unspoken pact I’ve made with my cousins. In every book I write, however many that may end up being, I will insert one of them into a brief cameo role that has no bearing on the plot. They will be distinguishable by physical features alone, and if the character has a name, it will be a name different from theirs. Cheeky indeed, but they all get a grin out of the idea, so I’m rolling with it.
Thought-provoking post as usual, Matt. Well done. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
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Thanks JJ. I always appreciate your comments. Little cameos are fun. Otherwise no one would be watching Marvel movies looking for Stan Lee. People are going to write what they know. And if it’s theirs, there isn’t a problem. I don’t know that I’ll ever be upset if someone asked if this character is me or that character is me. Richard is the character from The Journals of Bob Drifter is the most like me. Cover aside, I don’t actually look anything like Bob (brown hair, mine is gray, brown eyes, mine are green), but we dress alike. I don’t use appearances thought, just personality traits. (because no one can really copyright that) Likenesses are a different matter. Like you said though, if you have an agreement or are just trying to give those you love some limelight, that’s probably going to be fine.
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A well thought out post, and very well done. At best, I’ve only used a friend (with his permission) for the physical part but then the character developed himself as I wrote him. I honestly believe, in the end, my characters tell me who they are as I write them. Anyway, well done!!
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Most of my characters are outlined, but there’s always one or two who become more special as I write. I don’t know how cool they are until they tell me.
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I outline too, but they’re mere suggestions…. ones I’m willing to alter to fit the story.
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