by Jennifer Coburn
Whenever people who know me read one of my books, they inevitably ask how much real life creeps its way into my novels. Quite a bit actually.
On the opening pages of most novels, there’s usually a disclaimer that all characters are fictional and any similarity to real people or events is purely coincidental. That statement is never in my books because that would be fictional. The truth is that I borrow a great deal from real life in my fiction.
In my favorite of my four novels, Tales From the Crib, there’s a scene where the protagonist has recently given birth and is utterly tortured by her diva mother whose only concern is what type of pie to serve guests. At the height of tension, she explodes, “Fuck pie!” then launches into a diatribe about the insanity of obsessing over pie when there’s a new baby in the house. When she concludes her monologue, her mother calmly claims that she is proud that her daughter is “so in touch with her rage” and that this level of candor is, in fact, a testament to their wonderful relationship.
That happened word for word. (We settled on apple pie, by the way.)
Thankfully, my real-life mother has a wonderful sense of humor and can laugh at herself. To be fair, I changed her name so I was able to have the character engage in fictional shenanigans like an affair with her new grandson’s married pediatrician.
Not everyone wants the shield of a pseudonym, though. When I showed my eighty-something Aunt Bernice the Tales manuscripts, she asked why I changed her name to Beatrice. “And why is my sistah, Rita called Rena in yaw book?!” she demanded in her thick New York accent. I explained that while the characters were based on them, I wanted the freedom to have Beatrice and Rena do things Bernice and Rita never would. “I’ve got some great lines,” she said. “I want credit.”
I replied, “Did you read the last chapter where you lose your mind after Rena drops dead at Red Lobster, and you claim you’re going to jump off your balcony on your 90th birthday?” This never happened, I reminded her.
I explained that I was going to write a sequel, The Queen Gene, and Beatrice was going to start getting Brazilian bikini waxes. She shrugged and said she could live with that. And to her credit, she said nothing about my bringing her character to a strip club and issuing a weekly “snatch report” about the status of her elder-bush.
Basing characters on real people
Basing characters on real people is a way I keep myself honest about action, dialogue and emotional reality. Sometimes lines of dialogue are exactly what a person in my real life said. Often, it is what they would say if faced with a fictional situation. I always ask myself: would Kathy really say that, are these the words she’d use, would she really do that or wear that?
When writing characters I have to remind myself that just because a character is a musician, he doesn’t always talk about music. People are more textured than that. Linking characters to people in real life reminds me of that. For example, my friend’s six-year-old son (who I have yet to base a character on) is an absolute sports fanatic. When a game is on TV, he shouts at the players, throws himself across the room, recreates plays. It’s exhausting just watching him. Truth be told, he’s not just like this when sports are on. He is a certifiable lunatic. So when my friend told me she was bringing her son to the theatre with us, I was more than a little nervous. “Does he know he can’t participate?” I asked, terrified. Much to my surprise, he sat through a two-hour drama silently with his head cocked, listening intently the entire time. Real people are inconsistent, so characters should be too if they are going to be interesting and authentic.
Naming characters after real people
My friend Maxime tutored me in French before my daughter and I visited Paris. He told me he would not accept payment, but wouldn’t mind if I named a character after him. At first, this was no problem. Maxime, the French artiste, arrived on the pages of The Queen Gene, charming as could be. But conflict is the lifeblood of any story so pretty soon Maxime started acting up. Each week at our daughters’ soccer practice, I offered to change the Maxime character’s name to Pierre as he was now a philandering, depressed, talentless hack. The real Maxime would not hear of it. His wife shrugged and said her husband loved being a character in a book. “C’est la vie,” she said good-naturedly.
Another friend asked me to drop his name in a book I was writing. “If you could say I’m, you know, huuuuge, that’d be great,” he said. It actually worked in the context of what I was writing so it I did it. His friends and family got a big kick out of it. It was less amusing when the managing partner at his law firm saw it when Google searching his name.
Avoiding Hurt Feelings
The best way to avoid hurt feelings is to allow people to review a manuscript before it goes to press. Years ago, I based a character on my Aunt Rita, who had an issue with kleptomania. I was fascinated by the idea that a well-respected upper-middle-class retired kindergarten teacher was banned from the Gap for stealing baby booties. First of all, there were no babies in our family so there was absolutely no need for these booties. Second, she could well afford them. And third, she only stole items on sale. I found it all very interesting, but suffice it to say Rita did not. “You can say whatever you want when I’m dead,” she told me. “Till then, zip it.” So I did.
Truth is stranger than fiction which is why it is such a critical guide for me in writing novels. Most people are flattered that you are basing a character in them, but always check first. And ask them to really think it through. Remember my friend at the law firm? He will never, ever live down his nickname.