By Laura P. Valtorta
All of us who attend South Carolina Writers’ Workshop, Columbia II, have thought now and again that Bonnie would make a great detective. The round glasses, the penetrating attention to detail, the no-nonsense hairstyle. She could be another Miss Marple. Hercule Poirot. A LIsbeth Salander – American-style.
Fiction writers are often tempted to steal characters from the world around them. It’s so much easier to describe the quirks and wardrobe of a real, living person than to invent someone imaginary. Woody Allen explores this phenomenon in his masterpiece movie, Deconstructing Harry. The women in his life become homicidal after he tears them apart in his fiction. The fictional characters Harry creates are better looking but internally the same as the people around him. Harry makes little effort to disguise them. “Jane” becomes “Janet.”
Borrowing characters from life can be constraining as well as disconcerting. If I were to write a mystery in which Ginny killed Fred, I would be limited by the real Ginny and the real Fred. Ginny, the killer, would have to be demonic. It might be difficult to fit the real Ginny into that mold. Fred would have to morph into a victim. And nobody wants to see Fred go down in flames.
When writing is going particularly well, the characters are almost completely fictional. My wine-growing motorcyclist named “Otis” is an invented character – and he’s freer than many of the other characters in that novel. I can bring out parts of myself and embody them In Otis more easily than I could if I wrote about Sarah, the FBI agent or Mike, the Inside Trader.
As tempting as it might be to cause Shaun to earn his living as a balloon artist, or force Leigh to explore the Amazon, it’s much better technique to fashion a personality out of thin air.
Every character we create is a part of ourselves. If we squeeze that part into the friends that surround us – like fitting meat into a sausage casing -- the effect is less convincing than building an imaginary friend.