I come from a family of artists. My father, brother, sister, grandmother, and aunt are all very talented painters and sketch artists. Sometimes our family members and close friends find themselves the subjects of their art. You would think this would be an honor to us, and in many ways it is. That we would be so fastened in their hearts and memories to inspire their hands to make make us into art is a testament of our influence in their lives.
“My nose is crooked. Why did you have to make my nose crooked?”
“My head is too small.”
“The eyes are too close together.”
“That’s the way your eyes are dear.”
“Do you have to make me look so cross? Is that what you think of me?”
It’s a delicate conversation. In drawing and painting it’s not always easy to hide where we got our inspiration and it reveals a great deal about the way we see each other, whether positive or negative. The same is true in writing. Even if you try to be obscure, tweak things, make your mother’s hair blue and age her twenty years, at some point a family member will inevitably ask you “Is this me?”
Me, from my ballerina days, by my father Bick Robbins
Some writers base their characters very heavily on people they know, making no apologies or efforts to shade their intention. Their writing is wholly inspired by their lives and the people in it. Others are very uncomfortable with this approach, rather taking bits and pieces and then drawing the character in a way they feel is true to their artistic purposes.
I lean further to the latter. I’ve admitted in a previous post that I have written a book that was pretty close to my life as a teenager, and I used my family members heavily. (My father’s only request is that I make him thin, young and handsome. Everything else is fair game.) But no matter how I tried to hid things they would undoubtedly recognize right away who they were in that book and I quickly realized that I was not comfortable with this. It just didn’t feel right. I decided that if I wanted to write a replica of my life I would just write a memoir. (And honestly I don’t know how some memoirists keep their relationships in tact after their work is published!) So I wrote it off as a therapeutic exercise and moved on to my fantasy world.
But I quickly learned that racing to the other end of the spectrum was also not a good idea. If I tried to make a character out of thin air, listing their attributes both physical and psychological like planning a menu, deciding how I wanted them to be in every aspect and fit in with the story, then I sketched a very artificial being, one who was predictable and without soul. Without drawing upon the real people in my life they did not ring true to me.
I’ve found a balance that is comfortable for me. The very nature of the people in my life allows me to draw deep, diverse characters- people who are not predictable, who have strengths, weaknesses, surprising quirks, sorrow and longing- characters who become as real and dear to me as my own family.
My Aunt Michelle, holding her first baby girl after five boys. By my aunt, Elizabeth Robbins Pruitt
Coming up! The way we use ourselves in our fiction.