Do Fiction Writers Use Real Life Characters in Their Novels?

Surely if you put a real person in your novel they might recognise themselves?

Is it all right to use real people to create characters in your novel?

Kenneth Branagh as conceited fop Gilderoy Lockhart
Kenneth Branagh as conceited fop Gilderoy Lockhart

Suppose they recognise themselves?

In my experience this is extremely unlikely.

JK Rowling based the character of Gilderoy Lockhart on someone she knew. In “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”, Gilderoy is the new Defence Against the Dark Arts Teacher and he is a conceited egoist whom Hermione has a crush on. Kenneth Branagh had great fun with the role in the film of the book. JK Rowling is quoted as saying the original of Gilderoy is probably the last person on earth who’d be likely to recognise himself in the character who’s based on him.

The only character who is deliberately based on a real person is Gilderoy Lockhart. … the living model was worse. [Laughter]. He was a shocker! … I can say this quite freely because he will never in a million years dream that he is Gilderoy Lockhart.

Can Authors Always Get Away with Using Real People in Their Novels?

The answer to this is probably yes!

That’s because self-knowledge is a rare commodity, and most people are unable to recognise their own characteristics in a fictional character.

Authors are, in theory, supposed to protect themselves with the formula “All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental”.

But what is coincidence, in the creative imagination?

In the process of creative writing, the character will gain fictional attributes anyway. And other people you’ve known may well insinuate themselves in.

I’ve used several real people as models for characters in my novel “Mystical Circles“.

I hazard a guess not one of them would ever recognise themselves.

And not one of them is a pure, clear representation of a living person. Other bits and pieces have attached themselves to my fictional creation.

In any case, how can you  fully inhabit the character, mind, body and spirit of another real person? Impossible. Imaginative sympathy is the key.

I believe authors fictionalise characters by letting go of the need to “copy”, “represent real life” or “get the facts right”.

Instead we trust to our unconscious (as Carl Jung knows very well!) to process observation, imagination and knowledge.

What do you think? Do you believe you’d recognise yourself if someone put you into a novel? And if you’re an author, what’s your take on this? Let me know what you think about this!

The Double-Edged Sword of an Artist’s Silence

If I didn’t make films I don’t know what else I would do, apart from playing jazz and making a nuisance of myself.” (Woody Allen)

Woody Allen’s words above show the nature of passion for art. For many creative people cannot imagine giving up, retiring, or falling into silence, before they die.

The master of comic fiction, P.G. Wodehouse, continued writing until the very end of his life. At the age of ninety three on his deathbed he was working on his final novel “Sunset at Blandings”. He’d reached chapter 16 of a planned 22 chapters. It was as full of spirit and youthful fun as all his many novels.

Ask a group of writers why they write and you will receive many answers. But common to many is the simple assertion “I feel compelled to write.” Compelled, that is, in the same way as Woody Allen feels compelled to make films. And this is often the case, until new circumstances intervene.

And for creative people, these circumstances may be of their choosing – or tragically otherwise.

I think of three novelists who fell into silence, for different reasons. The first is one of my favourites, Susan Howatch. Find out more about Susan Howatch’s “retirement” from writing on this thread on Vivienne Tufnell’s blog.

I followed and contributed to this thread because I share the feelings expressed by many about Susan Howatch – together with the disappointment that there will be no more from this much-loved author of the Starbridge series, and St Benet’s Trilogy. No more Nicholas Darrow. No more psychospiritual drama from that direction. No more sinuous and fluid psyches reaching out…  we, her legions of fans, will just have to go back and read those masterworks again from the beginning!

Jim Crace made a similar decision, but gave advance notice of it. He announced his next book would be his last. He created a strong impact with his novel “Quarantine” set in the Judaean wilderness, which examined those “on the edge” who wandered there 2,000 years ago, together with Jesus. Crace, writing as an avowed atheist, nevertheless developed the character of Jesus in a unique and compelling way. He has written many other successful novels too. But now he’s happy to “quit while he’s ahead”.

I used to feel the same about Iris Murdoch as I do now about Susan Howatch. I marvelled at “A Severed Head”, “The Bell”, “The Message To The Planet”, “The Book and the Brotherhood”.

