Now that we’ve discussed copyright laws, and the obligation to remain mum about your “fictional” characters for legal, moral and ethical reasons, let’s turn to the process by which real people become characters in a novel. This of course, is based on my own experience of writing Water Signs, so the information is purely subjective, and intended as helpful advice to others embarking upon the same kind of adventure.
Since there is so much I want to share with my fellow authors, I am breaking the topic down into several posts, to allow me to concentrate on specific characters in my book, in order to support my statements.
My novel is infused with many themes: first love, second chances, family, faith in God, personal resiliency, patriotism, traditional values vs. modern-day society, reconciliation, The American Dream (embodied by two specific characters, Ken Lockheart and Dr. Joseph Rose), and spirtual/personal growth. I explore and uphold these themes through the use of characters, plot, circumstances and symbolism. But for this particular post, I will focus on characters, as it ties in with the practice of basing them on actual people.
So let’s start with my hero, Kenneth Lockheart. Also known as Ken and Kenny in the novel, he is modeled after a real guy I met and dated back in 1992. At the time, he seemed so much larger than life, as although we were both young adults of 25 (yes, I am giving away my age…:), “Ken” had already amassed so much more life experience, having spent four years in the United States Navy. An outgoing, energetic, intelligent and good-looking man, I was blown away by the fact that he’d summed up his young life and decided if he wanted to go after his dreams of a college education (something his parents could not provide), meaningful career and eventual wife and family, he had to go after it himself.
While this might not sound so unusual to my readers, as the youngest child of a successful surgeon, whose parents were determined to provide all of their children with a college education, it was a refreshing change for me. My dad, affectionately known as “Dr. Al” on Blog Talk Radio, was the child of Italian immigrants who supported him emotionally, but did not have the financial means to finance his dreams of higher education. Thus, beginning with high school and continuing on through medical school, my father worked several jobs, always grateful for the opportunity to achieve something greater, thanks to the USA (more on that later).
When he became a father himself, Dr. Al was adamant about removing as many obstacles for his children as possible. Thus, I never had to worry about attending college; it was a given in my family that — at the very least — a Bachelor’s Degree would be the path for every DiGiovanni child (with the exception of my exceptional brother Ralph, a Down’s guy who achieved his own remarkable success. More on him later).
Back in 1992, I’d just come out of a very painful breakup with a guy (my first boyfriend) who’d spent a lot of time criticizing me, whether for my fashion choices, hair color or weight (years later, he sincerely apologized and we put the past behind us, which is another plot point in the story). Having come through a challenging adolescence, during which an extra 10-15 pounds made my life miserable in terms of my desirability among high school boys, I was still carrying around the unwanted emotional baggage of this relationship, along with my previous disappointments pertaining to the opposite sex. And although I’d lost most of the weight and had become — in the eyes of most others — a beautiful, sweet and attractive young woman, it was nearly impossible to see myself that way.
Which brings me back to Ken. When we “accidentally” ended up hanging out together at a Somers Point, New Jersey nightclub, I couldn’t reconcile in my mind his interest in me, expressed through conversation, hugs, high-fives and chaste kisses on the cheek. And the more I learned of his independence and self-sufficiency, the more impressed (and somewhat intimidated) I was.
To this day, no man prior and no man after him has treated me with the same genuine respect, admiration and affection. So when crafting the story, I realized that the Ken character had to be larger-than-life, in order to set him up as a stark contrast to the other men Madeline dates in the novel. Thus when readers meet Ken, they see a hard-working, optimistic, traditional, intelligent and determined young man who believes in his dreams and pursues them with passion. He knows the blue-collar job he’s currently holding is a means to an end, a way to keep himself going financially, save for the future and figure out his next moves.
All of that is very true to the real man, along with his physical description. Sure, I could have changed eye/hair color, stature, physical build and place of residence (on this last point, my advice is to stick with the places you know, if indeed your novel is based on real life…what a time-saver!). I chose not to do that. This is obviously a personal decision for each author, but for me, authenticity is paramount. So while I did change the names for all of the obvious reasons, I wanted to remain as faithful as possible to his other characteristics.
Now don’t get me wrong: Ken is a flawed human being like the rest of us. It just so happens that, unlike the other men Maddy dates, beneath the flaws remains a deep, consistent, abiding love for her. Therefore, everything he does — including the hurtful, stupid things — are a result of pure, genuine emotion. Readers may scratch their heads over some of his actions, but they will most likely never doubt his love for the story’s heroine.
