Thursday, May 19, 2011

The People Collector

Authors are often asked where we get our ideas and characters from.  Friends and relatives have even been known to be nervous that fictional characters might be based on them.  I was shocked and saddened when my sister-in-law asked if the sister-in-law in my Nirvana series was supposed to be her.

The fictional version is shallow and snobbish.  Surely, my real sister-in-law didn't think I see her in this way.  (I really don't.)  And, even if I did, did she believe I would abuse our relationship by sharing my negative perceptions of her with the world?

The truth is, I do collect characters, but no one who knows me would ever be able to recognise themselves in my books.  Most of my inspiration comes from people I encounter but know nothing about.  My favourite people-spotting opportunities come from bus journeys.

I always sit on the top deck by the window.  I look down on shoppers, workers, wanderers, seeing them from a different angle to the norm.  Where is she going?  What does his home look like?  Where does she work?  What's their story?  I peep into uncurtained first floor windows to get a fleeting glimpse of people's internal landscapes; odd ornaments on the window sill, a torn sheet instead of a curtain, piles of old newspapers, a row of polished trophies ...

I can give full rein to my imagination.  The stories I weave most likely bear no resemblance to the truth.  Or do they?   They might be eerily accurate.  But it doesn't matter one way or another, because the person I've observed will never know they've inspired a story.

A little closer to the bounds of propriety, I like to eavesdrop on conversations.  Take last week, for example.  In the seat behind me, a teenage girl was talking about the tradition in her private school of playing pranks when pupils leave at the end of Year 11.  Her personal favourite, she told her unseen companion, was when a group of pupils got hold of a cow.  (At great expense, she added.)  Cows, she went on to say, can go up stairs, but not down.  Somehow, they managed to smuggle the animal into the school and up the stairs, where they abandoned it.  With no alternative, the school was forced to arrange for the poor (and, no doubt, distressed) beast to be rescued by helicopter.  Presumably, at further great expense.

The girl moved on to talking about her plans for the summer: a week at the family villa in France followed by a journey south for an extended stay in St Tropez.

I resisted the urge to turn round, so I never saw what she looked like.  But she was speaking loud enough for me to hear (which is saying something) and appeared to have no concept of the extent of her privilege, or that most of her fellow travellers might inhabit a very different universe. 

That girl might appear as a cameo in a story some time.  The challenge for me would be to lift her beyond stereotype.  I was so engrossed that it took me a while to realise I was on the wrong bus.

The next bus (the right one this time) provided contrasting, but equally fertile, ground for harvesting characters.  Two middle-aged Jamaican men were discussing the iniquitous cost of a TV licence, which both agreed was a struggle for poor people to afford.  From there, they moved on to talk about international politics and the subtle differences in the way racism is manifested in the US and the historical reasons for those differences.  Then it was current affairs: whether the authorities in Pakistan had been aware of Bin Laden's whereabouts.  By the time I left the bus, they'd become involved in a complex discourse on the nature of fear.

Rich pickings for a novelist: these men and their (possible) personal stories; any of the subjects they touched on; the rhythms and patterns of their speech; the timbre of their voices ...  In many ways, the sheer depth of the insights these men gave means that they would be far easier for me to bring to life in a fictional setting than the girl would be, lifting them beyond the risk of cliche and stereotype.

So, whether you're sitting on the top of a bus, shopping in the supermarket, walking on the streets, wandering in the park, queueing at the post office ... keep your eyes and ears open. 

And if you're not a novelist, be aware that the person in the next seat might be watching you and listening to your words, storing them away for future use.

So, do you reckon this is OK?  Or is it a form of identity theft?  And does it matter one way or the other?


Vanessa Gebbie said...

Lovely post.
Speaking for self (which is the only one I can speak for really) I love listening in - but it is usually not so much what people say as where my imagination goes as they are speaking, the sub-texts - making up their homes, partners, troubles, children, their issues. The girl - it was all bluster, even though it was no doubt true. Spoken to be overheard, to impress (who? other girls she was actually in awe of, or afraid of?) to bolster her own lack of self-esteem (parents split, her affections always having been bought with money, not love n hugs) to buy friends, because people in her situation always do that (be my friend and you can come to St Tropez...) sad. the other couple, what a gold mine of sparks!

Debi said...

You're spot on, Vanessa! Mummy and Daddy were clearly not together. And I was fascinated by the person with her. She spoke much less and was distinctly unposh. Much older too. Yet she said she'd stayed in St Tropez several times. I could be wrong, but I doubted that she was telling the truth. Layers upon layers to get the creative juices flowing.

Unknown said...

The cow story had me giggling even though it's sooooo wrong. It's the sort of thing I'm sure I'd have done as a teenager, although not as a posh school and certainly not before a visit to St. Tropez.

Miriam Drori said...

This is where it helps to be an outsider: I was surprised that someone so posh travels on a bus.

I enjoyed this post. I must start listening more.

Queenie said...

Believe it or not, I describe myself in my Twitter bio as... a 'people collector'! And I do it just like you (although less often from the top of a bus these days). I don't see how people can be writers without doing the listening and the watching and the imagining that you describe.

Robin said...

Debi, we may be more closely related than one would first think. There was a girl who waited for the bus with me every morning on her way to school and my way to school to teach. We became friendly enough that she would ask me to be sure she looked nice, and how did her look, etc. Lovely child. Then one day, she was with a friend on the bus and they proceeded to say the most rude things about me and giggle all the way through Romford. That night, I went home and wrote a short story. I killed her in the first paragraph. If you think there's no God, and that He doesn't have a sense of humour, I didn't see that child for three weeks afterward. I was terrified something had actually happened to her. When I did see her again, she was her usual pleasant self. Needless to say,I was much relieved. Whew!

Debi said...

Sharon - shocked, I am. You? A rebellious teen? Surely not.

Miriam - rich pickings when you open up your senses.

Queenie - I didn't know that! No plagiarism intended.

Robin - that's a great story: fictional revenge that you feared may have crossed over into the real world. I guess it's just as well we don't have that power. Would make another great short story though.

Sue Guiney said...

Yes on 2 counts. First - as far as people thinking fictional characters are about sister believes the sister in my 1st novel, Tangled Roots, the one that dies of cancer, was supposed to be her, and she "jokingly" talks about how I killed her off. I can't get her to stop! People do always wonder and worry that a fictional character is really them, as if novelists aren't capable of making things up. I think they actually want it to be about them - a crazy kind of strike at immortality, maybe.
And second -- of course, not only novelists do this. I wrote an entire play based on a person in my neighbourhood who I've seen many times but(purposely) know nothing about. We do have to get our inspiration wherever we can, right?

Debi said...

Too true, Sue. It's why locking ourselves away for very extended periods is never a good idea. We need to interact with life to feed our imaginations.

Liane Spicer said...

I didn't see this post before I wrote a similar post on Novel Spaces on the 23rd. I even mentioned a rotter of a guy who accused me of plotting to use him in a novel. Decided to run through my blogroll backlog today and found this! Great minds? :D

Can't swear I never use people I know in stories (I'd be lying) but they tend to be inspirations for characters rather than copies. Where are we supposed to get inspiration if not from those around us? Whatever our genre we all write about the human condition and we learn about this by living, looking and listening.

Great post!

Debi said...

I can see why you find your family irresistible as a source of inspiration, Liane.