What a Character! Incorporating a Living Person into a Work of Fiction
About four years ago when I started writing the first draft of what became my third book, the novel Paris, He Said, I knew that it would focus on a young woman named Jayne Marks who had talent as a painter but didn’t yet have the confidence and discipline required to pursue a career in the arts. Artists interest me as characters in part because for five years after graduate school, I worked at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the student affairs office. During those years, I met many painters, sculptors, digital artists, architects, and filmmakers.
When I was well into a complete rewrite of an early draft of Paris, He Said, that I happened to cross paths with Susan Kraut, a painting instructor I’d known from the Art Institute, at a mutual friend’s book release party (Peggy Shinner’s, for her excellent essay collection You Feel So Mortal: Essays on the Body). Susan told me that she was still teaching at the school and painting in her studio when she wasn’t on campus. Eventually I asked if I might include her in my novel as herself, and would she mind showing me her studio sometime and letting me assail her with questions about her process?
She was extremely gracious and said yes. Within two weeks, I was visiting her studio, which is on the top floor of her stately wooden house in central Evanston. She is modest about her work, despite its moody brilliance, and it wasn’t hard to introduce her into the narrative of Paris, He Said because I knew that Jayne needed a mentor, though I wasn’t yet sure who it would be. Susan was perfect for that role, and I was almost certain that it wouldn’t be difficult to cast her as a sympathetic character.
The biggest challenge was writing truthfully but not sycophantically about her paintings and her key support of my character Jayne (Susan was the only wholehearted, early supporter of Jayne’s work). In the novel, the two women meet at a summer studio class that Jayne begged her parents to help her pay for during the break between her junior and senior years at a college in Washington, D.C. I had to verify that the School of the Art Institute did offer such a class, and in fact, Susan had actually taught one of these summer courses many years ago.
Fact-checking was the easy part. What I spent more time thinking and worrying about was how I could make Susan the fictional character compelling in ways that kept the narrative moving forward. I also needed to ensure that her chemistry with the other characters seemed organic, or, maybe more aptly, non-toxic. I used her paintings as the point of entry – I described them from Jayne’s point of view (which in this case was also my own) and hoped to establish Susan as someone deserving of readers’ admiration too.
After this, when it was time to show Susan and Jayne together in scene, I thought about our own conversations and email exchanges of the past several months and attempted to imbue them with the gentle supportiveness that seems to come naturally to Susan as a teacher and a friend.
One detail that I ended up pulling out before the book went into galleys was what Susan (the character) tells Jayne before Susan joins her in Paris to take part in a group show: that her husband suspects her of using speed instead of coffee to give herself extra energy. I wasn’t sure if people would assume that Susan the real person sometimes took speed. She’s a college professor, a mother of three, etc. If she had been made up wholesale for the book, however, I probably would have retained that detail.
This was the first and only time I’ve included a friend as a character in one of my stories or novels. It was a pleasure because I only had nice things to say, but if you can’t portray someone you know personally in a positive fashion, you will probably lose this friend (and/or be sued for libel). There’s also the chance that what you might really want to write is narrative nonfiction instead of fiction.
The main criterion for including a real person in a story, I think, is whether there is a true dramatic need for this authorial decision. I didn’t have to shoe-horn Susan Kraut into Paris, He Said because Jayne needed a teacher-mentor; Susan’s presence provides context for Jayne’s early and continuing development as an artist. It’s a happy potential corollary to the story that Susan Kraut the artist and living person might also find new admirers.
This essay originally appeared on Glimmer Train's website.