Front Page, Musings

True to Life. Sort Of.

For many writers, a big source of inspiration for characters are friends and family. Makes sense. These are people whom you see frequently and know their quirks, speech patterns, personality, and could describe quite easily. Why struggle for hours thinking up a name or description or poring over character sheets when you have a throng of people at your fingertips? Some authors even go so far as to mine the backgrounds of friends and family for plots and subplots. Indeed, the joke about being nice to the writer or else you’ll end up in their next book can be quite true.

Unless you’re me. For years I have stayed away from using family and friends for inspiration. Though I am clearly writing fiction, I worry if I use someone I know, even if it is as simple as a description or pulling a couple of interesting traits from them, they will think I view them as being that person on the page. I shied away from even using their names regardless if the description or personality of the character had zero connection with the same name real life counterpart.

It’s not that I worry about being sued. Writers are covered under the law from being sued just because a character either has a strong resemblance or a passing resemblance to a fictional character. It’s why this language appears after the title page: This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

But even with this legal protection, I was still afraid. Afraid of what other people would think about me. I used to worry what would happen if I have a character which resembles someone I know and the person they are loosely based on reads it. Will they jump to conclusions and believe I view them like that? Will they be upset? Will they be happy? Will they stop talking to me? I’m usually a non-confrontational person and though I know what my intent was and recognize a fictional character is not the same as a flesh and blood person, it was a risk I wasn’t willing to take.

However, I’ve realized how flawed this thinking is. Yes, my characters and situations are entirely made up. But I get inspired from a variety of sources: newspaper articles, listening to NPR, shows and movies I watch, books I’ve read, bullshitting with people, etc. So how is using a friend’s name or distinctive look or personality traits of a family member any different? Why not use people I know, even in a small way, to help flesh out a character?

Looking to friends, family, and even myself makes things a little easier. Writing is incredibly difficult, and I am someone very prone to making things more complicated then they need to be. It’s one of my few natural skills. So, if I can make certain things like names, descriptions, character traits, even events easier to come up with then I should use them.

Another way to look at it is those around you are resources. They can become part of your writer’s toolbox in whatever way you need them to be. Perhaps a friend has an interesting job that inspires you to write a story. Or maybe a family member has a unique personality that fits in with the world you are creating. Again, anything which makes writing a little bit easier, use it.

And while I have realized it is okay to mine people you know for you work, it is also important to keep in mind that at the end of the day, your friends and family are still people. Be respectful and think heavily about how you use them in a story. Don’t be afraid, though, as no matter how strongly a character may be based upon someone you know, that character is still its own one of its kind person.

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Front Page, Musings

Hear Much?

Over the past few months I’ve few posted about words I love, words I don’t, and slang terms I wish would go away. Thinking about language in this way made me realize there are words I rarely see that I wish I would see used more. All of these words I like because not only are they unusual, they just look striking and sound interesting when said aloud. They also make one sound smarter without coming across as pretentious.

Copse: This word means a group of trees like in a forest or grove. I first remember seeing this used in one of the Harry Potter books. I’m sure I’d seen it before, but for some reason when I saw it in that Harry Potter book it stuck with me. Oddly enough, after I looked it up I noticed it in other books and it’s a word I’ve used in my own work.

Suss: Suss is a British slang term meaning to investigate or figure something out and has only been around since the mid-1960s. Honestly, I thought this was a much older word since it just, well, sounds like a much older word. In my head I can hear a character living in a time long before the 1960s using it as he or she is working to solve a crime.

Succulent: This one is admittedly a bit tricky. Succulent is a word which is used a lot when describing plants, but I don’t recall seeing it used in other ways. It has other definitions such as something which has desirable qualities or something which offers mental nourishment. So, beyond its botanical usage, succulent is a word which I think should be get applied more to other things.

Bilious: Depending upon its context, bilious can either be a rather gross or interesting word. As might be apparent in looking at it, bilious does have the word bile as a root. And yes, it does have a couple of definitions related to bile. However, it also has a couple of non-medical related definitions as an adjective for someone who is disagreeable or peevish or describing something as unpleasant.

Melancholy: Since I enjoy reading historical fiction set during Victorian times, I do see this word. It means a state of profound sadness and in my reading, it is used euphemistically as a way of saying a person suffers from what nowadays would be considered depression. I think it’s a great word to use in modern or futuristic fiction. There’s a certain elegance to it.

Malaise: Another old-fashion word I see in older works or stories set in days of yore. Whenever you want to get across a state of feeling not normal physically but also knowing you aren’t sick, malaise is a great word. I have noticed malaise and melancholy used interchangeably. Though they have different definitions, I think it’s because they describe a feeling some of us have had so well.

 

I think whenever a person sees or hears these words, it causes the mind to pause and think. It makes you pay more attention. These words are beautiful because of that power. As a writer, I want to incorporate all these words into my writing not because I think it makes me sound smarter, but because they are special. I wonder if other writers experience this whenever they come across unusual words when they read? I would imagine so as how else does language survive?