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 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.
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.