Iris Murdoch’s silence was enforced through Alzheimer’s. Ironically, when the first signs of it arose she thought it was writer’s block. I could hardly bear to see the film “Iris” about the devoted support she received from her husband, because I found it so upsetting that she fell victim to such a horrific condition. Although I know full well the much-loved Terry Pratchett is on that same journey. Nevertheless I find it chilling to contemplate that this could happen to people with such truly brilliant minds.

But in the case of these writers, having been so prolific, at least one can say they’ve given of their best. And are greatly loved for it.

Have any of your favourite authors fallen silent? Do you lament that no more stories will fall from their pens? Or, perhaps, eagerly fall upon the publishers’ promises that here is another author who will fill that silence?

Unconscious Research and Dream Yoga

What might walking backwards through the Australian rainforest have to do with a mystery romance novel set in the Cotswolds? It was all part of my “unconscious research”. And it was a long research journey too, I admit. If you’re intrigued, go to Martin Willoughby’s blog to read my guest post on how “Dream Yoga” played a role in the creation of the story of “Mystical Circles”.

Minor Characters Who Highlight the Theme in Great Fiction

The success of a great novel does not lie entirely in the hands of its hero. Many of my favourite novels come with a surprise gift – the character who is most interesting of all, who is not the main protagonist. This is the character you wonder about later, the character that seems to step outside the story and comment on it, or the one whose dilemma is never really solved by the outcome of the plot. Here are three examples:

1) Mr Bennett in Pride and Prejudice

Lizzie’s father Mr Bennett is the character around whom the story problem – the Entailment – is centred. He could have seen the crisis coming, and had the power to avert it – Lydia’s elopement with Wickham, which threatened to ruin all of them. Instead, he allows himself the luxury of standing outside the story and commenting flippantly on it, as if the fate of his family had never hung on the decisions he made. In the end, the family is saved, by good fortune operating through the characters of Lizzie and Darcy – and not by Mr Bennett fulfiling his duty. And yet he says, And so Darcy did everything… I shall offer to pay him tomorrow; he will rant and storm, about his love for you, and there will be an end to the matter. And near the end we have Mr Bennett’s delicious irony in this remark to Lizzie: I admire all my three sons-in-law highly. Wickham, perhaps is my favourite; but I think I shall like your husband quite as well as Jane’s.

2) Gollum in The Lord of the Rings

Gollum is for me the most haunting character in Tolkien’s great novel. Starting out as one of the River Folk, who evolved from the loveable hobbits, he became consumed by his lust for the Ring. And yet he is offered redemption, by Frodo. Frodo uses his original name, Smeagol, to try and recall him to a sense of who he once was. He demonstrates trust in Gollum. This indicates Gollum can be redeemed if he chooses. And there are moments when he comes close, moments when we long for him to be redeemed. Yet Gollum’s final choice, to grasp the Ring, brings about his own destruction, and that of the Ring itself.

3) Mr Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Mr Tumnus the Fawn is the character who first comes into my mind whenever I think of The Lion,the Witch and the Wardrobe. Childlike, pure, guileless, representing the natural world, the first inhabitant of Narnia whom Lucy meets, who offers her hospitality and friendship – yet he’s prevailed upon to spy for the White Witch, and first alerts her to the presence in Narnia of a Daughter of Eve. And he suffers for it. But ultimately he is redeemed.

Do you have any examples of minor, or secondary characters in your favourite novels? Perhaps they may be for you the most interesting character of all. Let me know. I’d love to hear from you!

Structure, Collapsed Middles and Fiction Writing

One of the greatest challenges I have found in writing a novel can come  through a surplus of ideas. Which ones do you choose, and which have to be set aside to be used in another novel? The result of trying to pack in too many ideas is often a collapsed middle. So the best way to deal with this dilemma is to look at overall structure first.

And then, when it comes to writing the novel, I suggest doing the first draft in a relatively short concentrated space of time: say, six weeks. If you take too long to complete that first draft you may become vulnerable to “writer’s block”.  Even if there are many interruptions, and it’s difficult to keep up the momentum of the writing, I believe that if you care about writing your novel, you will find the time. You will prioritise and remove distractions from your life.