Pertaining to the theme of traditional values versus modern-day society, Ken is also very much an all-American kind of guy: a patriot and US Navy veteran with a relentless work ethic, love of freedom and fervent desire to settle down with the right woman. Yes, he’s a young gun with all of the usual raging hormones and normal manly desires; however, he’s quickly tiring of the dating game, even as he optimistically searches for his perfect woman. Marriage is foremost in his mind — not meaningless hook-ups that regrettably characterize our current culture. And when he meets Madeline — a traditional woman in every way, he knows his search is over.
Blown away by the facts that 1.) she refuses to go back to his place for “coffee” after the club closes at 2 a.m. 2.) she’s not been with anyone in the Biblical sense, something he’d long given up on finding and 3.) she’s planning on attending Mass the next day, he realizes she’s a cut above the typical dating scene, and the women he’s previously encountered.
Of course, these qualities also become a source of conflict, particularly because Madeline lags behind a bit in terms of her own emotional maturity. While she’s adamant about upholding the values with which she’s been raised, the thought of marriage — and everything it entails with respect to physical intimacy — is incredibly frightening. She’s still struggling with body image and a fear of the unknown, a reality she has tremendous difficulty verbalizing to the man who stares at her adoringly and thinks everything she does is wonderful.
Ok, back to some specifics in fashioning Ken after his real-life inspiration.
As I mentioned, I remained true to his physical characteristics and personality traits. As much as I could recall through my journals and my memory, I recreated the townhouse he’d lived in in Somers Point, NJ. I literally retraced some of the steps we’d taken on the Atlantic City boardwalk, and toward Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, on our way to watch a live Eagles game.
Thus Ken and Maddy’s first date at Frisanco’s (a restaurant no longer in business), subsequent stroll on the A.C. boardwalk and eventual first kiss high atop the Trump Taj Mahal are all straight from real life. Other things are not, but were created with the book’s themes in mind. In keeping with the title, I endeavored to place my characters by water as often as possible. Therefore, in one of my early chapters, Ken surprises Madeline with a private beach picnic in Ventnor City. Did this really happen? No, but it certainly is something that could have happened, and it provided me a wonderful opportunity as an author to delve further into my characters’ feelings, motivations and outlook.
Other examples of things I did not alter: Ken’s birthplace, zodiac sign (the real guy and me are both Pisces), high school, family (both the real guy and me are the youngest in our respective families), faith (both the real guy and me were raised Catholic), marriage to another woman, and ultimate success in the corporate world. The reasons for this are varied — the shared Pisces sign, for example, ties in with water, which symbolizes renewal and emotions, the foundation of the story.
Examples of things altered:
- Unlike the real guy and me, Ken and Madeline share the exact same birthday of March 7, 1967. This supports the “soul mate”, spirituality and metaphysical aspects of the book. In real life, we’re about two weeks apart, although both born in March. March 7 was chosen to honor my real grandmother’s birth, since she plays an integral part in the plot, albeit from the other side of life.
- As I’ve previously stated, the name “Kenneth Lockheart” is completely made up. I needed a first name that would lend itself easily and obviously to shortened versions, thus Kenneth becomes Ken, becomes Kenny. As a side note, I wrote half of the book using the guy’s real first name as it took me that long to settle on a fictional one!
- Ken and Maddy’s date at The Ship Inn in Exton, where he gives her a Pisces pendant is also a purely fictional scene. However, I’ve shared some enjoyable meals at The Ship Inn with family and friends, so incorporating it into Water Signs was easy to do. It is also relevant by virtue of Ken being a US Navy vet, and the use of water and the Pisces zodiac sign as symbolism in the novel.
- Ken’s physical fight with his co-worker that ultimately results in his dismissal from the electric company is another made-up element that helps to advance the story and underscore certain themes. In this particular case, it is the tension between “working class” and “middle class”, fomented by jealousy on the co-worker’s part. It also feeds into Ken’s insecurity of not being good enough for Madeline, having not yet completed his education.
In my next installment, I will expand upon the points I’ve made here. I will also place particular focus on the American Dream theme, with a comparison and contrast between the two most important men in Madeline’s life: Ken and her father.
As always, I hope this information has been helpful, and I look forward to sharing more in the near future! 🙂