Is That You?: Exquisite Corpses, Character Flaws, and Thinly Disguised Wing Nuts

Is that you

Earlier I wrote about bookstore readings and the difficulty facing the author when his or her book is written in the first person (Ruminations…11.29.12) – when the “I” who reads from the book is the “I” who wrote the words that the “I” speaks in the book. The audience may think it has a handle on one of the three, but the other two keep everyone guessing. I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam. Popeye understands.

So what about the other characters in the book? Where do they come from?

This is where things get even trickier. After all, speaking for myself,…”I” can’t hide; my name’s on the book, “I” – as Popeye would also say – has to suck it up.

But what of the real-world identities of those referred to in one of AIIOE‘s blurbs as Wheelwright’s oddball cast of dreamers and alcoholic holy men, stargazers and crack mystics, naturalists and sidetracked philosophers.* Who’s the real William Bent-Wigley? Alvah or Minnie Frankel? Charley Dunham? Liberty Fordyce? Melvin Occum? Samson Littlefield?…Miryam Bluehm?

I know, and I’m not telling.

But I will admit to this: If it is true that one writes what one knows…then, ipso facto, it is also true that one writes whom one knows. Consider it a warning, keep your distance from your writer pals…they’re hunting for material, mulling you over 24/7. Jackals.

Har, Har, you say to yourself, reading from his or her latest. That guy must be based on the a-hole we went to college with. And this fellow? I’m sure of it, the local golf-pro with the missing thumb. The crazy-eyed succubus?…easy, that woman, ugh, any one of them, Fox News. But suddenly, your barcalounger snaps forward, catapulting you head first into the wood-burning stove. Is that me?!? – transmogrified via your writer friend’s world-observing lens into an uncanny rendering of your most private self?

I say, put some ice on your forehead and relax; odds are you’re wrong in all cases. O, the humanity!…we’re all just too darn complex to capture so easily.

Nonetheless, I figure there are at least four ways writers do snatch the souls of the living to breathe some life into the fictional body of their characters.

Use them in name only:

…You like the ring. It’s a form of synethesia: the sound of their name helps produce the character (or vise versa). If you knew my old college roommate, you’d never see any connection to C.C. Dunham unless you believe in the DC Comic dopplegangers of Bizzaro World…Sa Ti Si No Htrae!

Siphon off their personality:

…This works well, particularly if you’re looking to make someone larger than life. Double down on the weirdness, unpleasantness, sweetness, or whatever unfulfilled promise your neighbor’s psychological profile offers up. But watch out for the caricature… nobody enjoys someone too – fill in the blank – to be true. Smart-ass is as smart-ass does.

Go for the body punch:

…This can range from their flipper-sized feet to that irrepressible cowlick that makes Alfalfa’s doo seem right out of Bumble and Bumble. Or perhaps riff on a body part in between. This characterization is likely to send many readers for a spin at the Lacanian mirror. Go ahead, crane your neck over your shoulder, double-check that caboose.

or, Write ’em up in their plenitude:

…I made this mistake; used all of the previous three on a single character: name, personality, and bodily aspect. Apparently, the odds mentioned above were not in favor of my chicken farmer neighbor. Talk about thinly disguised! What was I thinking?!…well, unfortunately, I was thinking of him, lock stock and barrel. Lesson learned. I just hope he never reads the book.

Oh, and I never mentioned the first-person narrator’s relatives: Bingham, The Deacon, Esther Fluornoy Bishop, and LilyRose. My family’s still trying to sort them out. “I” is laying low.

(*Andrea Barnet, author of Visionary Women; Ecco Books, 2018)

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