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22Mar/110

How to Write Books That Piss Off Your Friends

If you write a novel, your friends will assume it's about them.  It doesn't matter if you call it fiction, it doesn't matter what genre it is, if you write a novel your friends will assume it's about them.

You've always lamented that you wish you had a more literary group of friends?  That you knew people that read more?  Well, guess what, now you have a group of friends secretly studying your book like it's the ancient Talmud and they're at a rabbinical college.

Every friend will find a character they're certain they are, countless characters they're certain other people are.  But, here's the thing:  most people ARE very similar.  There's not that many different way to be a thirtysomething white man in New York City.  Don't get me started with character names.

I went to college with a guy that was a laughably terrible screenwriter.*  He wrote horrendous sci-fi space operas.  But, I still admired the guy because he was an absolute genius at naming things.  Futuristic space weaponry, undiscovered galaxies, alien species--he could always come up with a name that made you go:  "Yeah, that sounds about right."  Me?  I'm shit with naming things, especially characters.

It's like, the second I introduce a new character while I'm writing, my mind goes blank and the only human names I can think of in the entire universe are those of my dozen closest friends.   Now these characters have no relation to J____ or T____ or E____ aside from the name.  Still, if I kept those names in the book, people would assume I'm flat out telegraphing who I'm writing about.

During early drafts, I use friends' names as placeholders but I sometimes forget to change them.  During the final edit of HOW TO FAIL, I tried to eliminate as many incidental friend names as possible but I still missed a few.  In fact, an ex-girlfriend I hadn't talked to in years emailed to congratulate me upon hearing about the book being released.  It was only then that I realized a less than desirable character in the book had her exact name.  I apologized, told her that it was a completely accidental coincidence, but I doubt she believed me.  She probably read the book thinking the whole time, "Am I like that?  I'm not like that!  Oh, fuck him!  Fuck him!"

And my other friends presumably have other characters they assume are "them."  But they aren't.  I swear.  The human experience is just so similar that if I've written a good book, you'll see yourself in a character.  Probably several.  In the character's highs and lows, successes and failures, behavior and experiences.  So, in a certain regard, it's a compliment.  If I'm writing about a doctor, I have to draw from all the doctors I've ever dealt with in my life.  And, if I'm writing about a dude that lives in New York City, I have to draw from all the dudes I've ever dealt with in New York City.  Which includes most of my friends.

Do sci-fi authors have the same issues?  I'd love to ask my old classmate but, despite his naming prowess, he never made it in the business.  Still, I'm guessing no matter the genre one writes, the author's friends are always pissed off that they were written about.  But, for the most part, they weren't.

In HOW TO FAIL, there is actually one character that is 100% based on someone.  Some guy I truly hate.  Still, I never wanted him to read the book, never thought he'd read the book.  He did though and...loved it.  Shook my hand the other day and everything, told me I should really be proud of it.  I guess he didn't recognize the character that was him.  And, why should he?  Except for neurotics, no one likes to think of themselves as anything less than great, so, a character that is far from great--like the character based on him--surely wouldn't even appear on this man's radar as being him.

He thinks he's great.  The character is not great.  So, obviously, how could it be him, he thinks.  Or, rather, doesn't think.  It doesn't even register.

The real secret, though, is that every character I write is based on someone I know.  Me.  Which kinda makes me hate myself.

Do any other authors have this problem?  Any funny stories to share?

*Oh great, now he's gonna wonder if I'm talking about him.

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