In addition, writer’s block may also happen when you lose passion and excitement with your characters. Suddenly they no longer inspire you. Graham Greene illustrates this situation through the main protagonist in his novel “The End of the Affair”:  “When I begin to write, there is one character who obstinately will not come alive… He lies heavily on my mind whenever I start to work like an ill-digested meal on the stomach robbing me of the pleasure of creation in any scene where he is present… he never surprises me, he never takes charge. Every other character helps, he only hinders.”

Here are three possible ways of overcoming this situation:

1) Plan the novel beforehand. As I mentioned above, structure is vital. I can recommend designing your novel using Snowflake Pro, novel design software created by Randy Ingermanson, who has (with Peter Economy) also written an excellent book on Fiction Writing.  If you start by establishing structure, and move out to the details, then you are working from a stable position, and will avoid what Ingermanson calls “the flabby middle”.

2) Have a regular writing schedule – don’t allow long spaces of time to elapse between writing sessions. The habit of discipline should train both mind and body; the mental powers of imagination, observation, research, and concentration, allied to the body that sits at the table or desk, the hand that holds the pen and writes, or taps the keys of the laptop.

 3) Trust the unconscious if your character is failing to live up to his promise. This is the situation Graham Greene describes. But be encouraged by this: he goes on to say “So much of a novelist’s writing… takes place in the unconscious… the superficiality of one’s days.  One may be preoccupied with shoppping and income tax returns and chance conversations, but the stream of the unconscious continues to flow undisturbed… one sits down sterile and dispirited at the desk, and suddenly the words come as though from air: the situation that seemed blocked in a hopeless impasse moves forward: the work has been done while one slept or shopped or talked with friends.”

So then you can be bold and strike out and ask What if? and then go with whatever crazy idea first strikes you. Allow somebody new and unexpected to enter. Perhaps move your character to another setting, present the character with an unforeseen challenge.. Of course overproliferation of characters and locations is another danger. But this is your first draft. You can fix it later, can’t you? And it’s better than giving in to writer’s block. The important thing is to play your part, and show up for work – so you are there, on the spot, ready for when the words come as though from air.

Mystical Circles, Emotional Charge on the Spiritual Journey – How Life Itself Inspires an Author

Over the last few months, some readers have been asking me, “What inspired you to write ‘Mystical Circles’? And, as I have just issued a revised edition of the novel on Kindle with a new cover design, I thought now would be a good moment to answer some of those questions.

"Mystical Circles" new revised edition published on Kindle June 2012
“Mystical Circles” new revised edition published on Kindle June 2012

The story evolved out of a number of different influences & experiences covering several years of my life. I was inspired for the setting by the strong contrast between the calm beauty of the Cotswolds landscape, and the complexity of the emotions and psyches of the fictional characters I imagine living there.

And although the characters are a composite of many people I’ve met, there’s also a little bit of me in every one of them. The setting and events of the story arose from my own experiences:  a writing course at a college in Kent; a symposium on “religious renewal in the modern world” at Hawkwood College, near Stroud, Gloucestershire; a Buddhist retreat in a school on the south coast; a poetry course at Totleigh Barton, Devonshire farmhouse owned by the Arvon Foundation.

Inspiration came too from people I met at the Relaxation Centre in Brisbane, Queensland, and courses I attended there on “The Centre Within”, “Personal Growth” and “Dream Yoga”.

Additionally, I learned new things from the sannyasins who followed the guru Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh, when I spent a couple of days observing activities at their UK-based community, especially their practice of Dynamic Meditation. And I drew, too, upon my experience with the local community mental heath teams in Leamington Spa.

And why did I eventually settle upon the genre of mystery romance to tell this story? Firstly, the very nature of mystery is to unravel human motivation. And romance because I’ve often found that a key charismatic figure stands at the centre of any body of teachings. The language used by such a person excites, moves, inspires, and arouses the emotions; the personality of this leader is a powerful influence; and – in my experience & observation – love, romantic/sexual feelings, and emotional charge cannot be separated from the spiritual journey.

