Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Change the name, change the looks,

That's how friends get into books...

Here's an amusing little snippet which made me laugh when I read it in The Grasshopper King:

I had some idea of writing, which was partly a vestige of my youthful idealization of New York and the poets, partly a long-nursed desire to correct the follies of my former acquaintances by satirizing them, transparently disguised, in print.

Is the author speaking for himself (transparently disguised as a fictional character)? Or is he just joking about authors and would-be authors in general? Do authors sometimes mock real people by sneaking a few of them into fictional works?

I'm guessing that they do. Another author admitted to the same thing here:

At our StoryMaker Conference this past weekend, I bought a little plaque that said, "All my enemies become victims or incompetent villains in my novels." I loved that plaque because it’s true. I have written people into my novels that weren’t nice to me. It felt cathartic, too, in a way. I have a tender heart and I have worked long and hard on getting a tougher skin, but it’s a trial for me. If I were writing my own life, I would definitely try to make myself less sensitive and explore that story idea of something really exciting and daring happening to me and rooting out that part of my personality. Then I wouldn’t be reduced to writing novels with mean people’s names in them and laughing every time I read it to myself.

The natural follow-up question is covered in the same post: "Don’t you really wish we could edit our own lives sometimes?"

I love workshopping with other authors, and one of the most interesting aspects is how often a first novel tends to be an edited and corrected version of the author's own life. That's not a bad thing -- if you've led an interesting life or at least can recount it well. "Oneself" is an obvious first choice for a character to portray. And reading a story often means discovering what the character/author imagines could or should have happened differently. This adds a new dimension to the picture.

Here's another Mormon author (Christopher Bigelow) on analyzing one's own life through fiction. In his case he decided to revisit his past without correcting it (in the novel Kindred Spirits):

I didn't really blame myself for the sins. Deep down inside, I felt--and perhaps still feel--that the sins were somewhat inevitable, not really anything I could have realistically avoided, just a natural part of my mortal experience. I acknowledged the sins as wrong but didn't feel all that personally responsible or sorry. In the novel, I give Eliza similar feelings.

So if I could have somehow revisited my own imperfect repentance through the novel and actually achieve a new level of grief and regret for sins, that would have been spiritually productive for me. Frankly, I can't imagine how that could have happened, but it's a nice idea. Instead, the novel is more a mirror of my own spiritual journey, which apparently isn't completed yet, thus leaving the novel with a particularly unfinished feeling for those further along in their spiritual journey.

Now it's time for me to come clean myself.

As I've explained before, Youth Conference is the most autobiographical segment of Exmormon. (It's also the first part I wrote.) I simplified the story a bit -- limited the time-span, cut down on the number of characters and mixed them up a little -- but it could practically be a memoir (see Storytelling: fiction vs. memoirs).

BYU (the second segment I wrote) was the part where I started from reality and then did some major edits and corrections. First of all, Lynn was already attending BYU when she had her deconversion epiphany. She didn't stop believing as a high school senior and then say "Well, I'll just go to BYU anyway since that's what my parents want -- how bad can it be?" Secondly, once Lynn stopped believing, she transferred to another school (instead of saying "Since my parents won't help if I go somewhere else, looks like I can't transfer without going into debt -- guess I'll just stick it out"). And the third change was to replace my real-life boyfriend Steve with Rex. This change is really more of a simplification than an improvement (since Steve was arguably more of a character), but not to worry! Bits of Steve will find their way into future characters in future novels.

So where did Rex Wendell come from? Can a fictional character ever be wholly made up? I think in this case he's mostly an expression of what I imagine I'd be like if I were a guy. I probably shouldn't admit to that since it makes writing a sex scene for Rex and Lynn look that much more like an exercise in masturbation. Anyway...

Now what about self-indulgently using fiction to ridicule my enemies? I like to think I'm mostly not guilty of this offense. Okay, some have suggested that Lynn's roommate looks suspiciously like my real-life freshman roommate, but that's as bad as it gets.

The thing is that I'll write people acting in selfish self-interest, but I don't like writing villains who are simply pure bad guys. As an example, in my new novel (Foreign Stars), I thought it would be fun to explore the dispute within feminism over sexual expression. If you follow my blog, you probably know that I don't think highly of the anti-porn faction of feminism (see feminism and sexuality), so you might expect to see a Dworkinite character as a villain. I kind of started in that direction, but that's really not my style. So as the story progressed, the Dworkinite feminist character was fleshed-out, started getting the better of the other characters much of the time, and by the end was one of the main hero/protagonists, without changing her politics.

So what about you other writers out there? Is your first protagonist a (thinly disguised) version of yourself? And have you kept your friends close and your enemies closer?

What about friends of authors? Have you ever been reading along and found a fictionalized version of yourself in a story?


