Somebody I Used To Know (TCWT)

Somebody I Used To Know (TCWT)

Okay, before we go ANYWHERE with this post, I want to say something: I am on time with my TCWT post. I am on time. I remembered. Unlike the last two months, I’m not starting this with an apology. I wrote it on my hand, and I remembered. THIS IS A MOMENTOUS OCCASION.

Moving swiftly on, what’s the topic?

“How have both the people in your life and your own personal experiences impacted your writing? Do you ever base characters off of people you know?”

Okay, well, first of all I would like to say that I detest the phrase ‘off of’. In fact, in place of it there I would probably say ‘on’. Do I based characters on people I know? There we go. Now that we’ve sorted some grammatically nitpicking, let’s get down to the serious business.

I’ll start with the second question there. The easy answer is no, I don’t. I don’t write a novel and think, “Okay, I’m going to make this character have the same traits as my friend from school,” and then write somebody who resembles them but maybe has magical powers. Sometimes, I guess my characters have similarities to people I know, but … well, you know, that’s because they’re people. If they were completely different from everyone, they wouldn’t exactly be realistic characters, would they?

I often joke that when people annoy me, I write them into books and kill them. That’s not entirely true. There’ll be a character who represents them. Perhaps they have the same job, or fulfil the same relationship to the protagonist as this person does with me (a friend of a friend, a family member, a childhood enemy…), or they have a similar name or particular feature of their appearance. But that’s where the similarity ends. I don’t like basing characters on people because the truth is, I don’t want anyone to read my books and feel hurt by how they’ve been portrayed.

Though I’ll diss society all I want. Society and the government. I don’t really mind if they feel offended.

I think I’ve mentioned this before on this blog, but I do occasionally have characters who resemble people I know and it’s a total coincidence. Let’s look at my character Alex. I first invented him in January 2010, writing his story several times over, which became Watching, aka the first book in my ‘Death and Fairies’ trilogy (by the way, that name was never intended to be serious, but I use it all the time, so maybe I’ll stick with it).

In July 2011, I met a friend of mine called Andy, and here’s an approximate transcript of one of our first conversations (Jill is another friend who had read Watching at the time):

Andy: Why are you staring at me?
Me: You look like Alex.
Andy: Who’s Alex?
Jill: What, Alex? Like your character Alex?
Andy: …
Me: Yeah, my main character. That Alex.
Andy: Oh. That’s slightly weird. What happens to him?
Me: He gets horrifically tortured and [SPOILER].
Andy: Great.

Later, it turned out that the song I’d chosen as Alex’s “theme song” was one of his favourites. You couldn’t make this stuff up, could you? But, like I said, that was a coincidence. I’d never even met the guy when I invented Alex, so he definitely wasn’t based on him.

While we’re on the subject of people called Alex, let’s address the idea of people in our life affecting our writing. Now, I’m not saying that my character Alexei was influenced by the number of people in my life I’ve known who were called Alex. It’s a very common name. But the fact is, there are two people called Alex I often think about.

One of them was a guy I’ve known since I started primary school, but have only seen twice in the last six years. When I was about five or six, I fancied him. A lot. I was absolutely convinced that I was going to grow up to marry him. (I have a really weird feeling that at some point when I was six I might have kissed him on the cheek, possibly, but I might be wrong about that.) This gets awkward when you realise that I was obliged, because of school seating plans, to sit next to him for the entirety of my last two years at primary school, when I was ten and eleven. Yeah. Not weird at all.

The other Alex was somebody in my ballet class when I was ten. He joined in grade three, having never done ballet before. At the time, he wasn’t very good, and you couldn’t blame him. Because boys were fairly rare, he got a pretty prominent role in our class’s performance in the show that year—we were actually an unusual class, as there were three boys. Some of the girls used to laugh at him or talk about him because he was new and he struggled a bit, but I used to talk to him. I didn’t get on that well with the other girls, so I made friends with him.

I left just over a year after he joined, and I don’t know what happened to him. I don’t know if he carried on or if he left; he could be a seriously talented dancer with the Royal Ballet School by now, for all I know. And I don’t know his surname, so I can’t look him up. Every month or so, I’m struck by this wave of nostalgia, wondering what happened to him and to others like him, whom I knew in passing but didn’t stay in contact.

So those are the Alexes in my life. There are more of them. (Another Alex at primary school who occasionally bullied me; two Alexes in my form when I started secondary school, Alex Millar from Being Human… it’s a common name.) And while I’m not saying either of those particular people were the reason my character was called Alex, perhaps there’s something in the fact that my six-year-old crush has the same name as one of my favourite characters I ever invented.


As for how my personal experiences have affected my writing … wow. That’s a biggie. I’ve blogged before about how I use experiences I have had to make up for those I haven’t been through, and that still stands. For me, however, it’s often that my writing affects my personal experiences, which I’ve touched on when discussing allegory.

There are things I’ve written about that have literally been purely imagined, touching on issues that I had never experienced at the time of writing. Many of them (especially where magic is involved), I will never experience. And yet when I read them later I realised that my characters had just described exactly how I felt at points in my life. Their struggles of reconciling their magic with their faith, for example, call to mind my own crisis of identity and belief earlier this year; it was reflecting upon this that made me realise how much of my story could be read as allegory.

Yet my characters had to overcome their struggles. That’s the nature of character arcs: they have issues, and they get over them. Writing characters who overcame their issues meant that when I came to have similar struggles, I was able to look at their own way of dealing with it, and it was a comfort to me. At times, I felt like my younger self was patting me on the shoulder and saying, “Dude. It’s cool. You’ve got this, just like Alys did.”

Sometimes I read things I wrote earlier in my life and I think, “This is exactly what I’m feeling now. But I didn’t know that then.” And by not knowing, I wrote what is for me a revelation. There are times when nobody has been able to say anything to comfort me, and I’ve found it in something I’ve written myself.

So yes, of course my life experiences impact my writing, but I think my writing impacts my life experiences a lot more. My writing has affected how I see the world and how I understand myself. It has been an opportunity for me to explore what I believe through people with very different struggles, and by doing that, make sense of my own issues.

As for people … well, just be careful not to annoy me too much, or I might revise my policy on writing people into books and torturing them.

Other blog chain participants:

5th –
6th –
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22nd –
23rd –
24th –
25th –
26th – (We’ll be announcing the topic for next month’s chain.)

8 thoughts on “Somebody I Used To Know (TCWT)

  1. Great post! The multiple Alex thing set me back off down the road of trying to work out the term for plural Alexes. Alexi. Alexei. Whatever the heck. I have decided that the term for a conglomerate thereof shall be “an angst of . . .” but as I haven’t worked out the correct plural for Alex, that phrase isn’t half as effective as I’d like it to be.

  2. Why do I have the feeling that Alex dies in your book . . . ? ;)

    I have a T-shirt that says, “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.” I’ve gotten multiple compliments/comments/snickers about it. I love having the power to be the almighty god of an alternate universe. ;) It helps to dull the craving I have for power (just kidding).

  3. Really enjoyed this, Miriam! I’m a bit behind again–darn it. Yay for posting on time!!! I just write mine as soon as I can and schedule them, heh. That way I can’t miss it. ;)

    The bit about the people named Alex–there Charley, fixed your plural problem–was very interesting.

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