Writing modern day fiction vs. writing historical fiction… which is easier? I’ve been pondering this question recently, especially as I have published two Regency novels as well as a modern/chick lit novel. Writing historical novels is far less hazardous than writing modern stories, I believe. Hazardous might be an odd choice of word, but for me writing a modern day story is a dangerous enterprise. You see - I cannot resist putting real people into my stories. When I write an historical novel, it’s easy to for me to disguise my characters. Great Aunt Sue is far less likely to recognise herself if she is dressed in a dramatic floor length gown with her hair swept off her face in my historical novel than if she is dressed in a skirt and blouse, and her rather scuffed brown shoes in my chick lit novel.
It’s not that I consciously look for real people to base my
characters on - it’s just that when I’m writing a book, more often than not,
someone I know - usually someone with an idiosyncrasy of some kind or other
pops in to my head, and I think, “Oh - she’ll be PERFECT for the role of Jane
or Sarah or Angela” and I promptly put them into my story. Usually a character
who has been inspired by a real life person will take on a life of his or her
own, once they’re within the pages of one of my novels, and often they change
in quite noticeable ways, sometimes beyond recognition. But the fact remains
that when you base a character on one of your friends or acquaintances, there’s
always the chance that the person you’ve based the character on will find you
However, I’ve noticed that some people are quite pleased at
the idea of being a character in a book - particularly if that character is the
hero or heroine. It’s the secondary characters that I worry about more i.e. the
best friend of the heroine, who wears too much makeup, for instance, and is
always in trouble with men, or the heroine’s goofy male friend who complains to
her about his lack-lustre love life, or alternatively, the charming bad boy who
breaks hearts wherever he goes, or the bossy colleague who’s always telling
everyone what to do. We all recognise these people, and it’s the most natural
thing in the world that they should flavour the pages of a modern day story.
And so I walk through a minefield when I write my chick lit stories, hoping
that my characters (based on real people) are not too recognisable.
When I spoke to my editor about this, she set my mind at
rest. In my chick lit novel, Send and Receive, I have based a number of the characters on people I
know. When my editor commented that a certain character in the book reminded
her of an acquaintance of hers, I explained to her that the character she was
referring to was actually based on someone I know (I even wondered if my editor
and I might have a friend in common). And when she commented on how another
character bore a striking resemblance to one of her friends, I explained that
that character was based on a friend of mine.
Finally my editor said to me, “Alissa - the characters in
your books are people we all know,” and that is when I realised that my guilty
secret wasn’t so bad after all. All fiction writing should try and capture the
universal in the particular to some extent, and if you succeed in doing that,
then it’s possible to reach a point where you realise that writing about
individuals isn’t so individual after all. The common thread of humanity that
binds us to together is universal in its reach, and the girl who lives next
door to you might very well resemble the girl who lives next door to someone
who lives thousands of miles away.