The most common questions people ask me after reading Tallulah Falls are, “Are the characters based on real people?” and “Did any of those things happen to you?”
Which has gotten me pondering how thin—or thick—the line is between life and art.
Writers steal. Plain and simple. We steal physical traits, turns of phrase, and oddities of manner. How someone folds their arms and rears his head back while listening. How someone else can’t tell a joke without giggling her way through it. We are, first and foremost, observers; any writer who doesn’t pay close attention to the people around him probably isn’t much of a writer.
However, most fiction writers (myself included) don’t base an entire character on one real-life person. First of all—eww. Writing a fully-rounded, memorable character means living with that character in your head for months or years: thinking in his thoughts, speaking in her voice, digging to the depths of his motivations, prejudices, ambitions, loves, and hates. Most of us barely know ourselves that well, let alone anyone else. Which means I’d have to start making stuff up, and making stuff up—intimate, soul-baring kind of stuff—about a person I actually know, and then living with that day after day for months…ewwww.
Not to mention that very few people actually want a character in a novel based on them. Characters in novels are flawed creatures. They have to be, or why else would they be interesting enough to read about? Plucking people from one’s real life and plopping them, intact and recognizable, warts and all, into the pages of a book is a nifty way to antagonize one’s circle of friends and relations. Besides, see #1, above.
In fact, if I happen across a really striking, unique characteristic—physical or behavioral—in someone I personally know, then I’m actually quite irritated, because I feel I can’t use it. (Other writers aren’t this squeamish—they believe that all is grist for the mill, and they won’t pass up the opportunity to incorporate a dazzling detail into their characters, no matter how recognizable it is or who it comes from. Every writer makes up his or her own mind on such things).
It’s been interesting, hearing people’s theories on which Tallulah Falls character is based on which real-life person. So far, nobody’s right…and nobody will be right, because the dozens and dozens of characteristics I lifted from real people are all mixed together in my characters. You’ve probably heard the phrase Heinz-57 to describe a dog descended from many different breeds. Well, those are my characters—Heinz-57’s all, with a lot of each of them made-up, to boot. (Remember, this is fiction!) But for all you who know me, speculate away. After all, I finally realized, it’s part of the fun of knowing the writer. As for me, I’ll just sit back, and listen to the theories, and smile.