Using Family to Inspire Fiction
Today’s guest post comes from author Douglas Weissman.
Douglas Weissman’s Young Adult series and New Adult novel were released by Epic Press in Fall 2016. His short stories have been published in 3 Elements Review, Wild Musette, Kingdoms in the Wild, Lamplit Underground, and I Must Be Off. His novel, Life Between Seconds, will be released by Addison & Highsmith in November 2022. He is a graduate of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at the University of San Francisco. He currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife, daughter, anxious dog, and aloof cat.
The most common knowledge around writing is the adage, “write what you know,” and there are few things I know better than my family. That is why I always take characteristics from family members and imbue them into my characters to give them a sense of belonging and personality, but most importantly, a sense of personhood.
Using different aspects of my family helps create the foundations for my characters. This way, the result is not some shoddy, thinly veiled autobiography and instead allows each character, no matter their station, to develop on their own.
I have always been very close with my family. I memorized the smacking sound that my brother makes when he eats cereal. I know the way my mother folds the bathroom towels. I can easily see the strands of my sister’s curly blonde hair that somehow clung to the kitchen table. I know my dad’s short, loud bursts of laughter, my wife’s perfume that carries notes of honey and lilies, and my daughter’s fake cry that resembles a strangled whistle.
Perhaps your father had a temper, your mother was a romantic, or your brother cried at sunset for reasons no one ever truly knew but him. Or maybe your sister was ashamed of being the tallest girl in her grade and that informed the fact that as an adult, she would shrink herself down as if trying to escape everyone’s notice at a party. It is the little details of their personality that add to the larger idiosyncrasies that make each character feel real, that provide at least a single attribute a reader can connect with.
My most recent novel, Life Between Seconds, focuses on Peter, a 24-year-old who escapes from his past by constantly moving, and Sofia, a 75-year-old who escapes from her past by hiding. Peter’s mother committed suicide. Sofia’s daughter was disappeared during Argentina’s Dirty War. Their ghosts haunt them. These hauntings define them. Their respective pasts propel them toward damnation unless they can find redemption through their friendship. Inspired in part by the formation and mission of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, Sofia became an unfaltering presence in my life for nearly 10 years.
I modeled Sofia after my paternal grandmother. Physically, they share nothing in common. My grandmother is short, has had cropped hair for as long as I’ve known her, and maintains the thick mouthful of marbles that a Brooklyn accent is famous for. I always imagined Sofia as thin, tall, with curls in her hair at night and the elegant stride of a woman who knows the construction workers are watching, so it’s better to walk fast and ignore them completely. Culturally, my grandmother was Jewish from the United States and of Ukrainian descent, while Sofia was Catholic from Argentina, and of Italian descent. But these are attributes that separate them, that demonstrate how I could so fully form a character into a living being while starting with the strong foundation of my grandmother.
My grandmother always said she was stupid, yet, she ran a small business out of her house for decades crocheting and offering needlework. She always portrayed herself as weak, yet, she not only kept my grandfather—a loud, gregarious, Brooklynite—on the ropes, she ran her family home and settled every ache or pain with a silent sip of scotch. And from these truths, Sofia was born. Whether due to circumstance or nature, she was convinced she was dumb, incapable of caring for herself if her husband were ever to leave. She thought of herself as weak, unable to survive the loss of her daughter. But when faced with her reality, she proved herself resilient, calculating, and courageous. She stands against the Argentine government to help form the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. She stands against her husband who chooses to hide his head in the sand, rather than fight for the whereabouts of their daughter. She stands against the disproportionate views of a traditional marriage in a traditional country at a traditional time.
Sofia blossomed from my grandmother. As I kept writing, she demonstrated how her strengths may have started in one way but fully formed into her own. With every character I write, I find connection in an attribute I know, one I understand; the smell of my father’s breath after drinking black tea or how my sister and brother would fight like barking seals. These are elements of my own life that I love enough to keep close to my heart—even the ones I really hate. But every time I start a new story, I think about who in my life this character reminds me of. This is how I write what I know. This is how the reality I know transforms into a new completely reality within the stories I write.