Posts Tagged ‘characters’

I am writing a travel memoir. Most of it is about me, obviously, but there are a few key “characters” that come and go from the tale. I am struggling a little bit with how to deal with them.

Do you kiss and tell?

First of all, I have changed their names, and occasionally melted two or more real people down into one character in the story, but it is hard to know where to draw the line on exposure. I am trying to keep other characters as a distant tertiary focus to (a) myself and my own journey and (b) the places I visited. I don’t want to use other people’s stories as key elements in my narrative, but sometimes they are/were key elements. In particular I am worried about exposing too much about lovers and longer-term travel companions.

Is anyone else grappling with a similar dilemma? Should I talk to them first? Let them read what I’ve written? Completely fictionalise the characters in my story? Or just publish under a pen name and hope they never wise up? Advice please!


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I want to share with you the opening page of the book I am currently reading – Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer:

I am living in Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.
Last night Boris discovered that he was lousy. I had to shave his armpits and even then the itching did not stop. How can one get lousy in a beautiful place like this? But no matter. We might never have known each other so intimately, Boris and I, had it not been for the lice.
Boris has just given me a summary of his views. He is a weather prophet. The weather will continue bad, he says. There will be more calamities, more death, more despair. Not the slightest indication of change anywhere. The cancer of time is eating us away. Our heroes have killed themselves, or are killing themselves. The hero, then, is not Time, but Timelessness. We must get in step, a lock step, towards the prison of death. There is no escape. The weather will not change.

Henry Miller

It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom.
I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am. Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God.
This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty … what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing. I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse…
To sing you must first open your mouth. You must have a pair of lungs, and a little knowledge of music. It is not necessary to have an accordion, or a guitar. The essential thing is to want to sing. This then is a song. I am singing.

First of all, isn’t that a brilliant opening page? It sets the scene, the era, the character, and the mood so well. It seems to cover so much. It got me wondering – how important is a first line or an opening page for readers? I personally never read inside the book when deciding what to buy. I occasionally read the blurbs on the back but more often rely on recommendations from friends or references from other sources. For that reason, while the first page certainly makes an impression, I will usually read at least 30 pages before I decide if I will stick with it or not. What about you, how important are the opening lines of a book in your decision to buy/read it? And what are your favourite literary openings?

Secondly, I just love what Miller says about writing and being a writer – “six months ago, I thought I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am,” he writes. That is so powerful. I want to make a similarly strong proclamation…

I am a writer. (The essential thing is to want to write. I am writing.)

That felt good.

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I have a thing about only buying second-hand books. I like the adventure of it. I have my “treasure hunt” list, which is comprised of all the books I want to buy and which I carry with me at all times. If I pass a second-hand bookstore I scour the shelves and flip-out (with joy) when I find one of the titles.

Will she find a long-coveted treasure?

I especially love to find personal inscriptions written in the books, or old bookmarks, postcards or receipts amid the dusty pages. I often amuse myself with imagining the lives of previous readers, what they took from the book, where they lives, who they were, and where they read the book.

I also have this strange belief that books find you right at the moment that you should read them, when you are ready to understand and assimilate their messages and themes, when they are most relevant to your own life. If that is true, and I personally believe it to be, it would be both cheating and pointless to buy new books. Anyway it would take all the fun out it if I could just walk into a giant bookstore and buy whichever title took my fancy.

Is anyone else nutto for used books? Why?

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Should you tell a friend if they have inspired one of your characters?

Yesterday I texted a friend of mine asking what her middle name was. She responded that she was sans middle name and asked why I wanted to know. “There’s a character in my book based on you and I was looking for inspiration.” The silence that followed, from my usually chatty and chirpy friend, got me thinking that perhaps I had committed a friendship faux pas.

Cassady & Kerouac: Jack immortalised Neal in 'On The Road'

Now, I can 110% understand the desire for privacy but this particular friend is one who blogs the most intimate details of her private life and (I think) would love to be famous. I thought I was offering to make her the Neal Cassady of our generation (ok ok, I’ll admit I’m no Kerouac, but you gotta let a girl dream).

So, what to do if you actually are basing a character on a friend or acquaintance? Is it just a matter of changing the name and some plausible deniability, or is there some writer’s etiquette that I’m not privy to?

Help please!

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Us writers must be power-hungry freaks, right? Here we are, night after night, scribbling away in notebooks, penning masterpieces (we hope), creating worlds on the page. We create characters out of thin air and ink, dictate the paths along which their lives wander, choose their lovers, their careers, and even their names. When we tire of them we may even terminate their inky existence with a flutter of fingers or a tap on the keys. The power is, well, total.

They say that with great power comes great responsibility. I’m struggling with my responsibility.

What to call you, what to call you, damn it!

Today I have been trying to name my key characters. It’s harder than you may suspect. You don’t want to give them anything too obvious, too ordinary, too out there, or too obtuse. I don’t want the other kids to tease them in the playground. I don’t want the readers to taunt them with cruel nicknames. I don’t want to call them Mary or Bill (sorry to the bazillions of Mary/Bills out there). I feel like an expectant mother… it feels like just maybe all the success (or failure) of the operation could just hinge on the perfect name.

I thought about naming them after favourite characters I’ve read, but Raskolnikov is perhaps just a little too Russian and Lolita carries such a connotation these days. Maybe I’ll save those gems for my real-life kids.

I thought about naming them after great historical heros but meh.

I tried to think about the connotations of names and tie them to the character traits of each player. It’s not that easy to do. Maybe I should look at a book of names and their meanings…

Does anyone have any good advice for naming characters?

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