A fiction writer’s rap sheet can get quite extensive.
Perhaps pride is our biggest flaw. The stories in our heads, well, not only do we think they are worth our time to tell, but also we think they are worth your time to read. Not only that, but you really ought to pay for them, too. Oh, and let me sign that first edition hardcover for you. You’re welcome.
Of course, no one can force you to read a book…excepting literature professors.
Unfortunately, we’re also chronic kleptomaniacs. Joseph Epstein said, “Every writer is a thief, though some of us are more clever than others at disguising our robberies.” He was referring to minor counts of plagiarism—an apt description, a novel turn of phrase, a treatment of syntax that (with a minor tweak) we could pass off as our own brilliant invention. We read like crazy so that our writing becomes better through osmosis and untraceable tricks.
That kind of stealing is mostly harmless, I suppose. Certainly, it doesn’t really affect you non-writers out there. So what if after reading Tolkien, I suddenly start composing quasi-archaic run-on sentences? Or if, post-Palahniuk, my penchant for short and incomplete sentences explodes? No harm, no foul to the general populace.
However, the thievery doesn’t end there.
As much as we weavers of fiction would like to believe that our brains are the birthplace of magnificent, magical, and altogether unique ideas, that’s simply not true. A wiser man than I once said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” It’s worse than that, though: The human mind is incapable of unadulterated innovation. We can’t create, only assimilate; can’t conceive, only reconstruct, rearrange, and revise reality as it already exists around us.
That’s where all of you unsuspecting sources of inspiration come in. We’re always watching, you know. We need material. Anyone can throw together a character. Flip a coin, roll the dice, or just jot down the first thing that comes to mind, and you’ll end up with a fake person with his or her own hair and eye color, a height, a weight, an occupation. But in order to assemble a multi-faceted human being, you need much more than a random combination of traits. We writers crave details.
And surely you won’t mind if we steal a few from you, our closest friends, our family members, hapless passersby…
There was a student in my women’s lit class whose name I never learned. I had no occasion to ever speak to her, but I haven’t forgotten her eyebrows. By my best approximation, each one of her perfectly symmetrical eyebrows formed its own 60-degree angle. I haven’t yet given one of my characters 60-degree eyebrows, but someday I just might.
What’s-her-name will never know if I steal one of her body parts for my fiction. But other crimes are harder to hide. Names, for instance. If I use your name, please don’t read too much into it. Just because you share a first or last name with a character doesn’t mean he or she is based in any way on you. (Maybe I just like the sound of the syllables. Or maybe your name means something you never even realized.)
The same goes for physical characteristics. That may be your nose, your tattoo, your scar, or, yes, your eyebrows on the page, but it’s somebody else’s accent, hobby, and hometown to complete the composite.
Honestly, I can’t say whether you should be honored or horrified. What I can say is that I’m grateful for the insight about your career, the catchphrase you didn’t know you had, the mannerism that transforms my one-dimensional extra into a rich, memorable supporting character (though there is danger in that…).
Don’t worry. We would never exploit your flaws. Your secrets—bad or banal—are safe with us. In fact, we take great pains to camouflage our crimes. We want the world to think we came up with it all ourselves, remember? Anyway, there is honor among thieves. We won’t tell anyone that the ugly couch in chapter three belongs to you or that your foibles have given a certain antagonist his softer side.
We’ll never tell…if you won’t.