by Tom Cain
I’m seeing my therapist this afternoon, like you do … well, like you do when you’re the kind of screwed-up neurotic who becomes a writer for a living. And oddly enough, I’ve been writing about my therapist, too: or a fictionalised, thinly-disguised version of him anyway. He appears in the standalone, non-Carver thriller I’m working on at the moment (on spec: I must be out of my mind … oh, yeah, I AM out of my mind, that’s why I need a therapist), dispensing handy insights to my first-person protagonist.
The words ‘first-person’ suggest that this story will be more than usually autobiographical, but that’s not entirely true. The ‘I’ character is a blue-eyed six-foot-three architect from York, who has a brother and a foreign wife. None of those characteristics are in any way true of me. On the other hand, his emotions, his responses to the situations he encounters and his perceptions of life as a whole are entirely my own. Likewise, many of the key characters, like the shrink, are drawn directly from people I know or have met while researching the book.
This isn’t anything new for me. But what’s interesting, I think, is the way the process works and the degree to which even characters who appear to be direct representations of living people turn out to be very different, with lives of their own on the printed page.
For example, Alix Petrova, the heroine of the first two Carver books –The Accident Man and The Survivor (or No Survivors as it confusingly known in the US and Canada) - was inspired by one detail of an actress’s appearance. I was interviewing Anastasia Griffith, who was recently in that US series Damages, with Glenn Close, when I noticed she had a fractional, barely perceptible asymmetry in her beautiful blue eyes. She told me that she had been cursed with a terrible squint as a girl, and been much-mocked for her wonky eyes. Then, at 14, she had an operation to fix her eyes and – hey presto! – she was a beauty. But in her head, there was always the memory of that plain girl with a squint. When I came to write Alix, I wanted to have a properly sexy heroine, but I also wanted her to have a bit more depth and complexity than the average spy-candy. I remembered Anastasia and gave Alix her eyes and the history behind them. That one detail made the character far more interesting for me to write and, I hope, for other people to read.
Likewise, Carver’s best friend Thor Larsson, a beanpole Norwegian with a mass of pale red dreadlocks is so improbable-looking that I could never have invented him. On the other hand, I have gone on many a journalistic assignment with a fantastic photographer called Pal Hansen, a beanpole Norwegian, etc, etc … Like Larsson, Pal has another unexpected facet to his character, in that beneath his mild, laid-back Scandinavian façade he’s an extremely determined character who did his national service as an army intelligence officer. Nicked that from him too!
But here’s the strange thing … as much as Thor Larsson started out as Pal Hansen, the moment I began writing him, he developed a character entirely of his own. I never, ever stopped to say, ‘What would Pal do in a situation like this?’ I only thought in terms of the fictional, but absolutely alive-in-my-mind Thor Larsson.
The issue is particularly acute in the Carver I’ve just finished in which one character is, quite plainly and undeniably based on a specific political figure. There are very obvious parallels between the facts of the real man’s life and the fiction in my book. I hate to break this to my publishers’ lawyers but the resemblance is entirely intentional. But there is a reason why I have not simply gone the whole hog and named the person in question, and it’s this: my book is fiction. The characters are equally fictional. Even when they seem to be the same as their real-life inspirations, they aren’t. And I want the freedom to make them as different in their own rights as I choose, without having to worry about accuracy or verisimilitude. It’s hard to be specific about those differences, but I think it’s very easy to sense them when one reads the books in question. My sole concern as a writer is to make those characters credible, likable or even loathsome on the page. They may have some DNA taken from a real-life prototype, but I put all the flesh on their bones; I give them the life-experiences that mould them; I cause them to fall in and out of love; to make and break friendships and alliances; to run in fear or to stand and fight.
And there lies a deeper truth about fictional characters. An author – Martin Amis if memory serves – was once asked if one of his characters was autobiographical. ‘No, ‘ he said, ‘they all are.’ In the end, the person all my creations are based on is … me.