Why Yes, You Are in My Novel by Christopher Cameron

Christopher Cameron

A new year has begun and writers everywhere have renewed their resolve to get that book started, finished, published, or made into a Netflix series.

My own book, which is currently someplace between being published and not being made into a Netflix series, is my first attempt at novel-length fiction. Writing it, I was surprised to find I didn’t lack plot material; all I had to do was make up stuff for my characters to do, and see how they reacted. But where did I find those characters? Again, there was no lack – there are billions of them right here on the planet.

Author Margaret Drabble has called fiction writers “thieves and magpies” for the shameless stealing from real life we do to create our characters and plots. In fact, my novel is chock-full of details from people I’ve known, encountered, or simply observed – often through their chance remarks or idle gestures, which I then … well … stole. I think of this as a positive thing, though, rather than a larcenous one. It means I’ve been paying attention.

All fiction starts with reality. For example, one December evening several years ago, I noticed a large stack of envelopes in the entrance hall of a friend’s house. I remarked that she seemed to receive a lot of Christmas cards.

“You have to send them to get them,” was all she said.

Whether my friend was stating a bald fact, giving me advice, or kicking me for not sending her a card myself, I appropriated those eight brisk monosyllables, and a major character in my book was born. I then added layers that I shoplifted from other real-life sources. After supplying a healthy dose of pure fiction, my character had her story.

We writers listen to everyone and watch everything around us. And then we become thieving magpies. The person I see walking along the lakeshore who picks up a pebble and tosses it into the water soon disappears down the beach and out of my life, but her pebble toss can launch a thousand ideas.

Of course, we run the risk of someone thinking they see their likeness in our fiction and never speaking to us again. One of my subplots is about a wife and the possibly suspicious death of her husband. For the record, I have never known a wife whose husband died suspiciously. But I know lots of husbands and wives. I may be accused of reading minds.

For comfort, I think of what Giller-winning novelist Souvankham Thammavongsa said in a recent lecture: she uses many people she knows in her books and so far no one has recognized anyone, including themselves.

(When my memoir was published, the worst complaint I got was from a singer who was disgruntled that I hadn’t mentioned him. It could be true what Oscar Wilde wrote: the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.)

My writing is worthless if it doesn’t connect with readers. And to do this, my characters need the blood of real people flowing through their veins. A fictional character is not believable unless they have traits and behaviours that readers see in themselves. The humanness, humour or pathos of actors in a story are only as effective as they are relatable – otherwise the story and the people in it are as flat and lifeless as a forgotten flute of warm champagne on New Year’s morning. If you read something in my book that connects you to a character, then I’ve succeeded.

My book is fiction and my characters are not real people. But neither are they conjured out of thin air. They are built from moments I’ve picked up from life to create something dramatic, or funny, or emotional. Tiny moments, like pebbles on a beach.

Christopher Cameron

About Christopher:

Christopher Cameron enjoyed a long and successful career as a professional opera singer, performing on stages across Canada and abroad. He spent the final years of his singing career as a member of the Canadian Opera Company Chorus, retiring in 2009, thirty-three years after he first started with the company. Ten years ago he began his third career, as a freelance writer and copy editor.

As editor of Watershed magazine and co-host of Word on the Hills, Chris spends most of his days immersed in stories of the people, places, and events of Northumberland County.

Chris’s memoir of his singing years, Dr. Bartolo’s Umbrella (Seraphim Editions), was published in 2017. His second book, Thorneside Stories, will be published in 2022.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Writers as “thieves and magpies” — I like that, Chris. And I couldn’t agree more. Yet I wonder, are there any characters in the great canon of our literature uniquely original? Fleshed out of nothing? Does anyone come to mind? Milton’s Satan, perhaps? Hamlet? Frodo? Or are we all approximations of one another?

    1. Christopher Cameron says:

      Great question, Antony. Although Shakespeare probably borrowed his plots from lots of sources, you wonder if the seed for the character of Hamlet was planted by a drinking buddy who couldn’t decide whether to call it a night or stay for one last round. On that particular evening, that was the question.

  2. Patricia Calder says:

    Excellent article, Kim and Chris. I don’t think I’ve ever written a character from scratch; they’re all based on some real life tidbit. Our minds are chock full of these details we’ve run across and remember for just the right moment in our fiction writing. Perhaps you remember characters from your opera singing days, stage personalities who are real as life during a performance, and they in turn are based on the author’s memory. Loved the article.

  3. ronaldmackay says:

    What a lovely light touch you have as a thief and a magpie, Chris. Well done. Borrowing from reality, as you say, is evidence of your having paid attention — and learning. Good luck with the new novel.

  4. Any day now, Chris, my husband will likely sue me for all the tales I’ve told about him in my memoirs – including the hilarious ones. For some strange reason, he doesn’t buy the argument that it’s a privilege to be immortalized in these books. Louise Penny has admitted that she based much of her main character – Inspector Gamache – on her husband, but I guess fiction is one thing, memoir a whole other.
    Thanks for an interesting post.

  5. Good post, Christopher! Reminds me of something Alice Munroe said to me (yes, _that_ Alice Munroe) the one time I met her in person. We were talking about this very topic, and she said (loosely quoting now as I didn’t write it down at the time), “Yes, first you write about your family, and then you move on to your friends, and pretty soon no one’s talking to you.” She said it with a wry chuckle, but I knew on one level she was being serious. So you’re in good company.

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