Cyn Bagley said...

Wow have you moved? I guess that is what happens when I get involved in my writing. I lose track of everyone else.

Answer to your question... All of my writings has pieces of my life in them. Some more than other. LOL


Cyn Bagley said...

oops all my writings have... GEEZ I need to get my grammar straight.

Guten Tag.

Anonymous said...

OT: I just read Saturday's Warrior and I'm gobsmacked, as the Brits say. You've masterfully encapsulated the experience of so many young women... what one of my writing instructors used to call Universal Human Experience. (Not the details, but the feelings and reactions.) Thank you.

Anonymous said...

cynthia e. bagley:
Obviously, you were writing for a LOLcats poster, where the grammar is perfect. :-)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Cynthia!!!

Yep, I moved to Switzerland in January. I hope your writing projects are going well!!! :D

Thanks Karen!!!

I'm really glad you appreciate that one!!! It's a bit of a difficult one because of the subject matter. Even though the specific events are fictional, I went back and re-read all of my teenage journals carefully before writing it in order to capture the voice, attitudes, and mindset.

The Sinister Porpoise said...

I cannot comment on the novel because I have not read it, but I think every book has an element of its author in it, either deep or tranparent that reveals something about his or her character.

This applies to fiction as well as non-fiction.

By the way, this is just my personal policy not to read fiction posted on blogs. I am more interested in what one author termed the "mental masturbation" aspect of personal blogs.

Cynthia, At least you aren't burdened by bizarre English grammar constructions that seem natural to you because that's the way people in Pennsylvania Dutch country *speak.*

I hate making mistakes in comments, but it's almost impossible not to do.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sinister Porpoise!!!

I know that a lot of people don't read fiction on the Internet on principle. Part of it is the format and presentation -- often people skim a list of blogs in the morning before work (or over lunch) to get in a little conversation on the topics of the day before getting back to work. A computer doesn't always lend itself to curling up and relaxing the way one often does to read a story. It's too bad, though, because I've seen some great stories posted to the Internet.

I don't think the fiction you might find online is more self-indulgent than the blogs themselves, it may well be less (really there's hardly anything on the planet more self-indulgent than blogs -- that's why they're so much fun!!! ;^) ). All writing on the Internet has the same advantages and drawbacks (whether it's fiction or non-fiction) -- in either case there's just so much of it that it's hard to figure out which part is worth your time. Yet, at the same time, finding cool stuff on the Internet is more market-driven than the mainstream media (where potential content has to pass committees and possibly also sponsors, often gets points for being as generic and inoffensive as possible, etc.) whereas on the Internet it's more interactive. It's easy to find great stuff because the blogs you like will point the way with links.

Rebecca said...

In my first full-length play I totally unintentionally wrote the four main characters based on myself and 3 of my siblings. In the end they turned out to be only very loosely based on our personalities, and not at all on our lives, but I was surprised that I'd done that at all since I hadn't intended it. And the grandmother in my play was as much of a villian as there was (there really was no "villian" or anything like that), and she was - surprise - based on my super-Mormon grandparents who drive me CRAZY.

My brother-in-law once wrote a fictional story with characters completely based on my sister (not the one he's married to) and me. He was so totally convinced he'd gotten us down - that he understood us so perfectly - that it was insulting. While the actions of the characters were fairly close to my sister and me, the motivations were so completely off it was...did I already say insulting?

I'm a pretty big believer in really disguising your characters if you're basing them on someone. I think it's usually really unfair to purposely and obviously base characters on people because no matter how much you don't like them, or how perfectly you think you understand what's going on in their heads, they didn't ask for that and unless they're great writers, they have no way to defend themselves. Basically, I think it's tantamount to shooting someone in the back. Most of the authors I know somehow think it's courageous to write whatever they want without a thought to how it will affect others, but I think that's bullshit. It's using your talent and skill to put YOUR idea of who someone else is out there for everyone to judge, and that's pretty much what I'd call the opposite of courageous. Disguise, disguise, disguise.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Rebecca!!!

Wow, that's fascinating about your BIL and the story of you and your sister. This is definitely a misstep to beware of as an author. It's hard to avoid the temptation to use fiction to justify your point of view and prove yourself right -- you have to be pretty talented to succeed at such a thing -- usually it leads to nothing but embarrassing yourself...

In my own case, I've used lots of superficial interesting details from real people, but I've never really intended one to be the real person. This is one of the reasons why I'm hesitant to discuss my work with my family. Naturally I used familiar details, and there's a danger people will say "Oh, that's so-and-so," when really there are fundamental aspects (motivation, etc.) that don't match.

UneFemmePlusCourageuse said...

