Tag Archives: tribute characters

The Perils of Writing Tribute Characters

Going Under CoverBy Jeffe Kennedy

My new novel-length erotic romance, Going Under, comes out on Monday, so I’ve been doing a lot of interviews and so forth, getting ready for that promo push. One question I get a lot is whether I’ve based my characters on anyone real, or who I know.

I try to give this a thoughtful answer, because I understand that readers are really interested in this idea. Characters feel real to us, so we always wonder, on some level, if they somehow are real. So I don’t give them my immediate, heartfelt answer.

NO.

Never.

No way.

Not that I feel strongly about this or anything…

Okay, I do. I feel strongly about anything that gets in the way of the story. In my mind, the story should always reign supreme. All decisions should be about whether or not [X] makes the story better. While I suppose it’s possible to base a character on a real person and still make decisions based on the betterment of the story, I think this is akin to getting back together with an old lover and kidding yourself that what happened to break you up before doesn’t matter.

It’s not really about what you’re thinking now, but about all that emotion underneath, driving you when you’re not really aware of it.

See, truly basing a character on a real person is nearly always driven by the desire to somehow memorialize that person, or otherwise work out persistent emotions tied to them. Usually intense ones. I’ve had several author friends who’ve wanted to do this – usually for someone close to them who died – and it just never works out well. The need to “serve” that person bogs down every other choice. Decisions are no longer about what’s best for the story, but about that person.

Worse, it just never works out. Because, really, it’s impossible to fully memorialize a complex human being by turning them into a character. No matter our characterization skills, no matter the nobility of the motivation, a character in a book can never be as fully realized as an actual human being. We’ll always fall short in some way.

Then both the effort and the story have suffered.

For me, characters come together more like Method actors do it – by drawing on fragments of my own experiences. In this way, we can access pieces of people we know, pulling in those traits, thoughts, experiences or moments that we hold precious. But then the character becomes someone new, someone who is no longer that tribute character we tried to resurrect in fiction.

Better that they rest in peace.