Real People as Fictional Characters: Some Comic, Sad, and Dangerous Encounters
By John RechyJanuary 10, 2014
John Rechy's pathbreaking City of Night was published in a 50th Anniversary edition and has appeared on many “best of 2013” lists.
This essay will appear in Issue #2 of the LARB QUARTERLY JOURNAL, any new members who sign up by the end of January can receive a copy.
FROM WHERE DOES A WRITER'S characters come? Who are they, finally? — these wily, shifty creatures, darting in and out of trouble, creatures who cajole, flirt with their author, seduce him, at times challenge him to the point that they run away beyond their creator's intent. Don Quixote fought his most formidable battle not with windmills but with Cervantes, who detested him, ridiculed him, tortured him. And who won in that epic battle between the author and his character? Don Quixote — by evolving into myth, becoming a figure of pathos, a noble hero in search of the impossible dream; and he is that even for those who do not know who Cervantes is. Still, it was Cervantes who imbued him with the characteristics that allowed his character to triumph.
Many characters, of course, come from real life, even though at times they sidle into one's stories unrecognized until they threaten to sue one.
Christopher Isherwood gave me what I thought was sage advice on using real people in one's writing. He told me, "You can question their morals, call them liars, expose them as thieves — as long as you describe them as attractive."
Several instances in my life have tested that admonition. In my first novel, City of Night, I described a male nurse I knew as a deceiver, entirely unethical, prone to collect credit cards from his dead patients. I received an angry letter from him in which he asked: "Do I really strike you as being coldly blond?"
In a short story that would become a part of that same novel, I wrote about a downtown Los Angeles queen who called herself Miss Destiny and dreamt of one day having a white wedding. Titled "The Fabulous Wedding of Miss Destiny," that story appeared in a small literary journal called Big Table. I thought no one would read it. As I strolled one afternoon along Hollywood Boulevard, I heard a voice calling: "John Rechy! John Rechy!"
For the longest time, I preferred to be anonymous, like others in the world of the streets I was living within, a world hidden to all but those who existed in it. So I was startled to hear my name called. There, jaywalking toward me, impervious to protesting honks, came Miss Destiny. "My dear!" she trilled, "I want to thank you for making me even more famous!"
In truth I had made her grander than she was. At times one has to veer away from reality in order to bring fiction to life. I had augmented the real Miss Destiny's effervescent stories to give them resonance, and, I hoped, more wistful poetry. Subsequently, she absorbed the characteristics of my character; she told her stories with my embellishments, claimed they were her exact words. She landed on the cover of ONE Magazine, in full wedding drag, demurely, as "The Fabulous Miss Destiny," and she gave a nasty untrue interview about me, but I forgave her because she described me as "cute."
(For years afterwards, she would call me, always very late at night and in a boozy voice, and she would ask me to please inform whomever she was with that she was indeed "the fabulous Miss Destiny" of my novel. Of course I obliged. A few years ago the calls stopped.)
I once — and quite literally — became a character from one of my own books. My second novel, Numbers, was set mainly in Griffith Park, its protagonist a young man named Johnny Rio, who spends his idle time seeking adventures in the park. I was idling in the same park one afternoon — still anonymous — when a stranger braked his car to tell me that someone had written a book about me. "Who?" I asked, befuddled. "His name is John Rechy," he said, "but I don't think that's his real name because nobody would write a book like that under his own name." As he left, he called back, "Goodbye, Johnny Rio."
The sternest test of Isherwood's admonition about permission to describe real persons even as morally decadent as long as they're described as attractive occurred when I modeled a character after him. Without using his actual name, I described him in my novel Numbers as somewhat randy in his cups — pardon the appropriately dated euphemism; but I had also described him as an attractive middle-aged man, to the point that the painter Cadmus, recognizing him, said I had been too kind. The purveyor of the advice I had followed was outraged. An invitation made earlier to dinner at his home was withdrawn with an angry telegram from his longtime companion on behalf of them both; the enraged companion proposed a near-duel — I mean it — a strict confrontation — although I had described him as being "pretty."
Apparently Isherwood didn't attend to his own advice. His posthumous Diaries incensed those who considered themselves his closest friends. Without the veil of fiction, not only did he describe several as untalented, but also one of the closest was dismissed as "not talented enough and too ugly to be chic." The first volume of his Diaries alerted other possible victims and the second volume remains unpublished because of a threatened suit.
One might be tempted to claim that some characters are divinely inspired. I was sunbathing one summer day when, looking up, I saw two long clouds sailing toward each other to form a cross. What, I wondered, would some of the Mexican Catholic women I had known in El Paso when we lived in the government projects make of that? I rushed home to write a short story about such a woman, who interprets the configuration as the first portent of a possible miracle, all that can save her at a time of crisis. Inspired, I finished a rough draft in a few hours. When my partner, Michael, came home, I read him the story. "You've got to write a whole novel about her," he exhorted me.
I started The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez. Soon I encountered a problem. The woman's antecedents were many, and I was creating a unique one. I did not want to risk her becoming a figure in an allegory.
I marvel at the fact that destiny exists only in retrospect, when a series of coincidences string together into inevitability. On such a fateful day, I had gone to a Thrifty Drug Store to buy a beach chair — and I hope you don't think I spend all my time lounging under the sun. The store was out of those chairs. A clerk recommended another store. I drove out of my way to that other store. I should have heard destiny spinning. I walked in, and halted in awe of one of the most gorgeous creations I have ever seen.
