Home » Creativity » You Are Not My Darlings

You Are Not My Darlings

First off, writing:  yes, I did.  Almost seven hundred words before I reached a point where I knew the scene would get hot and heavy and I didn’t want to get into that section and then run out of creative steam.  So that scene gets finished today, along with the chapter, and then I can move onto the next chapter, which is going to be magic heavy.  Yeah, baby:  it’s gonna be nice.

But the real reason I’m here:  the writer is annoyed.  Well, not really, but it sounds like a great lead-in.  Kinda.

There is a meme about writing that has made its way around the world, and has become so prevalent that it’s now found on mugs, tee shirts, and pillows.  It goes as follows:  “Do not annoy the writer.  She/He/They may put you in their novel and kill you.”  Because we’re like that:  volatile and creative at the same time.  Maybe this is why we do things like figure out how to topple one hundred and fifty story buildings full of people in 1991, because we need to do that for a scene.  Or maybe that was just me, because I totally did that.  (My research came from examining how various office buildings I worked at in Chicago were put together and extrapolating what I knew about skyscraper construction.  The downside was I never finished the story with that particular scene of destruction.  Pity.)

Now, basing characters in stories on real people is nothing new–writers have done this for centuries.  The comic book character Tintin was based upon fifteen year old Palle Huld who went around the world in forty-four days to win a contest.  Norman Bates was based upon Ed Gein, and Sherlock Holmes was based upon Dr. Joseph Bell.  Dirty Harry Callahan and, to a lesser extent, Frank Bullitt, were based upon Det. Dave Toschi, who later had his life turned into a few movies concerning his most famous case, the Zodiac Killer–which, it should be pointed out, was the basis for the movie Dirty Harry.  And a certain English chemistry teacher, John Nettleship, ended up better known as greasy haired potions master Severus Snape.

Harlan Ellison wrote often about how, as a kid, he’d been bullied badly by a certain individual at school whose name escapes me at the moment because all my Ellison books are six hundred miles away.  So when he became a writer he kept putting this guy in his stories, using his real name, and said bully always came to a bad end–a really bad end.  If I remember correctly, Ellison was finally contacted by this guy and asked if he’d stop doing that, because it was getting embarrassing to hear from friends that the Jewish kid he used to beat up every day for lunch money had just written another story where the character named after him had his spine ripped out in a convenience story by a fae he’d pissed off.  If you know Harlan, then you know his response was probably . . . pleasant.  After all, we’re talking about a guy who received a B in a writing class at Ohio University, along with a note from the professor telling him he had no hope whatsoever of ever becoming a published author–and after every story sale Harlan made, he’d send said story, along with a copy of the note, to the professor in question.  I’m sure there was another note included as well, but I doubt very much that it said “Nener, Nener, Nener.”

But as far as characters getting put into a story because they annoyed the writer?  I know there was a novel–and I’m blanking on the name–where the bad guy in the story, who happened to be a murderous pedophile, was based in whole on a critic who’d panned the author’s last work.  I also know of one instance in a movie where characters were based off of individuals who’d pissed the creators off:  the 1998 Godzilla movie by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin.  The mayor of New York City and his closest aide were based upon movie critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, who had been, shall we say, less than kind in their reviews of Emmerich and Devlin’s last movie, Independence Day.  There wasn’t even an attempt to hid who the characters were:  they physically looked like Ebert and Siskel, were named Mayor Ebert and Gene, and at the end of the movie, to show his displeasure at all the mayor’s actions, Gene gives him a “thumbs down”, something that Siskel and Ebert were famous for doing on their review show.

Being a writer I’d do the same, right?

No, probably not.

When you create characters, you are giving them life.  If you base those characters off of people you know, then you are, in a way, giving your friends a life beyond their own.  And if your work becomes wildly popular, then you’ve granted your characters–and by extension, anyone they were based upon–a form of immortality.  We know that Huckleberry Finn was based upon a close childhood friend of Mark Twain, and one hundred years after Professor Nettleship has left this mortal coil, people will remember who Professor Snape was based upon.

So here I am sitting in Panera, and if some annoying asshole should approach me and start getting in my face with stuff like, “Whatcha doin’?  You writin’ a book?  A blog?  You blog?  Is it about sex?”, I’m going to give him or her–probably a him, sorry to stereotype–the Michonne Side Eye, turn up the music on my computer, and finish what I’m doing.  I’ve been fortunate not to have that happen, probably because I scare people sitting here behind my gigantic laptop, but that’s a good thing, right?

