Many books I’ve read lately pulse with the desire to be Bright Lights, Big City. Read between the violence, sex, drugs, dubious friendships and hollow disaffection smeared across their pages and you’ll see the writer’s thought process. I’ll look around at what my friends and their friends are doing and put the most fucked-up things I see and hear to paper; I will be the Jay Mcinerney of my generation.
I recognize it because I’m guilty of it. Every group has an observer more comfortable alone, the person dragged along on adventures who is not of them. The purpose of those people, people like me, is to record what we see, to keep alive the manic and tragic antics of people who belong in stories more than life.
Bright Lights, Big City became a touchstone because its themes extended beyond the characters’ lives. Honestly, the writers trying this tactic have nothing to be embarrassed about. I’ve enjoyed their work. The people I’ve recommended their work to haven’t complained. Maybe I should just take their stories at face value and stop imprinting my desires on them. Maybe they just want to craft simple stories of how drugs, violence, or heartless sex - or drugs and violence and heartless sex - corrode people.
The confident, slimy douchebag who somehow parlays his six-pack abs, fuck you slouch, and slutty friends into a prostitution ring. Unless you can also make the story about how America prostitutes its youth, or a condemnation of a culture which has forgotten moderation, then you’ve got nothing but a prurient exercise. If you can’t take a group of friends sucked into drugs and make it about the rest of us trapped in the limits of our lives, then all you have is a lurid tale of tweaked idiots in search of the next fix.
While we’re on the subject of reality into fiction, I know someone who would be an excellent character. As a young girl, she fell and damaged her face on a piece of public works equipment. She got years of reconstructive surgery, the constant ridicule of her classmates, and a settlement that pays a monthly stipend until she dies. It is not a huge monthly payment, but it would cover rent on a two or three bedroom in most cities. Also, her uncle is a wealthy, independent businessman. He molested her. Out of guilt and family obligation, he also sends her a monthly check. Coupled with the settlement, this uncle’s check ensures she never needs to work. He has no children, and he’s made it clear this girl will inherit everything when he dies (his wife is no fan of the plan, but let’s forget the tension there and focus on our character; I’m not crafting a story, I’m making a point). This inheritance will be the life-changing kind, and not in the yay, I can finally buy that camp / boat / classic car I’ve always wanted sense. This inheritance is glitterati money.
That’s her backstory. She carries the abused girl inside her, right alongside the disfigured girl. The taunts of her classmates still ring in her ears. Not until college did she realize she isn’t Frankenstein. The accident happened at a young enough age that the work of skillful doctors have erased all traces of it. Not only that, her body has developed into the stuff of pin-up dreams. Money has been collecting in the bank since elementary school. She works when she feels like it. She wants for nothing. Constant attention and flattery coupled with a painful past has led to a sense of entitlement. Because she doesn’t need to work for her wants, she has no chance to develop character. She is beautiful, promiscuous, easily bored, and essentially biding her time to become very wealthy. She is shallow and bitchy, attracting friends with her money and men with her body, but she has little to offer the world.
All of this is true.
Now, put her on the page. What life lessons can she learn? What could take her on a journey worth our time? She can flit from place to place and be interesting, but we need more. When trying to build a story around her, I keep bumping against who she actually is. I’m stymied by her refusal to grow.
These are the limits of reality. Characters have arcs. They struggle to overcome obstacles and learn profound life lessons which change them forever. People move from foible to foible.
Also, most friends are alive. If you use too much of them for a character, you risk alienating them. Even if they’re a bright, burning butterfly of a person, they may take issue with how you present them.
According to Kate Christensen, all you need to do is change their physicality. If the character is taller or fatter, a different race or a different gender, no one ever recognizes him or herself. She’s six books in, so she must know what she’s talking about.
To introduce a friend or acquaintance to the rest of the world through prose, a writer should see the world through two different lenses. The first lens is terrible. Part of you catalogs every experience, sizes every new face and conversation for the page. In this first lens, the blessing and the curse, you must keep life at a distance so you can record it.
The second lens is imagination. If you’re too bogged down in reality, the way I am in trying to write about the girl I mention above, you will never get a decent story. She’s not even my favorite character, or my most interesting, or the one who has thwarted me most often in trying to make her fictional, she’s simply the first person who came to mind. But every time I’ve struggled with creating a story from someone I know or from a real event, it’s because I’ve stuck too close to reality. Reality is shimmering and wonderful and terrible, but if you want to tell a story which engages people, best to leave What Actually Happened out of it.
Take that first draft of craziness surrounding you. You might have a compelling glimpse into a secret world only you have access to, a story only you can tell. The reader will be engrossed. But your story won’t be Bright Lights, talked about a quarter century after the fact, unless it finds a larger significance.