For Christmas last year, my mother gave me a mug that said, “Please, do not annoy the writer. She may put you in a book and kill you.” In a sense, we writers are the gods of our own little worlds. We give life to our characters and we have the power to take it. Personally, I have never put a person who annoyed me in a book simply for the cathartic pleasure of killing them off.
In fact, I have only once created a character based on a real person. She started out as a minor character in The Heartless City, but ended up being so awesome she demanded her own book as well. So, I thought I would write a post about my experience with basing a character on a real person and how it took my writing in a surprising and new direction.
The Heartless City is set in an alternate Victorian London that has been quarantined due to an infestation of monsters known as Hydes, making the already dark, patriarchal setting even more oppressive. I was about a third of the way through and had most of the plot and characters mapped out when I happened to go see my sister in a community theatre show. I’ve been involved in theatre my whole life, along with the rest of my family, and the Salina Community Theatre is sort of our home away from home. So, I already knew this fifteen-year-old girl who was in the show with my sister. I’d admired and even adored her since I met her. She was the tiniest little thing with the biggest talent and personality I had ever encountered. She was fierce, forward, honest, brave, and prepared to conquer the world, and I thought, “OMG, this girl would HATE living in my book.”
As Gru in Despicable Me would say, “Light Bulb.”
I asked her if she would mind if I put a character based on her in my book, and she said no. I’d never done anything like that before and wasn’t sure how it would play out, but it ended up being an almost magical experience. I named the character Philomena, and once she was inside the story, she took on a life of her own. She had the appearance, attitude, and behaviors of the girl I knew, but because she had a vastly different background – growing up as an aristocrat trapped in Buckingham Palace during a monstrous quarantine – she was also her very own, and very different, person.
I had never planned to write a sequel to The Heartless City, but once it ended, I knew Philomena needed her own story. The Hypnotic City, which is a standalone as well as a sequel, was born, and this time, Philomena was the star. Both novels have now been published, and I’m currently writing the third book in a series that began with a story I’d thought would end in one.
And all because of a girl in a community theatre show.
That girl is now in her first year of college, pursing a degree in musical theatre. My parents actually saw her in a show there just last weekend (and I would have gone if I hadn’t been directing my own show at the same time). I won’t say whether or not I kill her in the books (no spoilers!), but a lot of people HAVE been annoying me lately (mostly due to the smoldering trash fire that was the 2016 election), so who knows what the future holds.