You’ve read the title of this guest post and I feel the universal cringe! If one of your fictional characters is inspired by someone in your real life, either a lot or a little, you’re bound to wonder WHAT WILL THEY THINK? Or even better (worse?) WILL THEY RECOGNIZE THEMSELVES. I don’t base characters on real people, but I do cherry pick bit of people I know, and people I see out in the wild and give those characteristics to the folks in my books. I want them to be real, right?
Today, Eleni Gage joins us again to share her own experience. Brave woman, I say. Brave woman.
Brave woman with a gorgeous book cover, that is!
Please welcome Eleni Gage to WFW, and share your thoughts in the comments!
Take My Life—Please!
by Eleni Gage
Would you write a book inspired by your grandmother-in-law? I did. And it’s not because she’s famous, or I have a deep-seated desire to offend my husband’s family. It’s because a small segment of her life story inspired me. The irony is, I switched from nonfiction to fiction so that I wouldn’t be writing about—and ticking off—people I know. When North of Ithaka, my travel memoir about the year I spent living in the small Greek village where my father was born, was published, some villagers loved it and others…well, not so much. One dear family friend was angry when the Greek version translated my description of him as lanky to “skeletal.” A woman I adored objected to my commenting on her squeaky voice. Another man quoted the phrase I used to characterize his brother (a self-proclaimed “psychologist of the sidewalk”) and complained about his own portrayal. “But I didn’t write about you!” I protested. “Exactly!” he said. “It’s like I don’t even exist.”
Wouldn’t it be easier, I thought, to just make up people’s life stories? When I actually started writing novels, I realized that truth may not be stranger than fiction, but it’s often more interesting. What I love about reading novels is that each creates a world that seems so realistic, it feels true. Perhaps it makes sense, then, that the inspiration for the imaginary worlds I’ve written about came from real life. I’m willing to bet that, if you’re a fiction writer, there’s some person you’ve met, place you’ve been, or story you’ve heard that you’re just dying to embellish into a novel. If that rings true, here are a few guidelines that just might make your life easier.
1. Stick to the Particulars
Chances are there’s something specific in your inspiration that enchants you. In my case, with my current book, The Ladies of Managua, my then-boyfriend (now husband) mentioned that when he brought his Nicaraguan grandmother on a recent trip to Europe, they bumped into a man in an elevator who turned out to be the best friend of her high school sweetheart. They gave the stranger his grandmother’s phone number, he passed it on to her ex, and that man started calling her to say that she was his one true love. It wasn’t the unlikely coincidence of the elevator that resonated with me, but the details of the high school romance. My husband’s grandmother was a boarder at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans in the late 1940s and early 1950s, which was fairly typical for Nicaraguan girls of a certain class and era. There she fell for a Cuban man she was about to marry until her sister dragged her away from the altar and home to Nicaragua.
The big-picture outline of the story grabbed me—star-crossed first love! But what made me want to incorporate it into a novel were the particulars of the time and place. Sacred Heart girls learned French, comportment and such ladylike details as how to get into and out of a cab most elegantly. In the case of Nicaraguan girls who attended the school in that era, when they returned home, their children grew up to lead the revolution that overthrew the Nicaraguan dictator and changed society in that country forever, making things like getting out of a cab properly irrelevant. That struck me as a particularly interesting moment in history. In real life, my mother-in-law wasn’t a revolutionary; she was an obedient daughter. But, I asked myself, what if she had been a guerilla fighter? That’s where the fiction came in.
2. And Strive for the Universal
The details of the time and place will create your imaginary world; you aim to make your setting specific and interesting, perhaps even exotic. But you also hope that your readers will relate to the emotions your characters feel. Although the women in my novel inhabit very particular worlds, the book is about the tension between mothers and daughters, the miscommunications that distance us from each other, and the struggle to connect to one another. As I explored those themes, the protagonist inspired by my grandmother-in-law did and said things the woman herself never would in real life, but that I felt were true to the character.
3. Choose your Muse Wisely
I love, love, love writing about older women, for a number of reasons. First, they carry so many younger selves within them: the girl and young woman they once were, and all the experiences they had. Second, they’ve seen so much social change. But I’m especially fond of a certain kind of older woman who sees her life as a narrative, and views herself as the star of her own movie. When I wrote my memoir, my aunt figured in it prominently. After I broached the subject of writing about her, she said, “You can say anything about me you want—as long as my picture is in the book.” Now there’s a woman who is a legend in her own mind.
Lucky for me, my husband’s grandmother is just the same. Frankly, she thinks it’s about time someone wrote her life story (and she’s so attached to the character that she has started to claim experiences and conversations that I made up entirely as her own). Not everyone would feel this way. If you’re basing a novel on someone who will recognize themselves in it, I’d advise making sure they’re of the “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” school of thought.
4. Finally, consider your words carefully.
There was a moment when I wanted the title of the book to be its first line: “Revolutionaries make bad husbands.” Then I remembered that my father-in-law (who is not the son of my grandmother-in-law, but her former son-in-law) fought in the revolution, and I realized that title could make for some awkward Christmas dinners. So I scrapped that plan. After all, I’m a writer, not an idiot.
Eleni N. Gage is a journalist who has written for publications including Travel+Leisure, The New York Times, Elle, Real Simple, and The American Scholar. Currently the executive editor at Martha Stewart Weddings, and formerly the beauty editor at People, Eleni graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in folklore and mythology from Harvard University and an MFA from Columbia University. She lives in New York City with her Nicaraguan husband and two Greekaraguan children.