Real People as Fictional Characters: Some Comic, Sad, and Dangerous Encounters
She was a Mexican-American woman, not yet 40. She had luscious black hair, waves and waves of it--and into those luminous cascades she had placed a fresh rose, red against the black of her hair. She was a few pounds heavier than she might claim to be—the word "lush" occurred to me. She was dressed in a fashion beyond fashion, entirely her own. In a gesture of decorum, she had added to her red blouse a lacy ruffle that, however, did not compromise the splendid fullness of her breasts. It occurred to me, then, that, rather than having tried for decorum, she had actually called more attention to her ample endowment with the enamored ruffle. She wore a dark skirt with winking slits on either side of her legs and over sling pumps.
There was my flesh-and-blood Amalia!
I followed her along the aisles. Noticing me, she added to her stride a slight swing of her hips. I pursued her, until, at another aisle, a Mexican man with an aggressive mustache—he was shorter than I, I'm delighted to tell you—stood in my path. "Pos?" he challenged me. "Well, nothing," I answered. The woman looked somewhat thrilled, as if she might welcome a good fight over her. And yet—and this in retrospect was what had held me spellbound—there was something yearning, something touchingly defiant about her bold presentation. It was to her that I would donate the enigma of the intersecting clouds.
No other character of mine has taken over her life as did Amalia. Because I came to love her—and imbued her with many of my beloved sister Olga's sauciness—I winced when she refused to heed danger signals. A woman on the brink of disastrous revelations, she continued to court even more disaster. Stop, Amalia! I wanted to scream. She plunged ahead stubbornly, determined finally to triumph, or surrender in defeat. I left it up to her.
I discover this over and over about fictive characters: For them to live fully, one must allow them to be true to themselves, the traits, the characteristics, the contradictions, the background one gives them. One mustn't interfere once that creation springs to life. I tell my writing students: Pursue your characters relentlessly, corner them, don't let them get away with anything. I add: In life, be kind. In your art, be ruthless.
There are times when one has to change real-life protagonists into exaggerations to see them clearly, create a closeup of their souls. I spent a summer once as the guest of a fascinating man on his private island. With him was his 12-year old son, already a near-replica of his cunning father. During my visit, the man's exotic mistress was staying with us. Then his famous first wife came and stayed, and then his second wife, an heiress, came and stayed. What to make of the cauldron of conflict and accusations stirred? What to make of the sinister boy who threatened to drown me? I converted them all into vampires, and titled my next book that—I made the evil crew decadent and gorgeous. The powerful heiress became "the most beautiful woman in the world."
On Venice Beach one afternoon along the boardwalk, a youngish man in jockey shorts and cowboy boots was performing there, dancing and singing and playing a guitar. Nearby a pretty girl with him looked at him sadly while passersby giggled and nudged each other and heckled the man, even while dropping money in his hat. What had led him there?
I subsequently found out that the same man went on to become notorious as the Naked Cowboy—a silly figure courting derision, dancing almost naked on Times Square even in snowy winter.
I didn't like the actual life revealed of the man who had moved me on the beach. So I gave him another life. In my next novel, The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens, I took him from the beach and left him in front of the Egyptian Theater, attempting to add grandeur to his performance. There, he still sings and dances in boots and jockeys but now to expiate a painful humiliation in his dead-mother's life. I was able to stop the heckling and derision by having him plaintively sing his mother's favorite song, "Amazing Grace"—and I let radiant sunshine sweep along Hollywood Boulevard. That is one of the beauties of the artistic creation, to, in a way, save real-life characters from a shoddy life, to allow them redemption.
There are those who might consider less noble some reasons for casting real people as characters. When a critic has been personally nasty about any of my books—and there have been those—she or he is reserved a place in every novel I write, assigned a minor but revealing role with their actual names—say, as a mudwrestling entrepreneur, a babbling rhyming weatherman. In The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens, I extended that to make a political statement, using the names, slightly altered, of malicious Supreme Court justices; "Thomas Clarence" became a small-loans bank clerk; "Antonin Scala" exploited star-map sellers; the "Renquist" family headed a ponographic empire in Encino. I justify this practice by pointing out that I am in the tradition of Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Butler.
