Deb Rachel Is a Character

MWF Seeking BFF, by Rachel BertscheWhen writing memoir, the issue of creating characters is tricky. These are real people, after all, so you have a responsibility to represent your “characters” honestly. Framing my husband or best friends as characters in a book rather than living, breathing people, was weird. And yet, as much as one can try (perhaps successfully) to translate real-life contacts into three dimensional beings on a page, it’s virtually impossible not to cast people in a role.

In MWF Seeking BFF, I’m the excited, sometimes awkward, often neurotic, hopefully friendly one. My husband is the lovable and supportive guy’s guy. Those adjectives most certainly describe us each in real life. But are also times when I’m tired and shy, or when I’m grumpy and standoffish. My husband is, on the very rare occasion, less than the perfect supporter. (Remember when I asked for the Jillian Michaels Wii game for Christmas? You told me it was stupid. Unsupportive! The fact that I’ve still never used it is irrelevant.)

To compress a full life into the pages between covers can be tricky business. Often memoir writers have no choice but to embrace the traits that represent the essence of a person, even if they aren’t the full picture.

One of my literary role models, AJ Jacobs, talks about this building of non-fiction characters in his book My Life As An Experiment (my apologies to those of you who’ve already seen this quote in the comments of this blog, but it was totally relevant to Deb Linda’s post too!):

“Calvin Trillin, in his wonderful tribute to his late wife Alice, said that every writer portrays his or her family somewhere on the spectrum between sitcom and Lifetime movie. Julie and mine is firmly in the sitcom genre. She’s the sensible one, the straight man to my wacky schemes. She makes the realistic decisions, I do what she says.

Our real marriage is like the one portrayed in my books, and yet it isn’t. I overrepresent the conflict, for one thing. It’s not that the conflict doesn’t exist. The fights happen. But I don’t write about the hours of peaceful, contented coexistence.

Who wants to read about hours of peaceful coexistence anyway?

Bottom line: When turning real-life people into book characters, and real-life relationships into book relationships, you need to represent them honestly and accurately, while simultaneously paring them down to their core.

And then you just hope those real-life people don’t get real-life mad.

Who out there has represented real-life people in their work? Does the fact they exist in real-life make it harder or easier to write them?

4 Replies to “Deb Rachel Is a Character”

  1. Only on my blog, which I suppose is work related. And you’re right–even the real people in our lives become characters, in a way, once we put them on paper. Or in pixels. And it’s even tougher to get them “right,” isn’t it? We don’t have nearly as much artistic license with the real folks. (Not that I haven’t been known to take a spin down the blogging block, um, unlicensed on occasion…*cough*)

    >>Who wants to read about hours of peaceful coexistence anyway?<< Not me. I'm always saying I like my life boring* and my books exciting. *Boring for others to hear about, that is, by which I mean peaceful and happy.

  2. I think that’s all you can do if you’re writing about people you know in real life – you portray them as accurately and as honestly as you can… and just hope they don’t get mad. When they read, I think it’s fairly safe to say that they’re going to see what you think of them 😉

  3. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it here, too. You are a brave woman, Rachel. I would never have the guts to write about a real person because I’d be afraid of being snarky or inaccurate. That said, I don’t know the people you wrote about in MWF, but you certainly didn’t paint anyone in a negative light at all, even when your dates weren’t successful, so I think you definitely succeeded in being positive, while still having very three-dimensional people.

    Now, that said, I have bits of real people in a lot of my characters, but I will never tell who or where they show up to protect the (mostly) innocent.

  4. I second what Joanne said–you are very, very brave but of course it resulted in a wonderful, wonderful book so it’s good to be brave!

    For me personally I tend to draw from people in my life who I DON’T now well (if that makes sense) and by draw, I mean pull out more superficial things such as habits, physical characteristics, speech patterns, little things that I appreciate about them–charming things. Who wouldn’t be flattered by that, right? 😉

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