Thomas Wolfe, 1937

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My parents were taken aback by some of the content of my novel, End of Summer, because at the very beginning of the novel the main character, Jeffrey, based roughly on me, said that his parents had been killed when he was two. They asked me why I  killed the parents off, perhaps subconsciously thinking of some Freudian act of patricide and matricide. I explained that since this was my first novel, I thought it best to limit the number of characters, especially since I wanted to focus on Jeffrey’s relationship to his grandfather. I also explained that the novel, while based loosely on people I had known, is a work of fiction. My sister was busy making comparisons between characters and people I had known, cataloging what did and did not “really” happen. That such reactions from family members (and friends) is common is shown by the North Carolina writer Thomas Wolfe‘s experience. He had written fiction about people with whom he grew up in western North Carolina. When he came home, people reacted with hostility, believing that they were the characters whose flaws came out in Wolfe’s works. Wolfe was so moved by this reaction that he wrote a novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, since he could not really go home to the same world after living in New York given his loved one’s anger at his writing. They did not understand that he was writing fiction–and any fiction writer writes based on that writer’s life experiences.

Sometimes characters in stories or novels are a combination of more than one person the author knew. Stephen King has said that his character, Carrie, the namesake of his novel, was based on two high school girls who suffered ridicule from their fellow students for their poverty. This does not mean that Carrie “is” those two girls–she is a fictional character in a novel with her own fictional identity. How else can a writer have any material on which to base stories if not those individuals encountered over the author’s life. Fictional characters may be based on one person, but the fictional character is not that actual person the author knew–the character is a “fictionalized version” of that person. For anyone to feel insulted by a character in a story or novel because that person says, “This is me, and I don’t like the way I was portrayed,” is experiencing a natural human reaction, but a reaction which reveals a lack of insight into the nature of fiction.

Reading fiction is one way to gain insight into the human condition through a story. The fundamental virtue of fiction is not to be didactic, though, but to tell a good story, a story with a plot and characters that grip the reader and allow the reader to “suspend disbelief” and, for a time, live in the world of the story. If any of you who read this blog are relatives or friends of fiction writers and have read or plan to read the author’s work, remember that you are reading about characters who may “exist” in some possible world, but do not exist in the actual world. In a good story, they may seem more real than the people you know. You may find “events you remember,” but do not focus on finding parallels to the world shared by you and the author you know. Relax, have some iced tea, and enjoy the story.

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