Wednesday, January 20, 2010


The character Nomi is an amalgamation of two people I have known in real life – I’ll call them Jamie. There is no telling how many individuals from Halifax to Vancouver will see themselves or someone they know in Jamie because, as I am learning, there is a Jamie in every family. Someone who is a favourite topic of conversation around the dinner table, who has issues with everybody and everything, who, though s/he has redeeming qualities, is basically not such a nice human being. But the truth is, although Jamie thinks s/he is perfect, thinks the world revolves around him/her, his/her behaviour makes him/her so darned entertaining in the retelling.

Nomi is a secondary character in the novel, in that she is not central to the plot, but she is important in other ways – in that she provides an opportunity to explore the hearts and minds of Carole and her immediate family through their interactions with her. And there is a subtle subplot built around her. No events are exactly as they occurred between Jamie and me, or me and anyone else for that matter. Though, admittedly, the veil is sheer at times. One point I must stress is that Nomi’s family life in the novel and her difficult past – I have already made reference to that – have no basis in truth whatsoever where Jamie is concerned. What the fictitious Nomi has suffered is not something I would ever touch on had it any resemblance to Jamie. That would be just plain heartless. Ironically, my fictitious back story accounts for Nomi’s personality far more clearly than real life accounts for Jamie’s – which is what makes Jamie so hard to understand, and to warm up to. No one seems to know what’s up with him/her.

It’s not that I like to use real people or real events as a basis for fiction, except in the broadest sense. But – I confess – I have done it before in Lydia, a character from another novel mentioned two postings ago. FYI, rest assured that if you are interested enough to be reading this blog – or anything I’ve written – neither she nor Jamie is you. But one can’t be too careful. So, just in case, more than the names have been changed to protect the innocent. (That would be me.) I would never describe an actual person or circumstance using details that would identify them, not even in a positive light. Not that I’m so ethical, more that I’m non-confrontational. Nor am I dumb enough to invite a lawsuit.

That said, people are basically insecure, and so they read themselves into characters or situations no matter what you write. Back in the days when I worked for consulting engineers I wrote a bit of doggerel for the company newsletter about working as a draftsman/person. (FYI, after all this PC crap started, we were called "technicians.") When the newsletter came out, one by one the engineers in the office sidled up to me – in the lunch room, in the hall – some even ventured into the drafting room to “confront” me openly – but good-naturedly – trying to suss out whether it had been a dig at him. The truth was, I wasn’t targeting any individual at all. The piece was just a cute commentary on the typical frustrations of the job. I don’t think any of them believed me. Guilt is a terrible thing.

When I created Lydia, I commented to my good friend, Wife of Dave, that she was loosely based on someone I had known – a workplace friend. I normally don’t let anyone read my work in progress, but Wife of Dave was, and is, a close friend, so when she asked to read the draft I trusted her to take me at my word that no part of the plot, nor the background story, nor any of the scenarios, were factual. I had spoken of the real Lydia but Wife of Dave had never met her. Still, I stressed, and explained, and repeated yet again that nothing in the novel had ever happened in real life, that the key words were “based on.” I explained how I had merely borrowed aspects of the woman’s personality and applied them to a totally fictitious plot. Yet at every other turn of the page Wife of Dave burst out, “Is this true?” “Did that happen?” To make matters worse, not only did she mistake the fictional character for a real person, she also insisted on reading me into the other protagonist! Wife of Dave was clearly amused. The rest of us (that would be me) were not.

So I have learned my lesson. You’d think it would be: never base a character on a real person. Oh, please. I’m a writer, not a saint. No, the lesson is: people are going to jump to conclusions no matter what. The real lesson, if you ask me, is for people like Jamie. The bitches and scoundrels of this world should steer clear of writers. Because by their behaviour they are begging to be immortalized. They make it just too tempting to the writer to have the last word:

“Oh, yeah? Just for that, I’ll put you in my next novel. Then you’ll be sorry.”

Whether I knowingly base a character on a real person or unwittingly allow a not-quite-fictional personality to slip into my little three-hundred-page universe – either way, I have to be prepared to take one on the chin for art’s sake. Who says being a writer is not risky business?