I hope that has answered some of your questions. I’d love to hear from you if you’ve had your own experiences on the spiritual path. Or perhaps you  have very different views of this. Either way, please leave a comment!

Mental and Emotional Byways, Complexes and Hang-Ups in Fictional Characters

Having just read an interesting blog post about depression,  I was led to reflect upon how easy it is  to allow your own “principles” to override compassion, empathy and honesty about the reality of human life. This applies to all of us, but there is a special challenge here for those of us who write stories, and need to create convincing characters.

 We won’t get very far as writers if our fictional characters come over as wooden or contrived or artificial. To guard against that,  authors needs a basic understanding of psychology. That can come either through study, or through personal experience, or through observation. As I’ve mentioned before in posts on this blog, I feel that a knowledge of Jungian psychological concepts is useful. Here for example is Carl Jung’s theory of Complexes.

A complex, as developed in the writings of  Jung, may be defined as “a core pattern of emotions, memories, perceptions and wishes in the personal unconscious organised around a common theme such as power or status.” The notion of a “complex” may even be misused in common speech: we may too readily hear of someone described as having an inferiority / guilt / martyr complex. But this can be fruitful for a creative writer; though it has to be handled with care.

1. An inferiority complex may lead your character to interpret everything in the light of this set of notions: “I’m not good enough,” “my opinions don’t count”; “I’m afraid to put myself forward”. Take P.G.Wodehouse as an example; see Jeeves and The Inferiority Complex of Old Sippy among numerous other stories. Here we often meet shy young men attempting to battle those who are louder, bigger, better-looking, more powerful and more self-confident, to win the girl they love.

2. Often,whether a fictional character displays a certain complex can be a matter of interpretation by the reader. I suggest a martyr complex may be behind the outlook and actions of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Tess behaves like a heroic martyr sacrificing herself. Many readers may feel Tess casts herself in the role of victim.

3. The guilt complex is used extensively in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Many characters experience intense guilt; but the exception to this is Smerdyakov who murders Fyodor yet does not blame himself; though he’s the only character technically guilty, he feels the least liability for it. Thus the author sheds light on some of his own religious questions and doubts.

So there’s plenty of inspiration here for fiction writers, as we  develop characters who will inspire love, pity, fury or even soul-searching in our readers. Our job is to create characters we know and care about as much as ourselves. As crime writer Martin Edwards says in his article on “Developing Characters and Their Relationships”,  “characters in books don’t exist in a vacuum, just as real people don’t. To create characters that seem to live and breathe, taking care over how they relate to other people in the story isn’t just a sensible idea. It’s absolutely vital.”  And if we try to let “principles” stand in the way of compassion & empathy, we can be sure our own stories will find us out!

On the Outside Looking In, Royal Barges, Rowing Boats, Glimpses, Panoramas and Artistic Vision

As I watched The Diamond Jubilee River Pageant on TV and tried to work out whether I wished I was there, or whether I was glad not to be, I remembered these words in a radio interview several months ago. ‘I have always felt myself to be on the outside of everything, looking in.’

I was listening to a bestselling novelist speaking about his recent success in winning a major book award. Among the many things he said which touched and amused me, the most striking was this reply to the interviewer’s question, ‘Now you’ve won this prestigious award, do you feel you’ve arrived? Do you now feel you’re on the inside?’

Then, looking at the Queen and her immediate family on the royal barge, I found myself thinking, “I wish I was on the royal barge, watching everything pass by for my benefit.”  And in the same moment I wondered whether William, Catherine and Harry felt slightly wistful and wished perhaps they were out there on the river, rowing some of those boats instead of standing on a floating version of Buckingham Palace being gracious and removed and “on the outside looking in”.

Would I have liked to be hanging over a bridge in the pouring rain catching perhaps a two second glimpse of a white figure amongst gold and crimson? Or was it much better to be viewing the entire panorama from a warm dry living room and hearing all the commentaries and flashing back and forth between different viewpoints as we do sometimes in a great novel?

We rarely strike the balance between the excitement of real moments, and the  enjoyment of long perspective, and full appreciation of whichever situation we are in.

