Decades ago, the late Florence King wrote a book called Southern Ladies and Gentlemen. Within its pages there were anecdotes about colorful characters in various southern situations, and I got hours of enjoyment from it. One character was described as a classics professor at a well-known southern university who went about campus wearing a cape and using the purist Latin pronunciations whenever the occasions called for it.
For the next decade I assumed this funny character was the product of a vivid imagination until I was riding home with a choral conductor one evening. I’d been accompanying his choir for a few weeks, and we were neighbors, so we decided to share the 60-mile round trip. It gave us an hour each week to tell stories. One week he told me about college and spending the weekend with some students and some eccentric professor who went about campus in a cape.
“A cape?” I asked. I was barely listening to the story, which seemed to be going nowhere, but the cape, an item of clothing that stirred up images of tri-corn hats and leather riding boots, snapped me out of my reverie and had me asking more questions. The choral conductor had attended Miss King’s university, and the classics professor had been real! Miss King had taken the bold step to include someone in her book based on reality. Prior to that, I’d felt guilty about the notion of turning an innocent (or not so innocent) private person into a character, but now I felt that I had permission.
Yes, there are those disclaimers in books about them being works of fiction, and I stand by that. Occasionally I’m asked if any of my characters are based on specific people. I insist that my characters are completely made up, but they might have been formed from traits or behaviors I’ve witnessed in people I’ve encountered. I assign attributes that I want them to have in hopes of furthering the story. The unsavory characters have become that way because I described them as such, and the nice ones are the same way. In truth, no one is all good or all bad, but with limited space and time, you don’t have the luxury of exploring every character’s personality nuances.
At times, someone will say, “I know exactly who you were writing about,” and they’re completely wrong. Once, I actually wrote about someone because their story was just too interesting not to tell. Taking anything away would have ruined it, and their actions required no embellishment to move the story forward. The very person contacted me and insisted that I’d been writing about someone else we both knew.
I realized at that point that some people see themselves so differently than the rest of us perceive them, and they would never admit to being the character who left her dog in the car on a hot day, had a brief fling with the married maintenance man at her apartment complex, or was publicly insulted by a constituent during a campaign speech. While those moments in a person’s life would seem to be unforgettable, we tend to minimize our worst behaviors in our own minds.
Then there are people who’ve never read a word I’ve written even if they’ve met me, and if something sounds familiar, they wouldn’t have a clue that I’d borrowed an incident from their lives. I feel fairly secure that the man who ran off with his wife’s parole officer will not happen onto one of my stories and accuse me of taking liberties.
That said, I’ve recently come to realize that some people do, in fact, recognize themselves in print when something rings true. I recently wrote in this space about someone who phoned me up to say I had been very negative lately. I wrote about not understanding the purpose of the call and never receiving specific examples of my bad behavior. I knew I was taking a risk by bringing it up in an article, but there was always the chance the caller had been so offended by my deeds that this blog was no longer of interest to him or her.
It turns out that my mysterious caller didn’t appreciate being publicized even though I did not name names or even state the caller’s gender. Of course, I denied that he or she was the subject of the article, and I risk making matters worse by bringing up this situation again. However, I had to share that some people do, in fact, recognize themselves in print.
On the bright side, the point made previously about commenting in writing was made, and I did not receive a nasty phone call after posting that article. I only had to read about my monstrous negativity. Again, comments are better than calls.
© 2018 by Patrick Brown
To learn more about my books, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1