Supporting Characters in Your Real Life
Remember when Michael Jordan got into trouble for referring to his teammates on the Chicago Bulls as “my supporting cast?”
He was, of course, only telling the truth. (Though Scotty Pippen, we must admit, has a right to be a little miffed.)
But back to you and me and our novels based on our real lives. What about our spouses and kids and bosses and friends and the other crazy characters we’re going to write about? They may not like to think of themselves this way, but ..
They are supporting characters in our story.
Putting their egos aside, the question becomes
How do we as writers portray these individuals?
Are we free to change them? Can we put dialogue into their mouths that the real-life personalities never said or would never say? Can we have them do things that they didn’t do or wouldn’t do in real life?
Yes, yes, and yes.
We said in an earlier post that you and I, crafting a fictional version of our real-life story, have to detach ourselves emotionally from our real selves (if we ourselves are the hero of the story we’re telling). We need to step back and gain perspective. We must be able to see our real-life self coolly and objectively, the way a stranger would see him or her. Then and only then can we write that character on the page.
Same for supporting characters.
Your mother Joann, as soon as you start to write about her, has ceased to be Joann. She is now “Joann.” Your feckless ex-husband Dwayne has now become “Dwayne.” (Or whatever name you choose to call him.)
Let’s return for a moment to my favorite subject: theme.
Flashing back to our basic principles of storytelling, we recall that
The protagonist embodies the theme.
And that principle’s corollary:
Every supporting character represents an aspect of the theme.
(By the way, this same principle applies not just to characters, but to animals, to inanimate objects, to Jack Nicholson’s sliced-up nose in Chinatown, and to William Holden’s six-gun in The Wild Bunch. None of these exists only as itself. Each represents an aspect of the theme.)
In The Knowledge, my cat Teaspoon (the fictional version of my real-life cat Mo) represented my character’s Muse. In other words, an aspect of the theme.
In The Knowledge, the city of New York represented the greater creative life, both internal and external, that I (my character, Stretch) was trying to learn to navigate. So did the city of London.
The fictional Nicolette represented a realized artist. She was the ideal that Stretch was trying to achieve. Again, an aspect of the theme.
The fictional Peter represented an artist who went too far into the potential insanity of the creative process. His fate stood for the dark side of this enterprise. Like Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin, he represented the fear Stretch had for his own future.
What about the real people upon whom these characters were based? Were they exactly as The Knowledge portrayed them?
The real woman upon whom Nicolette was based was a true, realized artist. But she never read me the Riot Act like she did in Chapter 32 in The Knowledge. Her diatribe in that chapter is a straight-up recital of the book’s theme. I, the writer, put those words into “Nicolette’s” mouth.
This is exactly what you have to do with your mom Joann and your ex-husband Dwayne.
What does “Joann” represent in your story? What aspect of the theme does “Dwayne” stand for? Should there be a scene where “Joann” dumps a platter of steaming spaghetti down the front of “Dwayne’s” trousers? Should “Dwayne” dive into the frigid waters of Sheepshead Bay to save “Joann” when she spills off the stern of your second husband’s fishing boat?
Yes, if the scenes mean something to the story. Yes, if they are on-theme. Yes, if what Joann represents and what Dwayne represents come together in that way as part of your story.
This is how a writer thinks.
This is how a writer structures a story.
The real Joann may be pissed off (or she may be delighted) by the Pasta Scene or the Sheepshead Bay Rescue. But that should be no concern to you, the writer. And it certainly won’t mean a thing to the reader.
You are telling a story about “yourself” and “Joann” and “Dwayne” and all the other nutty inhabitants of your own nutty life. Your fidelity is to that story—and to the fortunate strangers who will read it.
The real Joann and the real Dwayne? They’ll just have to get over it.
I find myself wanting to default to a rule I learned when I became a family therapist and still adhere to today when I use former clients as teaching examples in the classroom: alter enough of the identifiable factors so that if the client was in the room, he/she/they would not recognize that you are talking about them. Couldn’t this work in fiction too while maintaining fidelity to the story?
I don’t think so, Mary.
If they didn’t recognize themselves, in my mind, they’d be so different that they’d ceased to be the character you intended.
But, that’s just my opinion, I’m curious about Steve’s thoughts on this question myself, now that you’ve raised it.
Of course, some people are so blind to their own stuff that they’d not see it if you gave the character the same name, and some people are so narcissistic…
Well, as the song says, “You’re so vain, I bet you think this book is about you…”
Or something like that.
As I mentioned below, my daughter instantly recognized that my first protagonist was her, not because she’s into older married men and adulterous affairs. Not because she’s a nude supermodel who hates her dad, because she’s not any of these things.
But because my character’s emotional make-up and world-view and behaviors were entirely my daughter’s traits.
I think that’s the lesson here.
Also important to keep in mind: much of your family simply won’t read anything you write. I learned that early on. It’s pretty good news if you plan to rip them off as one of your characters. 🙂
My first character ever was a sexually aggressive woman who gets in trouble because of an affair with a married man and who hates her father.
Older daughter reads the book and says, “I see you based your character on me.”
Fairly true, but at least those parts I just mentioned were the ones I made up.
The betraying assassin in my WIP is my ex-wife, I didn’t even bother to change her name, although for sure she’ll never read this book.
Well, unless it’s a success. Then I’ll send her a autographed copy with a few post-it stickies marking important passages…
The weird thing for me reading this series is that I’d already finished the rough drafting on the WIP so I’ve been seeing things I’d written in a new light.
“Oh,” I say to myself, “I really do still hate her.”
This isn’t a good or bad observation, per se, just an observation.
There will also be times in novels, as in sports, that the real star emerges from this supporting cast and you realize you have the wrong person as the QB or lead character. There are characters and athletes who are all talk, say all the right words, but nothing really happens. Then there are those, when their opportunity comes, keep moving the chains or turning the page.
OH do I LIKE this one. “The real Joann and the real Dwayne? They’ll just have to get over it.” The real Joann is her middle name. The real Dwyane is spelled DuWayne.
I was really anxious when I gave a copy of my book to mother. I knew she would recognize a couple of events from my childhood that didn’t showcase my father character in a very good light, but she just said “good book” and that was it, until we were having a conversation at Christmas and she referenced one of the incidents from my book (that did happen in real-life)! By that point, I wasn’t too worried about it and felt exactly like Steve said, “They’d have to get over it.”
No, I don’t agree that we can be so cavalier about the names and lives of other people. They deserve the courtesy and respect of autonomous individuals outside our public dramas. We may not mind hanging our laundry out in public, but others are more private or have other concerns we may not know about.
If you’re going to use their real names and include them recognizably, I say get their permission or change names and identifying visual or career markers.
The world really isn’t all about me.
This topic makes me think back to a documentary I’d seen on Raymond Carver. In this YouTube clip (about 30 second’s worth), his former wife Maryann talks about her feelings of indignation around one of his stories that she felt was a direct lift from their life together. And followed by a comment by his teacher, Richard Day, that “the story takes on a life of its own, and transcends the situation that it began from.”
And then, the quote from Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird (which kind of applies): “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”