The People We Think We Know (and the Characters They Inspire)

David Corbett for Writer Unboxed

Basing fictional characters on people we know carries both distinct risks and unique rewards.

The risks include potentially offending the person inspiring the character, especially if unflattering facts are revealed and the characterization is not adequately camouflaged—or poorly executed.

That said, a great many writers I know have reported that the people on whom they’ve based characters have seldom if ever recognized themselves, if only out of misguided vanity.

On the other hand, the rewards of basing characters on people we know include the ability to use personal, real-world knowledge and observation in the characterization, with the added plus of being able to use one’s own distinct intuitive impression of the person.

Obviously, there is no guarantee that knowing someone assures that you know them well. How much of someone’s life goes unnoticed by even intimate companions? Absent clandestine surveillance, we can’t know the secrets of others unless they’re divulged to us, either by the person herself or by someone betraying a confidence. And the violation of trust revealed in the latter circumstance is only enhanced if the secret is passed along by us, fictionally or otherwise.

I first began thinking of these matters when I was working on The Art of Character, specifically in response to the question of where our characters come from, i.e., are they created or discovered. (Answer: they’re a little of both.)

And while I was working on that section of the book, I happened upon a poem John Updike wrote late in his life, titled “Peggy Lutz, Fred Muth.” (I’ve included the complete poem at the end of this post; you can also read it online here.)

In that poem, Updike remarks:

Dear friends of childhood, classmates, thank you,
scant hundred of you, for providing a
sufficiency of human types: beauty,
bully, hanger-on, natural,
twin, and fatso—all a writer needs

These thoughts came crashing back to me recently when I returned to Columbus, Ohio, to attend my 50th high school reunion. (Yes, I really am that old.)

In particular, I was repeatedly struck by how much or how little many of us had changed, and in both instances why.

A few years back, here at Writer unboxed, I wrote a post titled, “Types, Characters, and the Occasional Human Being,” about the difference between types and characters. The former usually reveal themselves upon first impression and, barring extreme circumstances, seldom change—they remain “true to type.” Characters, however, possess more complexity than first impressions can allow. They often reveal themselves gradually, over the entire course of a story, in slow progressions or sudden bursts of self-disclosure, often in moments of crisis.

And yet, as I got reacquainted with my former classmates, I realized there was a lot more to be said of “remaining true to type” than the remark I just made might suggest.

[From this point forward I will use monikers to describe the individuals discussed—to protect the innocent, including me.]

There was Wiry Wiseguy—short, slight, whip-smart, ambitious as hell. You would have no trouble recognizing him if you hadn’t seen him in 50 years—he’d put on at most 10 pounds, and but for a touch of gray at the temples and a pair of glasses he appeared almost preternaturally untouched by age. He still spoke out of the side of his mouth with the same wiseacre attitude, like he was chomping an invisible stogie, emphasizing key points by slapping his hands and scrubbing them together. I knew his mother, who spoke with a distinct Italian accent, and was one of the gentlest, sweetest, most generous moms I encountered among my friends. She passed away relatively young, and I remember WW talking about how his dad was struggling to manage on his own. Meanwhile, WW himself became one of the preeminent lawyers in town—not a few of us expected him to run for office, even be governor by now—but somewhere along the way he decided to forego that abuse. Something had tempered but not extinguished the fireball of ambition inside him. He decided living well was reward enough, though in every other regard he’s remained largely unchanged. Despite the challenges his career has posed and life has inflicted, he’s remained unmistakably true to who he was the very first day I met him freshman year.

There was also Happy & Handsome—one of the guys I hung out with not just in in high school but earlier in grade school and later in college. He too appeared to have aged but little (he wears glasses now), but is still tall, trim, and fit, with the kind of looks that always reminded me of Clint Eastwood. Because I know him well, I know he’s also shy and appreciated the fact that, like Cyrano de Bergerac, I could talk to girls—though he was the one who invariably walked away with them. I also know his boyhood was no picnic, due to some family issues I need not go into. Always a gifted golfer, his father often harangued him for not pursuing it professionally, but that kind of ambition and discipline didn’t appeal. Despite the years, he still speaks with self-effacing humor, chuckling for punctuation, usually at himself, though I also noted a certain wistfulness in the shadow of his words. Life hasn’t been a breeze, but it hasn’t broken him, either.

One of the most gifted of our classmates, who I’ll call Boy Genius, sadly died young, but he too was another of those who remained “himself only more so.” I first met him in second grade, when he was “seven-going-on-forty.” He invited me and five other classmates to his birthday party, where his dad filmed (on an old Super 8) a movie Boy Genius had scripted himself, after which we ate ice cream and cake, then went to see The Three Stooges in Outer Space at the local theater. He became a gifted musician, playing piano for all our chorus and musical practices and recitals, effortlessly transposing keys when a given part was too high or too low for whoever had to sing it. He did all this with a humility so profound it was almost as though he preferred to be invisible, a trait possibly resulting from his being gay, something none of us knew at the time. He went on to join the Chicago Symphony, and before he passed away was able to live out one of his life’s dreams—conducting the orchestra in performance. His death came shortly after my brother’s, both of them stricken down by AIDS, and I reached out to his parents. He was their only child, their golden boy, and his mother never recovered.

