“How do you come up with the characters for your books? Are they based on real people that you know?”
I get this question all the time—all authors get this question. The short answer is “no.” For one thing, doing so could open the door to a slew of lawsuits for—depending on how you’re using them in your book—defamation of character, libel, use of likeness without permission, etc, which is why you see that dreadful disclaimer at the beginning of most novels (and at the end of movies): “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”
For the purposes of my latest novel Alice in Wonderland, perhaps the disclaimer the Three Stooges used would’ve suited better: “Any resemblance between these characters and any persons, living or dead, is a miracle.”
Lapin Montgomery (aka “Rabbit“)
Age: Early thirties
Physical description: Six feet, two inches tall, blond hair, blue eyes. Hot enough to blister paint off the walls.
Identifying marks/tattoos: None
Occupation: Filthy rich sports reporter, international poker champion.
Family: Mother: Alice “Ally” Montgomery, former ambassador to France; sister: Souris Montgomery, personal assistant
That’s not really how it works–not for me anyway. In an earlier post (“If This Is Love, Then Why Am I Laboring?”) I wrote that if you try to ignore the characters in your head they will “follow you around everywhere you go and beg you to just listen to them. Just for a second, they will say. I have something important to tell you, they will say.”
“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.” -Ernest Hemingway
In June, one particular shadowy figure started following me everywhere I went. I tried to ignore him, but he was always there, always lurking behind some corner in the back of my mind. At this point, creating a character is sort of like stargazing: you can see stars in your peripheral vision, but as soon as you look at one dead-on, it disappears. So it was with this guy; as long as I didn’t try to look right at him, I could see the shadow morphing into something solid, a rough outline of a human being. At the end of September, he got close enough for me to ask him for his name.
For me, knowing a character’s name early-on is an absolutely critical component to building a backstory. No name, no backstory. No backstory, no book—and I don’t care how much they follow me around.”
To his credit, he answered immediately. “Rabbit.”
I had no response. I wasn’t even sure I’d heard him correctly, and I definitely wasn’t positive that I could repeat the name with a straight face. “Your—your name is—” I shifted in my seat and mentally braced myself. “Your name is, um, Rabbit?” As I spoke, I grabbed the Prozac that I keep on-hand for all my poor characters (they’re gonna need it before it’s all over, and I might just chew a few like Pez candy while I’m at it too).
All of a sudden, I jerked straight up in my chair. “Wait—Rabbit? Rabbit? As in…”
I trailed off, leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes, and watched a sequence from the opening chapter of Alice in Wonderland unfold in my mind:
“What’s going on, Rabbit?”
We both look up, squinting against the sunlight. A tall, overly made-up, bottle-bleach blond comes to a stop in front of my mystery man, her huge fake boobs attempting a jailbreak from her microscopic royal blue bikini top.
Rabbit? I think. Please don’t say his name is Rabbit. I already feel sick enough.
“Nothing, honey,” he says, sounding annoyed. “Just trying to help someone out.” He nods at me. “Turns out she didn’t need my help.”
I feel really strange, like I’m floating. “Hey…you don’t look like a rabbit.” Then I do something completely out of character: I giggle.
Since his poker-playing nickname seemed to be “White Rabbit,” making him a towhead blonde was a no-brainer, and now Suddenly, I had a physical description and a few personality quirks on the heels of that:
Wearing white swim trunks, and holding a white hotel towel and a pair of sunglasses in one hand, a man ambles towards me. I use the word “man” loosely. A better description would be “the most beautiful specimen of Homo sapiens sapiens with a set of XY chromosomes to grace the planet Earth at this moment, or any other era, epoch, or age in history.” And it’s not just me who thinks this; his good looks and amazing body leave mute, slack-jawed women from eighteen to eighty in his long-legged wake.
He comes to a stop in front of me, and runs a hand through his still-dripping, platinum blond hair. “Are you okay? Did you step on a piece of glass or something?”
“Glass?” I know I sound like a dork, but that’s all I can get out of my mouth. It’s his eyes. They’re a disconcerting, otherworldly blue, flecked with streaks of frost white. Framed by the tanned skin of his face, they glow like an acetylene torch. And his hair. I mean, even wet you can tell it’s white-blond, the kind you normally only see on toddlers, the kind that turns green in chlorinated water.
Before I write a novel, I troll the internet and compile what I call “inspirational images” for each character—photos and graphics of them that I can mull over and amalgamate, slowly turning the shadowy character with a name into one specific, identifiable physical being. It’s very similar to the way producers might create a storyboard for a movie. Below is the “storyboard” that I originally created for Lapin “Rabbit” Montgomery. Pay particular attention to the man circled in red:
Fast forward one month. I was in the full throes of marketing for Alice in Wonderland, and I had just uploaded a variation of the images above onto my Facebook page to show fans “images and photographs that inspired the novel.” It was getting close to 9:00 PM so I made a final pass through the News Feed to see what my Facebook friends and fans were up to before calling it a night—and that’s when I saw this profile photograph float by:
To say that I did a massive double-take would be an understatement. And it wasn’t just the photo itself that shocked me, but a description in the novel itself (which I’ll get to in a moment).
