by Katy Munger, 2016 Piedmont Laureate
Any mystery writer who claims they don’t put real people into their books is either lying or missing out on a great opportunity to improve their mental health. Because, let me tell you: I put real people into my books all the time and it’s the best reward (or revenge) on the planet. It’s just one of the perks of being a crime fiction writer — if someone impresses you with their sense of morality, you can make them a hero. If someone angers you and goes unpunished for an unworthy deed in real life, then you can hold them accountable in their book by making them a villain. And if others intrigue you or charm you with their unique personalities, why there’s plenty of supporting characters you can fashion in their image. And you can do this with impunity because people never recognize themselves in your books. Ever. Apparently, we see ourselves so differently from the way other people see us that it’s pretty hard to spot a character actually based on ourselves. I’m glad for this. I like having my own secret world. Call it one of the perks of being a writerly wallflower.
In fact, as I reflect back on my three series, I realize that every single one of my major protagonists was built on a real person. T.S. Hubbert and Auntie Lil were both real-life New Yorkers whom I met early on in my life in the Big Apple and they embodied the best of the New York spirit to me. T.S. was a cultured, Broadway-loving, upper Eastsider who was a meticulous, lovely man as well as my first boss on Wall Street and my mentor. He became T.S. Hubbert in my Hubbert & Lil series and while I invented 95% of his character, he once said to me, “Katy — your ability to guess at the secret corners of other people’s lives, and get it right, is downright scary.” (I try to use this super power for good….) Meanwhile, his real-life aunt Lil was a little old lady with such grit and directness that I often stared open-mouthed at her in astonishment. She, of course, became my fictional Auntie Lil Hubbert and I learned so much from her, both in real life and in writing about her across four books. I treasure the time I last saw her, sadly at her nephew’s funeral. She came tottering over to me and gripped my arm with a steellike vise and announced that she knew I had put her into a book. “That’s all fine and good,” she said in her trademark gravelly voice. “But just don’t push it.” !!! I still want to be her when I grow up. They are both gone now, and I love that they live on in my fictional characters.
Casey Jones was based, in part, on a dear friend of mine whose indomitable spirit and ability to withstand the slings and arrows of misfortune has always impressed and astonished me. She never, for a moment, let a hard childhood get in the way of having one of the most open, generous hearts I have ever met. Making her my Casey was a love song to her spirit. I can only hope that writing about her made me a little bit more like her — and a little bit more like Casey.
Kevin Fahey, the protagonist of my Dead Detective Series, was also based on a real person, a man I met who had the potential to be so much more than he was — but who could never find his way out of depression and the bottle. I have a soft spot for the unrealized dreamers of the world and I am also a deep believer in redemption. I took my belief in redemption, added in the love and affection I had for my floundering friend, and the hero to a new series was born. Unlike Kevin Fahey, my friend never made it out of his dark and unfulfilled life — but I like to think that, somewhere, he, too, is getting his shot at redemption in the after-world.
Other characters who play supporting roles have been based on real-life people, too. Probably too many to count. For example, I took my frustration at a control freak I was forced to work with in New York City by making him into an overbearing member of the fictional Metropolitan Ballet in my fourth Hubbert & Lil. I had him fall offstage and break an ankle while trying to show the head ballerina how to pirouette. Not only did I enjoy this fictional revenge, I can assure you that there is an entire creative team at an ad agency deep in the heart of the Big Apple who are still laughing at this portrait of a man they knew all too well. Then there was the time I took my cheery–faced, apple–cheeked friend Risa Foster and made her into a notorious killer with the same name in the sixth Casey Jones, Bad Moon on the Rise. In that case, Risa had won an auction to be a character in my book and good-naturedly agreed to be the most famous inmate in my fictional women’s prison. The same book featured a secretive leader of a survivalist cult who was named after my friend, Chuck Grubb, also the winner of a character auction. I took a cue from the real Chuck and gave my fictional Chuck more heart, and a little more perspective, than your typical survivalist — a nuance that the real-life Chuck deeply appreciated. Chuck is gone now in real life, too, but he got a great deal of enjoyment out of being in one of my books. I’m glad that I could give him that gift.
My other character inspirations will have to remain secret, mostly because, as an author, I get to enjoy the greatest passive aggressive stunt of them all, one perhaps enhanced by my Southern upbringing. Yes, like all good Southerners, I can smile at you and you will walk away feeling like you’re my best friend when, all the while, the truth is that I’d like to slap you six ways to Sunday. But being a Southern writer, I can take this kind of behavior one step further: I absolutely assure you that if I meet someone I dislike enough, you can bet your bottom dollar that they will end up as either a victim or a reprehensible character in one of my books. In fact, right now, I’ve got a waiting list of at least three people who deserve a little light literary flogging — and one of them is perfect for my work-in-progress.
How healthy is it to make your enemies into victims and knock them off in your books? Is it mentally wise to take people who get away with evil deeds in real life and elevate them to a fictional villain so that you can bring them down and give them the punishment they deserve within the pages of your book? I don’t know the answer to those questions. If you’re a shrink, by all means tell me. But I can say this — it’s one of the best things about being a crime fiction writer and it sure as hell feels good. Unlike real life, it gives you resolution.
Does that mean *you* could end up in one of my books by making me mad enough? Maybe. But if I were you, I wouldn’t risk it. Like I said, I’ve learned a lot from my characters….