Then there were those who, rather than remaining much the same, changed utterly.

One, who was part of my close circle of friends in high school and college—I’ll call him Laid-Back Slim—had a gentle easy-going manner and counter-cultural leanings, a back-to-nature simplicity combined with unaffected intelligence. Tall and thin as an ax handle, he rolled his own smokes, laughed easily, and read voraciously. In his early twenties, he met the woman of his dreams and fell deeply, hopelessly in love—only to have her break his heart. He never recovered. He withdrew into a depressive isolation, breaking off contact with virtually everyone.

Another, who like Boy Genius died far too young, was voted Most Likely to Succeed by the rest of us senior year. I’ll call him Captain Outrageous—he was brash, ballsy, and wily. He always seemed to find a way to turn virtually any experience into a money-making opportunity. We figured he’d become a wheeler-dealer of some sort—entrepreneur, financier, stockbroker—a millionaire by thirty for sure. I worked with him at our college bookstore, where he routinely excoriated anyone majoring in the arts or social sciences—how dim their prospects upon graduation. But, even then, there were hints of something else going on. He had a devout anti-authority streak that bordered on reckless. I have never seen anyone so devoted to getting himself fired. At the bookstore he mocked and badgered our boss and his brother relentlessly, shamelessly—referring to the latter, whose name was Bob Long, as Oblong—until they obliged his desire and gave him the ax. Strange behavior for someone focused on success. But that was the thing—there was so much more to him than first glance would allow.

In college, he continued arranging big get-togethers, charging for the refreshments (for a tidy profit)—but unlike before, once the party started, he would go out to his car and sit alone until everyone went home. He and I went to a party one night out in the boonies, and it was one of those small get-togethers where intimate thoughts were gently shared. The wisecracking hustler disappeared; he was enthusiastically if quietly open and vulnerable like everyone else.

I lost touch with him for several years, but I learned through friends he had reached out to both a trusted older brother and one of our classmates, a woman he “dated,” and confided to them his sexuality, which they helped him accept and embrace. By chance we encountered each other on a bus in San Francisco in the late 1980s. He’d gotten his masters in social work—a degree he would have dismissed as useless two decades before—and was working for the state utility in its human resources department helping it reach out to gays and minority communities in its hiring.

At the risk of being maudlin, I’d say we were right after all, but for the wrong reason—he did succeed, wonderfully, but in a way we didn’t foresee, because there were subcurrents to his nature he didn’t reveal openly until later.

I could easily go on, for there were so many people whose lives took unpredictable turns, and who were obliged to dig deep, discovering an inner resilience often utterly invisible to one’s teenage self. In virtually every instance, however, so much was determined by the person or persons with whom they chose to share their life.

The lesson—of course there’s a lesson, it’s why we’re here—is that using people we know as the basis for our characters is an excellent way to ground ourselves in emotional and psychological truth—as long as we don’t sucker ourselves into thinking we possess the whole picture. Even those who have remained true-to-type possess secret depths and complexities—and thus retain, like all the best characters, the capacity to surprise.

[A word of thanks to one of my classmates—I’ll call him Brother Bigheart—for helping me flesh out some of the sketches recounted above.]

Have you ever based a character on someone you know? At what point in their life did you choose to portray them? What, if anything, did you change? What absolutely had to remain the same? How could you tell? Were they true-to-type even late in life, or were they unpredictably different in the end? Why?

Here’s the entire poem by John Updike mentioned above:

They’ve been in my fiction; both now dead,
Peggy just recently, long stricken (like
my Grandma) with Parkinson’s disease.
But what a peppy knockout Peggy was!—
cheerleader, hockey star, May Queen, RN.
Pigtailed in kindergarten, she caught my mother’s
eye, but she was too much girl for me.
Fred—so bright, so quietly wry—his
mother’s eye fell on me, a “nicer” boy
than her son’s pet pals. Fred’s slight wild streak
was tamed by diabetes. At the end,
it took his toes and feet. Last time we met,
his walk rolled wildly, fetching my coat. With health
he might have soared. As was, he taught me smarts.
Dear friends of childhood, classmates, thank you,
scant hundred of you, for providing a
sufficiency of human types: beauty,
bully, hanger-on, natural,
twin, and fatso—all a writer needs,
all there in Shillington, its trolley cars
and little factories, cornfields and trees,
leaf fires, snowflakes, pumpkins, valentines.
To think of you brings tears less caustic
than those the thought of death brings. Perhaps
we meet our heaven at the start and not
the end of life. Even then were tears
and fear and struggle, but the town itself
draped in plain glory the passing days.
The town forgave me for existing; it
included me in Christmas carols, songfests
(though I sang poorly) at the Shillington,
the local movie house. My father stood,
in back, too restless to sit, but everybody
knew his name, and mine. In turn I knew
my Granddad in the overalled town crew.
I’ve written these before, these modest facts,
but their meaning has no bottom in my mind.
The fragments in their jiggled scope collide
to form more sacred windows. I had to move
to beautiful New England—its triple
deckers, whited churches, unplowed streets—
to learn how drear and deadly life can be.

About David Corbett

David Corbett (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.