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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

People as Inspiration.

Have any of you been inspired to write a story by a person or people? Raise your hands. Okay, okay, I get the idea. Put them down now, all thousand or so of you.

It's almost a given that fiction is inspired by people because it is about people. Or at least it's about people as we imagine they might be. Yet I'm often surprised at how often we forget that our basic stories must arise from people, their inspirations, their conflicts, their relationships. Too often we get into thinking about characters, and we design them to fit the stories that are brimming inside of us, and too often they lose that little edge of humanity, the personal uniqueness that makes them alive on the page.

I'm thinking of this because I've read some contest entries as well as some books lately that have made me think I was back in my childhood playing with paper dolls-- or if I were a younger woman I might have thought I was playing Barbie and Ken with my friends. At the same time, others I'd read had characters that were people, not just mannequins that were being posed for my imagination. What was the difference? Well, I had the feeling the authors had been inspired by real people.

Last week I visited my older brother in his home, and had the pleasure of interacting with his chaotic and just a bit- unusual- extended family, which include his wife, her aged mother, their grandson who they adopted, and my younger brother. There's a lot of tension in the family, which always seems to function at the very brink of extinction, yet always holds together. There's a ribbon of faith that makes things work and pulls them through difficult times. No one who needs their help is turned away, even when times are tough and their own livelihood, based on the troubled real estate market in California, seems in jeopardy. At an age when he ought to be retired, my older brother works all days of the week, often late into the night, and somehow things seem to work out. He and my next younger brother are such polar opposites, it's amazing they can live in the same house. Neither of them can possibly live up to the other's standards because they approach life and living so differently. One must have everything in its place. The other doesn't have a place for anything. But even though they have completely different goals and means of achieving them, they both get their jobs done.

I usually fit squarely in the middle between the two, and have affinities with both, which makes it sometimes hard to deal with the tension between them. Add to the mix my sister-in-law, who deals daily with everyone's frustrations, trying to make things and people fit together, and is often in a lot of pain. And their adopted son, who is their grandson, who has recently been diagnosed with Asbergers' Syndrome and presents a constant puzzle to them.

Then there's my sister-in-law's mother, delightful Daisy, who often as not can't remember who these people around her are or why she's living with them.

I spent a lot of time with Daisy. She knows she can't remember much of anything beyond her childhood, and it is a great frustration to her. We had a marvelous time one day chasing down some of her memories on my laptop. We hunted up her childhood home in Alabama near the Gulf of Mexico, and I was shocked when she recognized names of towns and put her finger right on her house, and said, "That's it." She even pointed to the pecan grove and her father's carpentry shop near her family house, all of which still stand. And with her finger, she traced the highway down to the Gulf, remembering the inner tubes they often took with them to play in the surf. Yet only occasionally could she remember her mama was gone now, that her husband's name was Frank and he'd been in the military.

The next day she had forgotten our little tour into the past. But she knew we'd had a good time together. We had no memories in common, and it left me feeling very sad and impotent, and I had to think of why. Is it because memory is so valuable to me? It was immensely valuable to Daisy too, and she knows that, but she also knows she has lost it. Yet we had one thing of immense importance to both of us, the sense of companionship. And now, I'm sure she doesn't remember me at all. But Daisy knows one thing: She may not remember the details, but she's had a good life and doesn't regret a thing.

I think, because I've known Daisy, I would write an elderly woman differently now. I've tended to avoid putting elderly people in my books for some reason, and I've never wanted to write of one who had lost his or her past. Maybe I didn't quite grasp the concept of losing one's memory. Or maybe I found it too frightening. But Daisy has taught me how it works, and that there is a wonder in living a long life when one can only say, "I can't remember it but I know it was good." And there is a wonder in watching her caretaker daughter, who can say, "That's all right, Mama, we don't worry about that. We're here for you because we love you." Or my younger brother, who, though he's been there two years and Daisy still thinks he's the live-in gardener, can say, "Don't worry, Daisy, we're here to remember for you."

And I think it would be good to take the dynamics between the two brothers and re-write it in a story because that is something very real in human nature. It's a hard thing to see the world through the eyes of someone whose values and way of living are so completely different.

I don't get to see my relatives very often, and just talking on the phone and emailing doesn't give the clearest picture, so this trip has been valuable to me and not just in terms of being with family. They have taught me something valuable about my own craft: The essence of character is people, and their relationships with each other. People are at once all the same and all different, each alone yet part of the common whole. And stories are, most of all, about people.


At 8:30 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

I agree with everything you said. Characters ring true for readers when they have pieces of actual people the author knows in them. I'd love to see some of the traits you describe in your family populate your future novels.