Would I want to put this person in my story just to kill him or her off?  Nah.  First off, I know who my characters are, and right now I can tell you who dies before the end of my current work in progress.  Hint:  it isn’t one of the main characters, but people do bite the big one.  And more than a few people in the story are based, in part, on real people I know.  People I know.  People I even love.

It’s my hope that this will be their form of immortality.

And annoying buttheads will never share the stage with them, even as cannon fodder.  The best thing to do with them is forget they were ever speaking to you five minutes after they leave you.

There’s always this to remember, too:

"I should make this guy the one who spreads the STD all over the world by sleeping with an advark--except he'll never buy the story, so what's the point?"

“I should make this guy the one who spreads the STD all over the world by sleeping with an aardvark–except he’ll never buy the story, so what’s the point?”

Ain’t it the truth.

13 thoughts on “You Are Not My Darlings

  1. Interesting. Yes… on some level it may be satisfying to murderise someone who has pissed you off, if only in the pages of a novel, but that’s giving them more credit, space and brain time than they deserve.

    Hmm… I dunno… I’ll probably still do it (if it ever comes up; it hasn’t so far) but I probably wouldn’t tell anyone about it. It would be a small, private thing for me as a means to exorcise that particular demon/bad memory.

    • The thing I end up doing is knowing how my novel is going to run from start to finish, so throwing that in is something that wouldn’t happen. It’s like I told a writer friend of mine the other night, I know everything that’s going to happen with my characters, right down to what happens *after* they die. Not a lot of room to play there. 🙂

  2. My mum tries to talk to me while I’m visiting and writing. Hi mum! 🙂

    Let me say this, it is very difficult to give proper answers in a conversation while you’re distracted. That’s not to say that I find it annoying though, it’s frankly just a limitation of my own.

    So I’m not making characters and then killing them off. That’s not how I roll anyway, but I thought I would put it out there!

  3. I’m looking at that one example you cited – the Emmerich GODZILLA movie – and I am thinking to myself “What did Emmerich’s inclusion of the Siskel and Ebert clones REALLY accomplish save to add one more puzzling and stupid ingredient to an already botched-up movie.

    Fact is I love INDEPENDENCE DAY. I also always really enjoyed watching SISKEL & EBERT – although I did not realize they had trashed INDEPENDENCE DAY so badly.

    So – I went into my viewing of Emmerich’s GODZILLA without the knowledge that Siskel & Ebert had taken Emmerich’s lunch money in the school yard and without that inside knowledge all I was left with was a really deep-seated confusion as to what Siskel and Ebert were doing in the movie in the first place. I remember feeling really confused by them being there.

    So – unless the author writes an introduction to every novel they write, announcing that “IN THIS NOVEL I WILL METAPHORICALLY PANTS THAT ASSHAT BULLY WHO USED TO WEDGIE ME IN THE SCHOOLYARD!” any trace of lame-assed revenge is completely lost upon the reader – thus relegating the writer to the lower-than-low status of the employee who sits at home at 2am in an unlit room making the finger at their boss who is at home in their own bed sleeping peacefully.

    Writers ought to create their own characters out of whole cloth and leave the bully-revenge to the bush league.

    • Roger had Gene had always been critical of Emmerich and Devlin; I don’t remember the actual ID4 review, but I do remember they critical of it, particularly the ending, which was pretty much the same ending as “Stargate”. So they put them in charge of a soon-to-be-knocked-over-by-a-mutated-iguana New York City as a way of “sticking it to them”. Which really didn’t work for obvious reasons.

      I know Ellison said that his inclusion of the guy who used to bully him was to get the pain out of his system, and he wrote about this as well. So fans of his work *were* aware of why this guy kept showing up in stories.

      And this just in: I remember reading that George R. R. Martin based Joffrey off some kid who was in school with him. Apparently he was some entitled asshat, and pretty much everyone hated him, so George decided to immortalize him–though I think Jack Gleason did all the heavy lifting there.

    • I lived outside Chicago–about 45 miles away–and used to commute through the South Side to the Loop. I worked there from 1985 until 1992, and then did some consulting over by there Midway Airport (as we say in Chicago) in 2012/2013. The closest I ever came to living there was looking at some condos on South Michigan that had an opening price for $200,000, which on South Michigan just off the Loop is a great deal.

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