We cannot always be outsiders looking in. Sometimes it’s necessary to get involved, and come alongside. I believe both can co-exist simultaneously. There is in fact never a time when a writer is so fully involved, he or she cannot at some future time stand back and write about it. Every experience, no matter how negative or difficult, can prove raw material for a writer because in the act of writing a story you are often drawing upon unconscious material.

In the world you have to participate. But you can also observe. The truth lies in paradox. Thus the most successful creative people can literally be, in the eyes of the world, on the inside. Of course they have arrived! And yet they can sometimes feel they are always on the outside looking in, whether that be from the glamour of a royal barge, up on a bridge, or in a temporary TV studio.

What are your thoughts on this? As ever I love to have your comments!

Currents, Backwaters and Muddy Tributaries in Fiction: and the Fascination of the One Star Review

Reading a novel is like going on a voyage down a river.

Whitewater rapids (credit: rafting.co.uk)
Whitewater rapids (credit: rafting.co.uk)

Sometimes the water’s smooth and calm, sometimes rough; occasionally you may find yourself in whitewater rapids; and ultimately it flows into the sea.

If your boat gets ambushed by a rogue current and becomes snarled up among tree roots and rushes in a muddy backwater, that spoils your journey.

But does it make you give up on the book?

That happened to me recently with JK Rowling’s novel The Casual Vacancy.

She’d gripped me, early on, with a vivid description of a social worker visiting the dysfunctional family of an abused child. But then, as I saw the way her narrative was tending, I decided I wasn’t in the mood to read an unrelenting account of numerous people behaving in a particularly unpleasant way.

But as I loved all the Harry Potter books, and admire JK Rowling herself, I decided to put the book aside and return to it at another time, when I may feel differently about her choice of subject.

I believe that the way we respond to novels is a complex mixture of mood, temperament, expectation, and our own experience of  the world.

And when our expectations have been defeated, we might love it – or we might immediately get onto Amazon and bestow a one-star review.

Various factors determine whether we do  the latter – or wait, and perhaps come back to it another time, as I plan to with The Casual Vacancy.

I enjoy reading different responses to my own novel Mystical Circles. Of course, like all authors, I feel happy if I see that the majority have given it 5-star reviews (especially on Goodreads, Amazon & Barnes & Noble).

But the reviews that intrigue me – for any novel – are the one-star reviews. I quite often go to them first, specially to find out what is the worst that can be said of this novel.

But does that put me off the novel? No way! It can even enhance my interest in the novel, by giving it an extra dimension.

I believe the most interesting lessons are to be found in extreme divergence of opinion.

What do you think?

Searching for Love… And Craving Celebrity

In my last post, on the case of Jimmy Savile, I wrote about the dark side of celebrity.

We crave love, fame,wealth, success - but where is it leading us? (image credit: GoToSee.co.uk)
We crave love, fame,wealth, success – but where is it leading us? (image credit: GoToSee.co.uk)

We live in a society obsessed with celebrities – the gods of this secular age.

And we try to convince ourselves that fame would guarantee entry into a perfect region of love, wealth and success. Yet the reality for the famous themselves is often not as appealing as we might think.

There are many examples of celebrities who suffer from depression.

“It is strange,” observed Albert Einstein, “to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely.”

The cure for loneliness, we are led to believe, is love.

And in our midst, there are those who feel unloved and unlovable. These people may not take a recognizable form. The most attractive people may be among those who feel unloved and unlovable. The rise of depression, anxiety and stress in our society provides ample evidence of this – as does the incidence of poor body-image, low self-esteem, and eating disorders such as anorexia.

It is rare to find love that is not conditional.

“All you need is love,” sang the Beatles. And as it happens, I’m listening to them singing those very words right now as I write this.

But the love we need must be unconditional.

Unconditional love is a very difficult concept for human beings to grasp. Only divine love can be unconditional.

The love of God can work through the most unexpected people – and that includes people who are not religious, and have nothing whatsoever to do with churches.

So it may indeed be that the cure for all this is unconditional love.

Compassion, humility, and gentleness are not the exclusive province of religious people.

I believe we taste something of that unconditional divine love in any place where compassion, grace, love and faithfulness are to be found.