Homages – Friends as Novel Characters

The impetus that finally pushed me to write a novel consisted of a combination of two things.  The first was the incredibly vivid Zombie Dreams I’ve had over the years.  These dreams are full Technicolor and Stereoscope dreams, with jump cuts and multiple camera angles, where I might be a spectator, actor, or disembodied witness, but always vaguely aware that I’m watching a dream and ready to fill my role as either zombie killer or victim or hard-running candyass.  I love these dreams, and have never thought it right to call them nightmares – I may get creeped out, but I don’t necessarily want to wake up from them.

The Zombie Dreams laid the foundation.  The second push came from a daydream I had, where my friends and family were villagers in a medieval town that was overrun by zombies and eaten in a very gory and glorious fashion.

I’m a swell friend, eh?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I could actually see it all playing out in my head, as if I’d seen it as a movie years before and remembered most of the details.  When one of the daydreams seemed to include a beginning – one of these friends playing a role as an innocent village girl, naive and friendly, greeting a Stranger to her town with just-picked early spring flowers – I knew I was going to write it.  I was going to kill off my friends and family.

I mean, I’m an awesome friend.

So I got started.  At first I thought I’d make all of the characters friends and family, throwing in some in-jokes, especially since I never expected anyone but friends or family to actually buy the damn thing.  Since many of my friends are actors or roleplayers or just plain odd, it was easy to picture them playing the roles I gave them, and having their images as visual aids made it easier to conjure just the right sketch to give them each a distinctive look.  As I went, though, a funny thing began to happen.

They weren’t my friends anymore.

I mean, the faces were, but the characters weren’t.  It became as if I really were directing the movie of my book, casting certain people in roles that I knew they could play since I’d seen them perform similar roles over the years.  The characters themselves became their own thing, with their own motivations and desires and foibles that went further and further from the person they looked like in reality.  They became Mine.

Looking at it now, there are definitely people who are easily pointed out by Those In The Know that can say, “This character is Joe, this character is Beth”, because of real-life name similarities and physical descriptions and some exaggerated real-life characteristics.  I recognize that, and I mean it as an homage in the most sincere way – these people have moved me to an extent that I wanted to immortalize part of them the best I could with what little talent I have.  I’ve killed many of them along the way, but it was never done maliciously, I swear.

The rest, though – they might “look” like friends, but they aren’t them.  Not anymore.  The problem lies in situations where one “known” character, say Joe, has a son in the book and a real-life son.  The assumption is made that the sons are automatically the same person and inspiration.  That isn’t the case all the time – in fact, it only happened twice out of a lot of characters – but the perception is occasionally there.

The most important part during the editing process became making sure these characters, all of them, could stand on their own, without real-life knowledge of who they may have been based on.  Without doing that, then no-one would truly want to read the story if they weren’t already an existing friend.  It would be like sitting at a table with strangers who all knew each other in college and converse in a language you know but can’t understand and connect to, leaving you there to nod and smile while feeling like the dumbest person alive.  As an aside, I hate going to weddings alone.

I believe I succeeded, according to the people who have read it and don’t know my friends.  I know others do this as well: a friend of mine (and traditional publishing success story) kills off another friend of ours in every novel he writes.  Tolkien based Treebeard off of his friend C.S. Lewis (who apparently loved saying Ho, hmm, come now), and I imagine a lot of the most memorable characters in fiction began their lives as someone’s mailman or cousin or best friend.  For me, being able to really capture a scene requires me to actually see it inside my head, with colors and textures and scents, and having a model that I can picture readily makes it that much simpler.

Plus, when one of my friends annoy me, I can have their heads gnawed off.  I’m a special friend.

About Alan Edwards

Former cancer caregiver. Husband of the most magical and amazing person who ever lived.

Posted on April 28, 2011, in Philosophizin' and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. That’s interesting… I don’t know if I ever base characters off of real life friends (not anymore). I enjoyed that aspect of “Curse” Immensely, trying to figure out who the Character was and laughed at how you captured, some of their behaviors so well.

    The idea of using Friends as a “Casting Company” seems like a good idea as it gives you a good platform to start with.

    • It’s funny, though, as I think about it – I never do that for RPGs I’m running. Instead, a lot of the times I’ll find a digital image or piece of artwork that captures what I think the person looks like, and draw a personality out of that instead, or I just make them up entirely.

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