According to Facebook, this mystery guy and I had, like, a gazillion mutual Facebook Friends. When I clicked on his Friends link, the names of old high school and college friends and acquaintances popped up. Now, the ol’ brain isn’t quite working like it used to, but suffice to say that there was no way this guy looked like that in high school. Even a dead person would’ve noticed that strolling through the high school hallways. So I messaged him with the following (and it was all I could to refrain from using the salutation “Dear Rabbit”): “I keep seeing you pop up on Mutual Friends pages. What year did you graduate? [I]t seems like we would at least have been acquainted. Drawing a blank, here. Help a girl out?” I received a cordial reply which basically amounted to “I don’t know you, I don’t recognize you. I am a very good-looking man with a limited amount of time on this Earth; please go away while I sit around and grace the world with my beauty.” (I kid; his reply didn’t read or imply anything of the kind.) Oh, and he added the name of the college he attended and the year he graduated from high school and went off to college…which just happened to be the same year I started at the same college.
So I tried again: “Hmm. Mystery gets deeper then, because I went to [the same university] for two years [at the same time you did] before I transferred.”
Now, I don’t know what kind of response I was expecting but what I got was certainly not it: “Yep, I remember you. Were you the one dating a fireman? I seem to remember that. I remember your song was that song by Firehouse. Funny. Hope you are doing awesome!”
Okay, full disclosure: it took me until three o’clock the next morning to even remember the name of the firefighter guy I was dating in college, let alone our love song. (And once I clicked over to YouTube and listened to it I realized there was a good reason why I blocked it out. “Love of a Lifetime.” Yeesh. Poor guy having to carry that song around in his neural circuits all those years.) But the fun didn’t stop there. He remembered that we’d driven back to our hometown together one weekend; he told me anecdotes about things my roommate and I had done; he recounted talks the three of us had in our dorm room. His recall was incredible.
Since then, we’ve exchanged emails, text messages, and spoken on the phone a couple of times, but it took a little while for me to work up the courage to tell him the real reason I originally contacted him (I mean seriously—how do you gently tell a virtual stranger that they look like your romance novel hero come to life?). But when I did finally tell him, he got a real kick out of it. Which turned out be a good thing for me. Why? Because it was coming down to crunch time. It’s one thing to cut and paste graphics that you don’t hold the rights to from the internet as “inspirational graphics”; it’s another thing altogether to put those images into marketing images for your book. Right around the time I was thinking about what good-looking blond, male friends I could rope into letting me use their images for book promotion, I just happened to reconnect with this particular blond, handsome college friend.
“Why not?” I thought. So I texted him: “I want to use your photo—the one that reminded me of my book character—in an Alice montage. May I? PRETTY PLEASE?” He responded: “Yes, you may. Looking forward to seeing it.” Here is the montage I came up with:
I’d made montages for Alice and the other characters before I started writing the book as well. But the same problem I had with the Rabbit photos were also true for Alice; in short, mocking them up for private use was fine. Using them for a formal marketing campaign was no bueno. So I bought a red wig, dreamed a little dream about a fabulous party in a great dress, performed some Photoshopping wizardry, and produced a miracle:
I figured that while I was squeezing my virtual self into fabulous formal wear I couldn’t afford, I might as well give myself a date worth looking at:
The day I created this montage, my real-life friend texted me to tell that he was at that moment attending a weekend-long workshop. I replied: “No you’re not. You’re at the Tea Party Ball in Sydney Harbour on a yacht with me!” Then I sent him the image you see above, adding, “OK, keep in mind that I wrote this BEFORE I ever saw you on the timeline, BEFORE I ever contacted you. Now you know why I took another look at your photo on the timeline?” I also forwarded him this excerpt from the book:
He disappears, and my backside has no sooner touched the taupe cushion then he’s back. No leather jacket this time, but a gray sports coat over a long-sleeve white button-up shirt. And the gray tinted glasses are back too.
“Looks cool,” my friend responded. Then he added what I thought was a joke: “I think I have a shot wearing sunglasses from that [same photo] shoot.” Going along with him, I texted back, “If you tell me [your sunglasses had] gray tinted lenses, I going to totally freak out.” At about 1:30 AM I received an email from him. A photograph was attached to a message that read simply: “The one with the sunglasses.”
As Flannery O’Connor once said: “The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.” So, like a dutiful writer, I paid attention and did a whole lot of staring, the entire time thinking that the situation was starting to feel like a poorly written slapstick comedy, something worthy of the Three Stooges disclaimer “Any resemblance between these characters and any persons, living or dead, is a miracle.”
What can I say? Sometimes you pray to the literary gods and they deliver a miracle.