Basing Characters on Real People, by Elizabeth Kay

Some characters seem to spring out of thin air, but others have a starting point with a real person. Eccentric people provide the best material – they’re more interesting, their reactions are more exaggerated, they often have a hobby or obsession that informs everything they do. Because of this warts-and-all element, you are unlikely to provide the most flattering of portrayals, and so a name-change is needed. You can, of course, go a lot further, and alter the age, gender and appearance as well. However, the person you know better than anyone else is, of course, yourself - so you use aspects of yourself quite a lot as well. I also think there’s a lot of acting in writing. I imagine myself as my characters, and try to see things from their point of view. This can suddenly give you a completely new insight into someone you thought you knew extremely well. It’s also true that when you know someone very well you tend to assume that the reader knows what they look like too, and it’s easy to neglect a description.
But the big question I’m always asked is: do people recognise themselves? And the answer is almost always no. People don’t have very objective views of themselves. I once based a slightly unpleasant character on a friend who was a bit of a know-all, but irresponsible with it. And guess what – it was the character he liked best in the whole book! I kept a straight face, but it wasn’t easy. There was, however, one notable exception, who appeared in Back to the Divide, the sequel to The Divide.

She was poetic cyclops called Turpsik, and she was based on the late great Vera Rich, poet, translator, and human rights activist. Vera was a genius with a wicked sense of humour, who could also be absolutely infuriating and despite having an occasionally abrupt manner conducted marathon telephone calls. At the time the book came out Vera was the editor of Manifold Magazine, which had published a number of my poems, and she decided to review Back to the Divide in the magazine. This was how I had depicted her:

... (Felix) peered into the cave-mouth, and realised he could see a shape moving in the gloom. “Hello?” he called. “Anyone at home?”
“It’s not ready,” came the reply. “Try again tomorrow.”
Felix wondered what exactly wasn’t ready. “I haven’t ordered anything,” he said.
“Not taking any new commissions at the moment,” returned the voice. “Goodbye.”
“Can’t I just talk to you for a minute?”
“Far too busy,” said the voice briskly. “Waterfall’s flooded the office. Lost five days’ work.”
“I could help you clear up.”
There was a moment of silence. Then the shape became larger and more distinct, and the owner of the voice finally emerged from the cave.
Felix tried not to laugh. He’d met a lot of mythical creatures the previous summer, but he hadn’t encountered one like this. It was taller than a man, but not ridiculously so. Its legs were goaty, like a faun’s, and it only had one eye, situated in the middle of its forehead. However, it was wearing a dress. The dress was a faded coral pink, stretched tightly across an ample bosom that proclaimed the owner female, and there was a lace frill round the hem that had come unstitched in a couple of places. The unnaturally red hair was scraped back in a bun, and there was a pearly pink pin holding it in position.
“You’re a cyclops,” said Felix.
“I’m a poet,” said the cyclops indignantly. “Turpsik. Won the Creative Cursing Competition last year. Surely you’ve heard of me?”
Vera Rich

And this was Vera’s review (apologies for the self-promotion):

Elizabeth Kay’s work has a depth which is winning it a more mature audience. I, for one, would recommend it highly – a splendid storyline – or rather lines, (for the narrative is an entrelacement of several strands) with a multi-layered philosophical subtext and some delightful humour, with at least one ‘in-joke’ for the Manifold family. In addition to many fantasy characters and beasts from the earlier book , there are some remarkable newcomers – including a female cyclops…

Neither of us ever actually admitted that we knew perfectly well that Turpsik was Vera. I was pretty sure she’d get it, as she was fiercely intelligent and poetry translation requires a lot of looking beneath the surface. But you can only write something like that about someone you care about when you know you’ve complimented them on the things that matter to them, and made fun of the things that don’t. Vera didn’t give a damn what she looked like. It simply wasn’t important to her. What was startling, however, was that the illustrator based his drawing on my description alone – and the result was Vera to a T.
            It’s unusual to find someone who fits so perfectly into a plot as Vera did on this occasion. If a character stays too close to someone you know, you’re always thinking, so-and-so wouldn’t do/say/ think that. The character must always serve the story, rather than the other way round. But this was one instance when I didn’t need to alter very much at all. Apart from the one eye, the height (Vera was tiny) and the goaty legs.
RIP Vera, you are very much missed by a lot of people worldwide.


julia jones said…
That's a lovely little anecdote and brings Vera Briefly alive even for someone who'd never heard of her before (apologies for my ignorance)
Griselda Heppel said…
What a wonderful story! And what a splendid person Vera must have been, to enjoy the joke entirely in the spirit it was made. Just the idea of a female cyclops is brilliant, and this one in a pink frilly dress is a gem.

Thank you too for the very wise advice about turning the people you care about into positive characters, amusing only in ways they themselves would find funny.

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