I once had a friend who made a point of not telling me about the more dramatic events in her life because she was convinced that if she did she would find herself one day in one of my stories. The fact that she had never found herself—or anyone else she knew in my stories never assuaged her fears.
If she had only known, stories are not—as is often assumed—an imitation of life. They are far more an imitation of other stories.
Life, even an ordinary, mundane life, is almost infinitely complex in comparison even to the most intricate weavings of fiction. Stories are created by distillation, by selection, by leaving out all that doesn’t move this particular character in this particular story toward the particular conclusion that is sought. Stories are written to create meaning out of the jumble of our days, and meaning gets lost in the myriad details we call life. Meaning in stories is actually created as much by what is left out as what is left in.
I have found that when I start with a real place as the setting for a story, I have to struggle to keep my setting from intruding on my story. You may find a large oak tree growing in the center of my story even though the tree has no particular significance, but it will be there because, in the real place I’m writing about, the oak tree exists. If I’m imagining the setting, no oak trees grow there unless they serve the story, because it’s work, imagining oak trees, so I only imagine what my story needs.
If I start with an actual person to create a character, I will find myself telling this about him and then that and then something else, and the different parts of the real person I’ll reveal, all of them true, all of them real, will seem contradictory, because they won’t be focused on achieving a single effect as readers expect. That is what happened to the father in Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins, my collection of semi-autobiographical young-adult short stories. The main character’s father was modeled on my own father, and so he appeared in one story behaving in one way and in another behaving another—all true to my own father—but as one reviewer pointed out, legitimately enough, the parts didn’t add up to a whole.
A character I’ve created from whole cloth will seem more real, because he will be more consistent. We will understand who he is and what he is about. Consider Mark in Little Dog, Lost. He is a totally created character. The touch that brings him alive on the page came from my having to answer the question my editor asked, “Why does Mark want a dog?” And in answering that I moved beyond what I already knew, that Mark was the son of a single mother who was the mayor of Mark’s small town. But when I went searching for more, I found something central to my story, that Mark’s father had left his mother and him before Mark was even born, and in discovering that, I also discovered the longing that brings Mark alive.
So start from life? Of course. Start from all you have experienced and felt and known. But take just a dollop, a crumb, a seed and build upon it in your own imagination. Create a sleek and meaningful structure by holding back most of what you know.
Then all that will be left over to use in your next story.