Oy...due to an unfortunate event which occurred last summer, I intend to include a cameo by a gold minivan driven by a bad driver in every story I write from now on. This should be fun to experiment with. And if I ever become famous and some interviewer asks me about this odd reoccurance, I can just say: "Well, it's because of a very dumb woman named Laura from Ohio who can't see dark blue cars on sunny July mornings..."

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey UFPC!!!

LOL, well, I guess in some cases this sort of thing is warranted... ;^)

Christopher Smith said...

Interesting, chanson. I find that when I write fiction, most of my characters usually end up being too much like me. Which makes for a pretty boring story. :-P

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Chris!!!

That doesn't necessarily have to make it boring -- don't you have any inner conflicts you'd like to play out? ;^)

Christopher Smith said...

If I let loose my inner conflicts it just might be world war 3! :-P

(World War 3-- now that might make an interesting story. No, wait; that's been done. Darnit!)

By the way, I love all the little drawings you have on your blog. Do you do those in MS Paint?

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Chris!!!

No, I do them with the gimp. I draw them first by hand, then I scan them and color them in the gimp. (I also use the gimp to overlay different layers, so I can draw the background and other elements separately from the people.)

C. L. Hanson said...

p.s. On a related note, Pilgrimsteps led me to this cool post about 11 reasons to write every day!!!

I'll just copy them here with my own reactions:

1 - Writing creates order

True, it motivates me to organize my thoughts and reactions to what I see around me.

2 - Writing erases perfectionism

I actually never had a problem with this one... ;^)

3 - Writing connects your hands and your heart

It's definitely a labor of love -- for more precision see the next one:

4 - Writing falls you in love with your life

"When you write, you claim this moment. You claim your life. You fall deeper in love with it. It is all there to be inhaled by your pen." -- absolutely true.

5 - Writing revises your world

Ha, that's exactly what my post here was about!

6 - Writing engages the five senses

Sort of. I like to write into my little notebook if something comes to me during my commute, but most of my writing is done in my head and/or straight to the computer...

7 - Writing builds self-esteem

Hmm, yes and no.

"When you write, you listen to yourself," she says.

It's true that you can learn to appreciate your own voice and thoughts better, and it's also encouraging to see how many people out there are interested in what you have to say and can connect with the stories you have to tell.

OTOH, I think a lot of the competitive posturing among writers (coupled with the discovery of how hard it is to get anyone in the publishing industry to even look at your work) is rather the opposite of self-esteem building. If you want self-esteem, you're better off in engineering or some other field where it's easier to measure one's skills objectively...

8 - Writing makes you friends with uncertainty

Absolutely, and this is one reason why writing is such a fantastic and popular activity for us atheists. :D

9 - Writing finds your voice

Yep, as covered by some of the earlier points.

10 - Writing container-fies you

This seems to be a strange, new word for saying that you notice details and analyze everything around you. This is related to points #1 and #4.

Personally I think "Encourages you to be an obsessive people watcher who tries to understand what events might look like from another's perspective" should have warranted a separate point. Maybe I'll make my own list sometime... ;^)

11 - Writing teaches you that this is it.

Yep, and it's another great connection between writing and atheism. Writing connects your senses with your brain while grounding you in the here and now, helping you squeeze every detail out of this life -- the only one you have.

Just the other day I caught myself singing "You've looked for something greater than this -- I promise you it doesn't exist..." With a smile because every day of life is already fanstasic and full of wonder. No need to wish it away.

mathmom said...

Well, of the two fiction writers I know, you are the only one who has put characters remotely resembling me (well, my high school self) into your fiction. I think I will not try too hard to recognize a character based on me, though (if there is one =)

Maybe as a service you could rewrite your friends lives in your fiction as well as your own? Perhaps you could charge...

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mathmom!!!

In this work, I was mostly writing about my church friends, but you're right that at least some details from all my friends have found their way into various characters. :D

What about your other author friend? Are you sure s/he didn't include you in a subtle way?

mathmom said...

Hmmm. I suspect that finding yourself portrayed in someone else's writing is a bit like catching a glimpse of yourself walking past a mirror right after you've gotten a haircut: vague recognition, but with the awareness that there is something not right with this picture. He may have put me into his books (although frankly, I doubt it) but I might not recognize his picture of myself.

It seems to me (as a complete outsider) as though the author knows her creation much more intimately than any person can ever know any other person. That knowledge could be the reason that people who find details from their lives included in other's books seem to be generally unhappy with the experience.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mathmom!!!

"a bit like catching a glimpse of yourself walking past a mirror right after you've gotten a haircut" -- that's an interesting way of looking at it. Or perhaps like seeing yourself in a funhouse mirror weirdly distorted (as in the case of Rebecca's experience above).

Do you really think it's almost always unpleasant? That would make sense since you don't generally get a chance to defend yourself if it's not right.

