Today marks the release of my latest novel, Bayou, Whispers from the Past. It’s a book that has a strong focus on how family shapes us, so today I’m writing about the question I get more often than any other.
You run this risk as a writer. People who know you will read your books and inevitably think you have written about them. (Usually, I find, it happens with an antagonist. Or when there’s a deep flaw in a character. Or when there’s a very specific bad thing that is done. People never think you’ve written about their best qualities, but that’s a different article.) I’ve done a few interviews since I wrote this Bayou series, and in almost every one, I’ve been asked the same question: Do I base my characters on people I know?
When I wrote my first novel, as my masters’ thesis, my mother asked to read it. Afterwards, she said, “I’m going to have to have a t-shirt made that says, ‘I’m not the mother in the book.'”
She was halfway joking (I think), but it wasn’t until later that I really understood: she was focusing on the flaws of that fictional character. (Think Emily Gilmore, of Gilmore Girls fame.) She thought readers would think I’d based my deeply flawed mother character on my real mother.
Fast forward a few years later, when the Bayou series comes out. Now I’ve written mothers and grandmothers who are central figures in the story. Are they based on my real family? Sure. But not in the way you might think. And not in the way my mother might fear.
So here’s the thing about writing characters. I do base them on real people. That’s how, as a writer, you make characters real. You write about real flaws you see in people around you. You write about real moments of strength and struggle, real reactions, real idiosyncrasies that make people unique and memorable.
But here’s the kicker: it’s all composite.
Let me explain.
In the Bayou series, the heroine Enza has a grandmother named Vergie. When I wrote Vergie, I gave her some traits I admired in both of my grandmothers. She lives in the country, like my grandmother Lula Mae: she gardened, she raised goats, and she had a strong connection to the land around her. But I also gave Vergie some of my grandma Jean’s qualities—including her journaling, her toughness, and some real words she told me. As I write, I borrow real snapshots from the lives I see around me, and fit them together to create a history I need to build in a character. Parts of Vergie’s life were real for someone in my family (her trip to Niagara Falls, the way her husband died young, the lesson she learned from going fishing), but others were completely made up based on what I needed the character to experience to drive the story forward.
So is Enza’s mother based on my real-life mother? In a lot of ways, she’s the opposite. But my real mother can be seen in other characters, like in Enza and in her friend Kate. When Enza throws a dinner party and wants everything just-so, when she begins repairing a house on her own—that’s snapshots of my real mother being woven into her character. See how this composite thing works? No one character is based purely on one person, and one real life person can show up in lots of characters in a lot of different ways.
So, yes, if you know me, then it’s likely that some little piece of you will end up in a story of mine someday. Some moment that we shared might pop up in a way you wouldn’t expect—that night when we three squeezed into the bench seat of an old pick-up truck together, or some wise thing you said after my car broke down, or that compassionate thing you did for a stranger when you thought I wasn’t looking. Those moments will come into a book someday because they caught my attention, and they made me see a new part of you, and that in turn made me who I am. And in some ways, I’m a composite of all the people in my life who have made it more interesting anyway. I’m a jigsaw puzzle and all of these moments we shared are the pieces.
I wouldn’t be me without you.
Read the latest review + interview with Jennifer from Dandelions Inspired. In it, I talk a little about family. If you want to see how setting becomes its own character, check out my latest article for Southern Writers Magazine.