Putting real people into novels….

February 4th, 2012

I was once part of a conversation between Terry Pratchett and Joanna Trollope. Terry was talking about one of his former teachers, who he’d turned into a character in one of his novels (I have forgotten which). I asked Joanna Trollope if she ever put real people in hers, and she firmly replied ‘Of course not.’

Nor do I, but real situations – rather than people – do inspire novels. I wrote Lovers & Liars after seeing a friend’s marriage break up. She has read the book, and knows neither she nor her ex are in it.

But their situation was the starting point for my research, after seeing another friend suffer very similar problems. I consulted several psychotherapists and bought books on psychological abuse. These included Living With The Dominator by Pat Craven, Power and Control by Sandra Horley and many others. I soon discovered that Tolstoy’s declaration that ‘all happy families are the same, unhappy families are all unhappy in different ways’ is not necessarily true. Most abusive relationships have a great deal in common. If you build an abusive character in a novel, by research and interviewing experts as I did, then there is a good chance that he or she (abusers are not always men) will be like someone you know, at least in some ways. For example, abusers will often say ‘you’re so stupid’, make belittling jokes, or they’ll hide things and deny it. Such characteristics are easy to weave into character and drama. I was so pleased when one psychologist told me later that she was now using Lovers & Liars as a therapeutic tool to help women recognise when they were in an abusive situation, because it can be easier to take a difficult message on board through fiction.

Similarly, with The Empty Nesters, I interviewed a number of people, whose children, like mine, had recently left home. A number of common themes emerged, such as the shock when they actually go (even though it had been expected and talked about for months!), worries over relationships with your partner and the changes in friendships. Many people become friends through their children, and stay friends after they have left, but a few of these relationships founder for a variety of reasons. I decided to create an extreme version of one of these failed friendships through a character called Alice. I have since been surprised at the number of people who claim to be Alice or be like her – which says something about the guilt of motherhood.

Best-selling crime novelist Sophie Hannah says she thinks it’s ‘very hard (impossible?) to put a whole real person into a novel’, because ‘you can’t help fictionalising’, either to meet the needs of the novel or simply by the way you perceive and interpret people:’my ‘Mary’ won’t be the same as Mary’s Mary.’ But she says that if you can and do put a real person in, ‘there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you are prepared to say you did it.’

A friend once said that I had put her into a novel I had written several years before meeting her, which I take as a compliment. If you write about emotions and families, as I do, it’s important that people do believe your characters are real. But there is a saying amongst novelists that if you ever think you are in anyone’s novel, you definitely aren’t – but on the rare occasion when writers do put a ‘real person’ in, he or she never recognises themselves. What do you think?

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