At 11:06 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

That's a great thing to remember, Delle, and I do think that characters who have a kernel of someone you know jump off the page a little bit extra. It might be that real people are contradictory, something we often try to avoid when writing book characters.

At 11:22 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I very very very rarely use people I know, or even pieces of them, as characters in my books. The heroine of Scandalizing the Ton was inspired by celebrities who I thought were abused by the paparazzi, but I can't claim to know those celebrities.

On the other hand, I am certain that my years as a mental health social worker have given me a great appreciation of the complexity of each individual, as yours do as well. I know all those clients whom I cared about and still care about have become a part of me and a part of my understanding of human nature. But if I model my characters after any of them it is completely unconscious on my part.

I may have very few ideas for plots (see my previous blog) but my characters seem to bloom out of my mind full-blown, as if they were real people.

At 1:13 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Delle, your story brought me to tears. Losing memories scares the heck out of me and yet I'm surrounded by people going through just that. I love how Daisy's daughter and your brother take care of her and how you went down memory lane with her. Wow. Those are some great characters for your future books and this is a great topic.

Well done and thanks!

At 1:23 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

I think you're right, Esri. The contradictions in people are fascinating. Subconsciously we try to set up rules for ourselves that will tell us how to run our lives. But rules can never be complex enough to cover all situations, and eventually our beliefs conflict with other beliefs.

I think I was about 17 or 18 when I read a biography of Ghandi. At the same time, and a part of what I read, rose a personal conclusion that the point that defined right and wrong was whether an action was constructive or destructive. I thought I had life all figured out. I think that basis is still strongly implanted in me, but I learned by living, there is no such simple division.

At 1:28 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

I'm really that way about my character development too, Diane. After working with thousands of people over so many years, the people in my books just unfold to me. Yet while I think I know them at the beginning, the deeper in the book I get, the more I know about them that I couldn't have seen before. I always thought, in fact, that writing novels led to a deeper understanding of people in general.

I don't model after real people as such, but who they are, how they do things seem to coalesce into a new identity. Key to this concept is in watching what people believe and how they go about living with their beliefs. When their own beliefs come into conflict with other beliefs they hold, how do they make their choices? What if they made a different choice? Would that mean their core beliefs were different from what we thought? Or would it mean they changed what they believe? Robert McKee's book STORY indicated to me he believes people do not change their core beliefs. But I think they do, over time, and that is what makes them so dynamic.

I did unconsciously model one of my characters after a real person, though. It wasn't until I finished the last major draft of LOKI'S DAUGHTERS that I recognized the similarities between my heroine and my dearest friend, a woman who had been born with major skeletal defects which meant many surgeries as a child before she could walk. As an adult she and went through five battles with cancer, beginning at age 22.

It wasn't simply that both of them were gritty, never-give-up people, but more how they went about their battles. Arienh was truly her own person, just as Jan was. Jan believed she could always lick her problems (cancer) if she just fought hard enough, and her final battle was the one where she had to come to acceptance of her mortality. Arienh's core belief was to never give up because one never knew what the next minute would bring. But facing and coming to terms with death was something they both had to learn, in different ways.

Jan did not recognize herself in my heroine. Although she died before the book finally came out in print, she read the ebook (and everything I wrote long before any of it was published), and she saw the dedication: "For Lady Jan- Always a Heroine".

And that brings me to one other major point for writers. People like Jan influence us and often cause us to change our own beliefs. Maybe sometimes it's that change in us, in its elemental form, that propels our stories.

At 3:23 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

It's interesting to note how frightening the thought of losing your memory is -- it's not really a loss of self, but it seems very close. I have my elves deal with a forgetting disease in Book 2. I haven't had any family members come down with Alzheimer's, but I worked temp at a retirement home years ago, and got to know a woman who had it pretty severely.

At 8:57 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

Thinking about what you said, Mo-- I'm realizing that a lot of times when I read a story with, say an elderly man, or an absent-minded but brilliant man, they're usually shown with only their foibles, and I think that makes them so one-dimensional they aren't a worthy addition to as story. I read a contest entry recently that was very well written, but every character in the entry except the heroine and hero was TSTL or otherwise a target of ridicule. It was very disturbing. In some ways it reminded me of being around people who try to make themselves look better or more important by denigrating others.

I believe that every character in a book should be given human, not cardboard, status, and if they can't be, then they shouldn't be there. In real life we don't interact with store mannequins.

At 9:59 AM, Blogger Dr. Debra said...


Your story of your family's interaction with Daisy is so touching. Thanks for sharing it.

Suggest to your sister-in-law that she give Daisy fish oil supplements. Salmon oil is good for preventing Alzheimer's.



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