Real people have been the basis for literary characters for almost as long as there have been novels. Someone has even written a book on it. More recently, we have seen more and more novelists use actual real people in their novels. Some people don’t like that. Jonathan Dee commented there is something fundamentally compromised about a type of literary work whose characters — their physical appearances, their fates, the actions by which they will be remembered — are known to us before we even open the book and Creating a character out of words and making him or her as vivid and memorable as a real person might be the hardest of the fundamental tricks a novelist has to perform. Simply adopting or impersonating an already interesting real-life character — Lee Harvey Oswald, J.P. Morgan, Amelia Earhart — cannot be considered as substantial an achievement as creating a character who enters the reader’s consciousness as a total unknown.. I really don’t mind, as it can introduce you to people you know little about (Hilary Mantel writing about Thomas Cromwell, for example), or give you another perspective on a living person or some event in his/her life where we do not necessarily know the truth. But that is not what this post is about.
Writing in The Independent, John Walsh commented on a lawsuit brought against French novelist Christine Angot for using a depiction of her lover’s ex-lover in a novel. The ex-lover – Elise Bidoit – sued on the basis that intimate details of her life, known only to those who knew her well (i.e. her ex, Angot’s current) were published and that she was recognisable. Angot has form for this. She famously wrote a book called L’inceste (not available in English but the title is not too difficult to translate) about an incestuous relationship between a young woman and her father. Was it based on fact? What did her father think of it? I have a copy and it may well appear on my site sometime soon. As author Kathryn Stockett knows you have to be careful about putting living, non-famous people in your novel. My speculation on this has been prompted by the last book I put on my site – Taiye Selasi‘s Ghana Must Go, which is substantially autobiographical (she even uses her mother’s real maiden name). In this book she kills off her father with a heart attack though her real father is still very much alive. What did he think of this? What did her twin sister think of being made male in this book? Yes, as an author, you often want to write about what you know, which means your own life, your own family and your own friends but, whatever you think of your father, killing him off? In the Walsh article linked above, he mentions that Beryl Bainbridge was tempted to kill off her mother in her book Harriet Says but resisted the temptation. A worthy example to vindictive novelists, though I can think of a few politicians I would kill off were I to be a novelist.