Chez Shaffner

Monday, October 09, 2006

Remember, Ma, It’s Fiction

When I was in high school, I wrote a lot of bad fiction. (Bad poetry, too, but let us pretend that never happened, all right?) Many stories featured characters who were thinly veiled facsimiles of my classmates. A girl I liked at the time, an opponent from a neighboring high school, a dorky freshman, an unpopular classmate. Sometimes, but not always, the protagonist bore some resemblance to an idealized version of myself. My lone reader (not counting the poor sods at various journals I submitted to) was my best friend, Don. He spent a lot of time figuring out who was who, putting real names with fictional faces. He wasn’t always right, and when I told him a given character wasn’t actually modeled on someone, I don’t think he bought it.

Now that I’m writing every day, submitting constantly, and gaining confidence that I’ll add a few more credits to my resume by year end, I’ve been thinking about this problem more and more…

I suppose all fiction writers face this at some point.
  • Your first-person narrator says something controversial and a reader presumes that you share the narrator’s point-of-view.

  • A character happens to have a certain physical characteristic (a gap in her smile, a scar on her hand, a speech pattern) and suddenly a friend is convinced the story is about his girlfriend.

  • A story features a character doing something awful and a friend emails to say “did so-and-so really do that to you?” Um, no.
This problem is especially acute for me because my novel-in-progress happens to be set in Coastal Maine (where I grew up) and the protagonist is a male, twenty-something, Harvard student, whose summer job is at the local paper mill (all valid descriptions of myself nine years ago). Yet this is nothing more than writing what I know. Billy Jones is not Jason Shaffner. Memphis (ME) is not Bucksport. Not even close.

That I needed such a disclaimer was not obvious until I gave the first selection of pages to Don, the same man who read all my juvenile stuff fifteen years ago. He immediately came back with guesses on real identities. No, really, I said. You might find a few recognizable sites, and maybe we once knew somebody who did X or Y or had quirk A or B, but none of this is real. Uh huh, he said, with a wink and a smile. No, really, I’m telling you! I reinforced it a few times, and I think he might believe me now… A little bit…

The issue came up again in a discussion with my Mom last week. This project was a secret for a while, for reasons I cannot recall. I described the story using my two-minute “jacket blurb” (or “agent pitch”), and she immediately latched onto one element of the story that bears a thin resemblance to my recent reunion with Keryn.

“There’s no connection,” I said. “I wrote the first draft of this story two years ago.”

That seemed to placate her, but I felt the urge to go on:

“It’s fiction. Sure, I might take a piece of a real person here, a snippet of real conversation overheard in a coffee shop there, I might have my characters dine in some restaurant I know, and I might make my protagonist’s favorite food the same as mine. But for every one real detail, I have ten I’ve pulled from thin air. It’s fiction.”

In a story with familiar elements, this problem is one thing. It takes on another life when stories are violent, feature unscrupulous characters, or otherwise make readers consider for a moment there might be something a little off about somebody who could come up with such ideas...

On more than one occasion, after explaining that a story is honestly, truly, swear-to-God not about me or anyone I know or have known, the inquiring mind has asked: “Then how did you come up with it?”

To that question, I can only grin and shrug.



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