Real People HAVE Inspired Many of My Characters
By Jeff Salter
This week, our topic is “Has anyone ever asked you to add them to one of your stories?” and “Have you told anyone that you were basing a character on them?”
My answers: yes and yes.
Let me explain.
First, I’ll respond to the initial half of that topic. [“Has anyone ever asked you to add them to one of your stories?”] Actually, I hear this a lot, but usually the suggestion is made – presumably in jest – in phrasing like this: “When are you going to put me in one of your books?” Or, alternately, “You should put me in one of your books.”
To which, I usually smile and say something like, “You’ll be in the next science fiction story.” Or, alternatively, “I already did write you as a character, but he/she broke all four limbs in an avalanche… and ended up in a body cast.”
The most specific interaction I’ve had along these lines — fairly recently — was when I was in the office of my computer guru, admiring all his whiz-bang gizmos. I said something like “you could probably hack the Pentagon computers from here.” To which he replied, “You should write me into one of your books.”
Now, before I delve into my response to the second half of this topic, let me explain that I’ve put MYSELF – or a character closely based upon me – in three novels of my Somerset Series. [Two of these – Hid Wounded Reb and Called to Arms Again – have been published, but the first title in that series is still in a heavily overhauled manuscript.]
Some of you are perhaps surprised that I’d write a character closely based upon myself. But that series is set here in Somerset, on the property that’s been in my wife’s family since 1803, in the time frame that each title was written (2006-2008)… so it was difficult to extract myself from those plots. That character is named Joe Sutton. He and his wife, Diane Sutton, live exactly where we lived when I wrote those novels — the Williams family farmhouse built in 1925. Denise has recognized “herself” but has not said much either way about how she’s depicted. For my “Joe” character, I made a significant barrier: the reader never sees or “hears” Joe speak. Yes, the reader is informed what Joe has said, but it’s always relayed by the narrator or through another character reporting what he/she heard (from Joe). I no longer remember all the reasons I placed this distance from the Joe character, but I do recall that it was a tricky business for all the other characters to speak in real time… except Joe, who’s present in many of those same scenes and from whom we hear only RELAYED dialog.
Okay, now I finally get to the second half of today’s topic [“Have you told anyone that you were basing a character on them?”]
In those same three titles of the Somerset Series, a few characters appear in more than one novel. The most, however, appear in only one story, “Called to Arms Again.” In that particular novel – besides Denise and I as Diane and Joe Sutton – I have at least seven characters who were inspired by real-life individuals. One of the main supporting characters, Pete Henley, was inspired by Master Sergeant C.E. “Gene” Hansford, who has since passed away. Not only did I tell him he was the inspiration for my character, but I loaned him one of the working manuscripts of that novel before it was published… so he could see how I’d depicted him. He later purchased the published novel and I inscribed it to him, noting he was the inspiration for my Henley character.
Of the other main supporting characters, two were based on relatives of my wife: Chet “Pop” Walter was inspired by my late father-in-law, Charles Williams… and Wade was inspired by her first cousin Wink. Both of them knew those characters were inspired by them and both seemed to be pleased by their portrayals.
Other characters of that series are based on Denise’s kin, including her late mother (Rita Williams) who inspired Irene Henley, and her cousin Richard, who inspired Roger Jenkins. Rita seemed genuinely pleased at “her” character… and I believe Richard enjoyed seeing his alter ego on my pages.
My own mother (Doris Salter) inspired the minor character Miss Dottie Daniels… and she was delighted to see “her” character appear on the pages.
Not related to anybody in my circle, the late Albert Self – a maintenance supervisor I worked with for several years – served as the inspiration for my supporting character, Herb.
Reading this, you may think it odd that this particular novel featured so many characters inspired by real-life individuals. Not so odd, however, when you consider this novel is my tribute to the Greatest Generation — very fitting, I thought, to immortalize several of those individuals (and all but Mr. Self knew that they’d inspired one of my characters).
[JLS # 463]