I May Have Already Written You Into A Story

8 10 2013

One way to improve your art (writing or performing) is through creating surprising, realistic characters. All the writing books suggest using people you know as templates for characters. In improv, some of the more liked characters I’ve done are based on people I know.
But what if you put your friend in the weirdest situation? Have them react realistically to the best of your ability. In art, there is no wrong answer, only a more plausible and committed answer.
My story “Flammin’ The Haints” was based on my friends Martin and Michael, who had a deep respect for each other and years of routines they would perform in conversation.
The oddness was that I put my friends into an alternate United States in 1910. This alternate world had discovered a way to mass-produce spiritualists. Through medical operations and mystic procedures, the bodies of the living could be made homes for the souls of the dead. The poor would be pressed into becoming possessed by the souls of the wealthy and powerful. Over time, the possessed bodies would take on the physical characteristics of the possessing soul.
My friends Martin and Michael are African-American. Michael’s preferences ran to cardigan sweaters, classical music, and cooking. Martin was a self-taught autodidact with years of acting experience. Both loved speculative fiction. Martin would make fun of Michael, saying he was “an undercover White man.”
I’d had the idea of the alternate society for months before author Lawrence Schoen suggested “why don’t you have a conman in this society who can pass?”
I immediately thought of Michael, which meant that I immediately thought of Martin. Michael became a man who came north to Philadelphia with faked credentials and scars to give scam lectures about the spirit world and live off the donations. Martin became the educated local who saw through Michael’s con. Michael and Martin team up to give each other more clout and credibility. I even adapted their running gags to the times, and there two well-received characters were born.
“Born” is the correct term. Normally, I plan out a plot and the characters move it to its resolution. Using Martin and Michael, their personalities were so deeply real in my mind, that at the very moment I was writing the story climax, they took it into another direction and came up with another ending.
This is good: anther thing the writer books all say is “If the writer s surprised, then the reader will be surprised.”
Obviously, using your friends can be socially awkward. I got Michael’s permission to write and gave him final say over the credibility of his and Martin’s characters. To appropriate from “the other” is challenging enough, but to appropriate your friend without his input? That’s rude.
Right now, I’m slushing around in my head a character who is a twenty-five year old fanboy who won $400 million in Powerball. The plan is for this character to take this money and use it to better society using Spec-Fic Methods. Form a Nerd League of Justice. Using hired mercenaries and their own 4Chan.
I say “hope”, because he may surprise me. I’m basing the character on a popular, outgoing guy I know, and that character may take it in a whole different direction.
That adds to the excitement. I’ll let you know how it goes.


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2 responses

9 10 2013
J. Dominique

This is a great idea. I’ll have to try it sometime!

9 10 2013
timwburke

Be sure to include flaws and make small tweaks in case you have to put them in peril or kill them, or it’ll feel weird harming your friends.

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