In a recent novel, The Coming of the Night, I included a character loosely modeled after a famous male porn performer whose family cruelly disowned him. After he died, the opportunistic family sued the producers of his movies, my publisher, Grove Press, and myself for—of all things—besmirching the notorious-man's reputation. I had not even known him, did not use his real name, wrote sympathetically about him, and I even disguised him by changing a famous tattoo of a kangaroo on his left buttock to that of a rabbit on his right one. I believe the matter was dismissed since I heard no more.
At times real people turn themselves into fictive characters. Along Melrose Avenue once, a man sprinted toward me, his hands imitating a shotgun aimed at me—"Bang, bang, bang! Don't you recognize me?" I remembered him, vaguely, from some brief encounter. "I'm Orin, in your book, the ending, remember? Bang, bang." He was referring to a character in my book Bodies and Souls, its ending. "You described me exactly. Blue eyes, ashy blond hair, mysterious—and great looking. I'll be terrific in the movie version, I'll drop by my photo and resume."
Not all such street encounters are that benign. One late night on a darkened street, a bear of a man, who seemed created by the foggy night itself, came at me shouting his anger at my non-fiction book The Sexual Outlaw, with its dozens of real people rendered anonymously, among whom I gathered he had seen himself. I made the mistake of turning away from the enraged man, only to feel his huge fist pound the back of my head. As I fell, I heard him bellowing my name interspersed with loud curses. When I managed to get up, a flighty young man who had seen the encounter while cruising the area said to me, "Listen, you can't please everyone."
At times one may become too involved with one's own characters, and they become uncomfortably real. Bodies and Souls ends with an apocalyptic catastrophe on the freeway, where the lives of all the main character—twelve of them—disastrously intersect. Who among them would die, who be hurt, who survive? I couldn't bear to decide. So I wrote their names on pieces of paper, and blindly assigned a few to each fate, not checking until I had reached the end of the book. I was appalled by the result. I tried to cheat. Fnally I left their fates to the perfection of accident.
Parents feel sadness when their children grow up and leave, going off into an undefined future. I have felt something like that in letting my characters go, beyond my control, a book ended. Now the doubts: Will they be able to fare alone after the last page is finished?
For me, concern grows when I model characters on actual people. If at the end of a book, a character is on the brink of giving up or surviving, what choice—if there even was a choice—was made in real life by its antecedent?
Virtually every character in my first novel was modeled after someone I knew, interacted with, sometimes intimately, other times only fleetingly in telling moments. When that novel was published, with all those lives interpreted--or misinterpreted—I was ambushed by guilt. Since many of the characters I had written about were people in a turbulent world then secret except to them, I wondered whether I had betrayed their lives by having lived among them, with them, as one of them, and then violently separating from them, becoming a writer—escaping, as it were—a life that I had recorded having for most no exit.
What, I wondered, happened to Chuck, the lazy cowboy who lingered under apathetic palm trees and the Los Angeles sun in the old Pershing Square? He was genial, popular, a cowboy without a horse—no frontier left to discover—living from day to day as long as his youth survived. In my novel he will always be basking in the warm sun, untroubled, certain that tonight will allow him another tomorrow. In real life, did it? How old would he be now? Alive? The world I shared with him and others was only blocks away from skid row, waiting.
For me, finally, there is, unassailably, this to justify it all: Within the artistic creation occurs the only means of stopping time. All characters can be brought back to life, simply by opening the first page of a book. Don Quixote begins his quest, the Governess moves undaunted into Bly; Molly pursues the evasive Yes of her ruminations, Marcel struggles for his mother's kiss, Tristram delays his birth, Odysseus is on his way back to Penelope, Emma prepares for the ball, Catherine's ghost searches along the moors.
In a favorite movie of mine, "Moulin Rouge," the original one by John Huston, about Toulouse Lautrec, as the artist lies dying, the ghosts of those he has drawn appear as they were when he first saw them--some dancing, others sashaying about, all vibrantly alive again. Zsa-Zsa Gabor, of all people, playing Jane Averil beautifully, leans over the dying form of the artist who made her immortal and she gushes, "Toulouse, Toulouse, we heard you were dying and we just had to say goodbye."
What a beautiful farewell to a writer that would be.
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Original material by John Rechy appears
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