I had a friend, Ishmar, who kept seeing himself in novels I wrote. If a character was anywhere near Ishmar's height or was a different size and weight but had a similar job...If the character had been born in Tulsa, where Ishmar had once stopped to change flights...If I set a very short scene in his town, blocks from where he lived because I liked the area...Well! Any one of these things could lead Ishmar to feel that he'd been personally attacked. Worse still, the jab had been cravenly hidden under 'the thin veil of fiction'.
The very nature of fiction is misunderstood more often than many of us think. When I worked at Oxford Books in Atlanta, successful, intelligent women and men would display total confusion
when asking for books they'd heard something about. Fiction or nonfiction? Confidently: nonfiction: a book about a revolution on the red planet Mars, between the Xanths and the Pleiades. Or, with equal confidence: fiction: the new life story of Willie Nelson. You can laugh, but these stories are no more absurd than the temptation to read ourselves too quickly into novels that we read.
Now, there's no shortage of charts showing ways to create characters.
But whether we've begun to write or read a book, we must keep one fact in mind:
Writers shuffle. Writers synthesize. Writers draw on everywhere they've been and all they've seen. Writers reconfigure qualities and histories, virtues and flaws, of the private pantheon of people whom they've known. And from these shufflings, synthesizings, draws and reconfigurations are born fictional characters who seem as real as we are.
No doubt, some hatchet jobs are done under 'the thin veil of fiction'. Far more often, I would think, lazy writers write their characters with movie stars in mind, liberally seasoning with bits of private history. But writers who are serious about their work and their readers, start with the hard work all real writers do:
And they go at this in the only proper spirit for a writer: Damn the torpedoes and...