I just read a little snippet in The New Yorker about a famous author who wrote a book (billed as something of a memoir) in which she portrays her brother-in-law as making highly inappropriate sexaul advances towards her. Apparently in a conference the author's sister confronted her about it and explained that (not only was the incident invented, but) having her husband immortalized in this manner has been a source of problems and pain for her family. If the article is to be believed, the famous author apparently responded by calling her sister crazy and whined that "everyone hates you when you have a best-selling novel." Sheesh, more like everybody hates you when you display callous indifference to the effects of your choices on other people's lives...

C. L. Hanson said...

By contrast, look at how introspective Alison Bechdel is here about immortalizing her family in her memoir Fun Home:

I know I hurt her by writing this book. She made that clear, but she also let me know that she grasped the complexity of the situation. At one point after Fun Home came out, she sent me a review from a local newspaper. It cited the William Faulkner quote, "The writer's only responsibility is to his art. … If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of old ladies." Then the reviewer went on to say, "Rarely are the old ladies asked how they felt about it." Mom liked that—that someone was considering her side of the story.

I do feel that I robbed my mother in writing this book. I thought I had her tacit permission to tell the story, but in fact I never asked for it, and she never gave it to me. Now I know that no matter how responsible you try to be in writing about another person, there's something inherently hostile in the act. You're violating their subjectivity. I thought I could write about my family without hurting anyone, but I was wrong. I probably will do it again. And that's just an uncomfortable fact about myself that I have to live with.

mathmom said...

The cases we hear about are almost always unpleasant. My father-in-law told me a story of an author who did include a friend in his book---but the friend thought he had been written as a different character, one who was very unpleasant. No amount of reasoning could convince the friend that the author had not meant to portray him as this nasty person.

I think the two examples you cited show some of the pitfalls. I think it doesn't have to be unpleasant, provided the author isn't trying to punish anyone, and the person portrayed understands that the author is doing it in good faith and will probably be wrong in some ways.

mathmom said...

Hey Chanson---

I talked with my sister and she said she had put me (and my brother) in the textbook chapter she wrote! She said that for a small fee she would include you too =) So it is not always unpleasant to be included in someone else's book =)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mathmom!!!

That's cool!!!

Actually, now that I think about it, my husband was something of a character in my Java book, and I may have mentioned my kids too...

Therese said...

I have actually been wrestling a lot with the autobiographical aspect of my current book.

In my first book, which was a futuristic story based more on working out a catchy idea than my own experiences, my main character ended up being an improved version of me (less neurotic, smarter, more mature, etc.), and only a couple very minor characters were loosely based on people I'd actually known.

With the current novel, I originally wanted just to write it as a straight memoir, or even as a philosophical essay with some life-story parts thrown in for color. But then in sitting down to plan out the book more specifically, I found that I really wanted to write the story as a story - it seemed like there was a built-in narrative arc there, and I was curious to see if it would work as a novel.

Also, it was too hard to remember things that happened 20 years ago, and the decision to do the book as memoir-thinly-veiled-as-fiction gave me the liberty of making stuff up where memory failed me. I discovered that even after all this time, I was still more emotional about some of the things I was writing about than I'd counted on, so I decided to do half of the book in the 3rd person to help me get more distance from those experiences (with mixed success).

I'm trying to avoid the mistake of attributing motives to characters who are based on other people, and to keep the point of view strictly limited to that of my main character.

But it still is a hard, hard balance to get right, and the further I go, the more I seem to be fictionalizing. I'm horrified at the idea of embarrassing or hurting the feelings of anyone who turns up in the book and recognizes themselves. So, yes, I agree, disguise, disguise, disguise.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Therese!!!

Re: Also, it was too hard to remember things that happened 20 years ago, and the decision to do the book as memoir-thinly-veiled-as-fiction gave me the liberty of making stuff up where memory failed me.

That's how mine started out as well, as you can see in Youth Conference. After that, though, I started jumbling details and diverse anecdotes together in a way that was more just fiction.

Re: I'm horrified at the idea of embarrassing or hurting the feelings of anyone who turns up in the book and recognizes themselves.So, yes, I agree, disguise, disguise, disguise.

Other techniques include basing a character on multiple real people, or just making sure the ones that correspond to real people are really, really sympathetic. ;^)

Re: I'm trying to avoid the mistake of attributing motives to characters who are based on other people, and to keep the point of view strictly limited to that of my main character.

That is a very good idea. I read tons of self-published/indie-published works, and one of the most irritating tics is the way authors try to validate their own POV through fictional evidence. Especially egregious is when people write their personal enemy's POV to show how rotten the enemy is and how tragic it was when the author's alter-ego was wronged by this evil being...