Would You Mind if I Made You Immortal?

In the play, Two Gentlemen of Verona, (a Shakespearean comedy converted to a modern musical) one character asks another, in song:

Would you mind if I made you immortal?/I naturally ask your permission/I wouldn’t want to make you immortal/unless you agreed to this condition.

By “make you immortal” he means he wants to write a song or a poem or some such about her. The condition is, of course, that she accept his courtship. The character is a jerk.

I don’t think I have the capacity to make anyone immortal through my writing (though I always hope!) and I would not use my writing as a means to manipulate anyone, but I have had occasion recently to ask for permission to write about someone. It was an odd experience.

Virtually all novels contain a disclaimer about how “any resemblance to actual persons or places is strictly coincidental,” but everyone knows that’s not exactly true; fiction writers put people they know in their books. From listening to interviews with established authors, it sounds as though readers routinely over-estimate the practice (apparently, once your books get really popular, everyone you’ve ever met promptly decides your book is about them. It isn’t), but authors do sometimes draw inspiration from real people.

I’ve written before about how I do character development. In my case, a real person often serves as a model, but I allow the fictional person to develop freely so that by the end of the process, there is little to no recognizable similarity to the real person (except by coincidence).

And yet I can still feel the similarity–something of my feeling for the two remains the same. Occasionally I will meet with a friend and be startled by his (not yet her) similarity to somebody I’ve written. Of course, the friend is the model, but it still startles and delights me, as though my fantasy world has gotten that much more real.

This past week I had that experience, but with a scary twist. I’d been working on a sequence in which the character dies (rather horribly–being a character of mine is not necessarily a fun thing), and I learned that my real friend had only recently recovered from a very serious illness. Had I somehow caused that?

Of course not, but there is a magic to fiction, a fluidity between the real and the imaginal, that should inspire caution.

Also last week, I realized that a whole sequence of fictional events would fall into place nicely if I made another character of mine the granddaughter of two real people I know. These grandparents will not appear as characters in the story, but the name of one of them will be mentioned.

I asked permission, of course. They said yes.

I need permission to use someone’s name, and I suspect my friends saw that as the bigger, more important ask, but to me the idea of importing real people into fiction is the more audacious act. I am, in a sense, predicting the future of their family–the number of children their daughter will have, the kind of person their great-grandson will be. How dare I?

Do I actually believe my writing matters in that way? Do I actually believe that I am putting real people into my story, as opposed to simply making fictional people who resemble real ones and, in one case, shares a real person’s name?

I’m not sure. The thing is, the fictional world seems entirely real to me. I can hear my characters talking. I can see them doing things. I can walk around in their world in my mind, the same way I can re-experience my own memory. This sense of reality is how I can write. I cannot be sure that sense is an illusion.

Fiction is like dream, an alternate realm with its own strange reality, a separate world that bleeds into and out of ours in interesting and not entirely knowable ways. I am not sure what it means to invite a real person into my dream.

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About Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.
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