Seriously joking or jokingly serious

Today’s photograph shows an extra Christmas present that I received from my daughter-in-law.  I am very pleased indeed with it and have just taken it out of its Cellophane wrapper, as it will be going on its first outing tomorrow.

It has made me think about fictional characters and to what extent they are (or should be) drawn from life.  There have been some famous court cases in which certain authors’ character portrayals, or their exact use of the names of real people, have been challenged by the ‘victims’.  I remember that the first edition of Richard Adams’ The Girl in a Swing had to be withdrawn, because one of the characters had been given the precise name of someone that Adams knew. (I was deeply involved in this, as it meant my having to call just about every public library in the country with the request to return for credit any copies that they held!)

Do most friends of novelists mind seeing themselves portrayed in their work?  On the whole, I should hope that they would find it quite flattering (depending on the nature of the portrayal and the quality of the writing!), though I have not asked this question of any of my friends directly, as I don’t wish to alarm them.  None of the characters in In the Family is based on a ‘real’ person, though some of them, of course, show the feelings, use the mannerisms and even, on occasion, utter the same words and phrases of people whom I know.  I feel that this is an inevitable part of the creative process; otherwise, all my characters would resemble Martians!

Literary works that incorporate ‘real’ authors are always fascinating – at least to other authors.  Aldous Huxley, W.B. Yeats, Lady Ottoline Morrell and Nancy Cunard all appeared many times in the fictional works of their large circles of literary friends and acquaintances, sometimes wittily disguised, sometimes barely disguised at all.  Some of these portraits have hit home in quite a cruel way.  Ottoline Morrell, in particular, was the instantly-recognisable butt of several less-than-generous satirical sketches, though to my knowledge she never resorted to litigation.  It is harder for crime writers to ‘steal’ characters in this way, especially for the role of villain!  However, Dorothy L. Sayers’ biographer makes a convincing case for Lord Peter Wimsey’s having been based on a man whom she had loved in vain.

You would think it would be easy to avoid taking names from life, as it seems straightforward enough to invent them.  However, unless you are a latter-day Charles Dickens and choose your characters’ names to reflect their personalities, it is harder than you might think.  They have to sound convincing and be interesting but not banal.  J.K. Rowling has said that the name ‘Harry Potter’ originally belonged to someone that she knew at school.  In the Family contains the names of several people who lived in Spalding when I was a child, though they have been taken completely out of context in the novel: Atkins, Bertolasso, Frear and Armstrong are all names from that era, as is the first name Giash, which belonged to the only Pakistani I’d met at the time.  I knew several Dorises, Elizas and Kathryns; no Bryony, but it is a name that my mother considered giving to me when I was born (I had a lucky escape there, I feel!); no Tirzah, either, but one of my ancestors rejoiced in that name (two others were called Hezekiah and Jeremiah, according to the family bible).

I have yet to mine some of the more picturesque old Lincolnshire surnames: Gotobed, Withyman, Sentance and Berrill.  Perhaps they will appear in later books.  In scenes I’ve set outside Lincolnshire, I tend to choose the names of real places that I know well.  For example, Tim Yates has a sister (who will surface at some point!) who lives in a street in Surbiton that in real life is home to one of my dearest friends, but that is where the similarity will end: Tim’s sister’s appearance and personality will not be stolen from my friend.

So, I think I have answered my own question!  I love my new bag, because its message is so witty, but my own message – to all my friends – is that you are safe.  I value your friendship too much to try to plunder your character, even for the sake of DI Yates!