Are My Characters Real?

I gave a prologue recently to a friend to read. I normally NEVER do that. For starters, they never know what to say exactly so normally they will gush about it (or if you are a relative of mine you will point out every missed comma or random typo, gah). Also, their feedback – don’t get me wrong here – is hardly useful. They will say things like, “Oh this is great.” Or, “You have a typo on that last paragraph.” Or, “Shouldn’t there be a period after that sentence?” Or, “Wow, you really are a writer!” Or, “This was such a great read.”

Basically: useless.

Even my husband, in all his support and attempts at being helpful, is hardly any better. “Yeah, this is really good, honey”…“I like this a lot”…“Very good.” It all sounds the same between reading a chapter of mine and helping our daughter with algebra.

Also, if they are not normally readers of my books genre, their input will hardly be on point anyway. I have a friend who only reads romance so giving her a historical novel to read will bore her endlessly. I was in a writer’s group about a year ago that had mainly science fiction writers. It was a mess. They were clueless about historical fiction (and bored) and I was totally lost and confused in their outer space worlds and strange animals.

Anyway.

I gave a friend my prologue on one of my books. (For the record, she gushed and said, “Oh this is great” which was exactly the sort of thing I figured she would say.)

I should also point out that just because someone says, “Oh this is great!” doesn’t inflate my head or pump up my ego – I know it is them not knowing what else to say. I mean, are they really going to say something like, “Um, I found the characters to be one-dimensional and the plot appeared to be going nowhere. I almost fell asleep before I reached page three.” No. Are they going to say, “Sorry to tell you this but this SUCKED!” No. They are going to do everything to spare my feelings and so they will just be overly nice.

Anyway. I digress.

Again. (So shoot me.)

After reading the prologue my friend asked me, “Is the Sophia character your mom? Because I totally thought that as I was reading it.”

Hold me.

Okay, look.

Are characters somewhat derived and ever so loosely based on real people? The answer is yes. They are. I mean, it is hard to live a life and encounter hundreds of people in your lifetime so far and not have a few lingering…personality traits, body images, language quirks, bad habits, horrible spouses, interesting talents, or fascinating childhoods…of real people you know in real life.

However, that’s where it all basically ends.

My characters MAY have a personality trait or a little quirk or a bad habit of someone I know. I may even get inspiration based on real people (that happens A LOT) but the characters themselves take on a life of their own usually (hopefully) right from the beginning.

And for fear of sounding mentally unstable – the characters begin to come alive in front of me as I outline. They also start talking to me too.

No, really.

As I develop characters and give them voice, features, quirks, traits, habits, what they love to wear, what they hate to eat, where their favorite vacation was when they were ten, even what their name is…they seem to start standing in front of me as I write (hands on hips, staring me down if I get something wrong, those pesky pain-in-the-ass characters. And no, I’m not on any special meds.)

I can definitely start to see and hear them the more I write about their story. (If they can see me is a totally different thing. I’m kidding. You know that, right? I’m almost a hundred percent positive they can’t see me. But to be honest, I’ve never asked them.) As the story develops suddenly their voice gets louder – and when I type dialogue sometimes I feel as though I am only the fingers typing on the computer – they are the ones doing all the talking and telling me what to say and how to say it.

In one of my novels, a contemporary book set in San Diego and features a host of characters, I had outlined the chapter one way and my character completely said something different and totally off what I expected him to say…I typed it and decided to leave it – even though it changed the course of the story a bit.

The characters begin to transform from a one-dimensional name on a piece of paper into real, thinking, and breathing human beings.

In the case of this prologue my friend read: it is a story that features (more or less) my mom’s childhood home. And it is a story that features a small grocery business…which my uncle also ran. And there are kids that went to boarding school like my cousins did. Other than that, it is just a fictional story because the story is not about my mom or my uncle or my cousins.

In fact, my mom is eager to read the story (even though it isn’t totally edited to my liking yet) and I had to warn her: some of the details may sound familiar to you but this is NOT a story of YOU and YOUR FAMILY and your childhood living in Los Angeles in the 1940s. This is a totally fictional story with fictional people and events.

There is something that I remember reading about writers that I love. If you are around writers be careful what you say (or do) because it just might end up in their book.

Many phrases or scenes that have actually happened…I have turned them into sentences in the book. For instance, there is a scene about women at the church cooking in the kitchen for a big feast the following day. I can’t tell you how many of my afternoons as a child was spent with my mom and grandmother at the church watching these Italian women cook, laugh, and play cards with their 7up and biscotti after preparing for a feast. I have used these memories…and more…throughout the book. I also interviewed my brother (a baseball historian) a few times regarding facts and details that were unclear to me regarding the Los Angeles Dodgers and a few phrases and a few of his memories have become part of my characters voice and memory…like how my brother lost his collection of baseball cards, for example.

So, I told my friend: “No, Sophia is not my mom. She is not anyone but a character in my book.”

(Sophia is standing here in front of me with her floral apron on, hands on her hips, shaking her head at me. She hates when I refer to her as a character.)

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