Next to asking where story ideas come from, I think the most popular question I get asked by non-writers is whether or not what’s happening in my real world shows up in my writing, but most especially, do real people I know show up as characters. And the answer is – yes and no. I know, I know, another slippery, weasel non-answer. But here’s how it works….
Situations show up a lot. If I get lost and get panicky while trying to find my way out of an unfamiliar part of the city, you better believe that’s showing up in my work. That kind of true, visceral emotion is too good to waste. But it gets changed a little. If I’m panicky about being lost, then my protagonist might be panicky about being chased or shot at, or if he/she is lost, he/she does it in another dimension of time or space. But because of my own real life situation, all I have to do is reach into my own memories and describe my own feelings for my characters.
Broad ideas also show up pretty regularly. One idea I’ve been working on for a while is that of sleep, or lack thereof. I don’t have all the kinks worked out yet, but it should be a lovely scifi story when I’m done. And why does my mind keep wandering back to the thought of lost sleep and the hunger, the ache, for a good night’s sleep, which is dangling just out of reach? Because like most working Americans, I’m regularly sleep deprived because of the demands of a day job, a family, a home, and trying to make my creative dreams come true. As a writer, if I passed up the chance to write a story that would ring so true with the hearts of so many people – well, I might as well turn in my pens and notebooks, I wouldn’t be a real writer at all.
But characters, what about the characters…. Can anyone who meets a writer assume that he/she might find themselves in the pages of a future novel or short story? Yes and no. I’d be silly to cut myself off from such a rich source of inspiration for characters. But dropping a real person, whole and unchanged from real life, into my work just doesn’t work. I’d have to be true to that person. I’d have to warp storylines to get every nuance of that person just so. I’d have to risk a libel and slander lawsuit if that person didn’t like the character. So, I borrow pieces. Some deep family loyalty from over here, an obsession with groan-worthy puns from over there, and a soul questing for love from over here. Not only does that free me from being true to one person, and potential story-warping and lawsuits, it allows me to create characters that everyone can find a little piece of themselves in. And if my readers can find themselves in a character, then they can identify with that character.
But do you want to know the real secret about who goes into making my characters? It’s me. Every character I create carries a little piece of my heart inside. Even the darkest, most damaged villain has a little piece of me. How could I write a believable character if I couldn’t identify with him/her?
So there you have it, the real truth about whether or not the people, places, and situations a writer experiences in real life show up in the work. If you’d like to see what pieces of life and people show up in my stories, check out my downloadable shorts with Echelon Press here.
Or check out my website, with yet another blog and a free short story, here.
Michelle D. Sonnier