She was a Mexican-American woman, not yet 40. She had luscious black hair, waves and waves of it — and into those luminous cascades she had placed a fresh rose, red against the black of her hair. She was a few pounds heavier than she might claim to be — the word "lush" occurred to me. She was dressed in a fashion beyond fashion, entirely her own. In a gesture of decorum, she had added to her red blouse a lacy ruffle that, however, did not compromise the splendid fullness of her breasts. It occurred to me, then, that, rather than having tried for decorum, she had actually called more attention to her ample endowment with the enamored ruffle. She wore a dark skirt with winking slits on either side of her legs and over sling pumps.
There was my flesh-and-blood Amalia!
I followed her along the aisles. Noticing me, she added to her stride a slight swing of her hips. I pursued her, until, at another aisle, a Mexican man with an aggressive mustache — he was shorter than I, I'm delighted to tell you — stood in my path. "Pos?" he challenged me. "Well, nothing," I answered. The woman looked somewhat thrilled, as if she might welcome a good fight over her. And yet — and this in retrospect was what had held me spellbound — there was something yearning, something touchingly defiant about her bold presentation. It was to her that I would donate the enigma of the intersecting clouds.
No other character of mine has taken over her life as did Amalia. Because I came to love her — and imbued her with many of my beloved sister Olga's sauciness — I winced when she refused to heed danger signals. A woman on the brink of disastrous revelations, she continued to court even more disaster. Stop, Amalia! I wanted to scream. She plunged ahead stubbornly, determined finally to triumph, or surrender in defeat. I left it up to her.
I discover this over and over about fictive characters: For them to live fully, one must allow them to be true to themselves, the traits, the characteristics, the contradictions, the background one gives them. One mustn't interfere once that creation springs to life. I tell my writing students: pursue your characters relentlessly, corner them, don't let them get away with anything. I add: In life, be kind. In your art, be ruthless.
There are times when one has to change real-life protagonists into exaggerations to see them clearly, create a close-up of their souls. I spent a summer once as the guest of a fascinating man on his private island. With him was his 12-year-old son, already a near-replica of his cunning father. During my visit, the man's exotic mistress was staying with us. Then his famous first wife came and stayed, and then his second wife, an heiress, came and stayed. What to make of the cauldron of conflict and accusations stirred? What to make of the sinister boy who threatened to drown me? I converted them all into vampires, and titled my next book that — I made the evil crew decadent and gorgeous. The powerful heiress became "the most beautiful woman in the world."
On Venice Beach one afternoon along the boardwalk, a youngish man in jockey shorts and cowboy boots was performing there, dancing and singing and playing a guitar. Nearby a pretty girl with him looked at him sadly while passersby giggled and nudged each other and heckled the man, even while dropping money in his hat. What had led him there?
I subsequently found out that the same man went on to become notorious as the Naked Cowboy — a silly figure courting derision, dancing almost naked on Times Square even in snowy winter.
I didn't like the actual life revealed of the man who had moved me on the beach. So I gave him another life. In my next novel, The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens, I took him from the beach and left him in front of the Egyptian Theater, attempting to add grandeur to his performance. There, he still sings and dances in boots and jockeys but now to expiate a painful humiliation in his dead mother's life. I was able to stop the heckling and derision by having him plaintively sing his mother's favorite song, "Amazing Grace" — and I let radiant sunshine sweep along Hollywood Boulevard. That is one of the beauties of the artistic creation, to, in a way, save real-life characters from a shoddy life, to allow them redemption.
There are those who might consider less noble some reasons for casting real people as characters. When a critic has been personally nasty about any of my books — and there have been those — she or he is reserved a place in every novel I write, assigned a minor but revealing role with their actual names — say, as a mudwrestling entrepreneur, a babbling rhyming weatherman. In The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens, I extended that to make a political statement, using the names, slightly altered, of malicious Supreme Court justices; "Thomas Clarence" became a small-loans bank clerk; "Antonin Scala" exploited star map sellers; the "Renquist" family headed a pornographic empire in Encino. I justify this practice by pointing out that I am in the tradition of Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Butler.
In a recent novel, The Coming of the Night, I included a character loosely modeled after a famous male porn performer whose family cruelly disowned him. After he died, the opportunistic family sued the producers of his movies, my publisher, Grove Press, and myself for — of all things — besmirching the notorious man's reputation. I had not even known him, did not use his real name, wrote sympathetically about him, and I even disguised him by changing a famous tattoo of a kangaroo on his left buttock to that of a rabbit on his right one. I believe the matter was dismissed since I heard no more.
At times real people turn themselves into fictive characters. Along Melrose Avenue once, a man sprinted toward me, his hands imitating a shotgun aimed at me — "Bang, bang, bang! Don't you recognize me?" I remembered him, vaguely, from some brief encounter. "I'm Orin, in your book, the ending, remember? Bang, bang." He was referring to a character in my book Bodies and Souls, its ending. "You described me exactly. Blue eyes, ashy blond hair, mysterious — and great looking. I'll be terrific in the movie version, I'll drop by my photo and resume."
Not all such street encounters are that benign. One late night on a darkened street, a bear of a man, who seemed created by the foggy night itself, came at me shouting his anger at my nonfiction book The Sexual Outlaw, with its dozens of real people rendered anonymously, among whom I gathered he had seen himself. I made the mistake of turning away from the enraged man, only to feel his huge fist pound the back of my head. As I fell, I heard him bellowing my name interspersed with loud curses. When I managed to get up, a flighty young man who had seen the encounter while cruising the area said to me, "Listen, you can't please everyone."
At times one may become too involved with one's own characters, and they become uncomfortably real. Bodies and Souls ends with an apocalyptic catastrophe on the freeway, where the lives of all the main characters — twelve of them — disastrously intersect. Who among them would die, who be hurt, who survive? I couldn't bear to decide. So I wrote their names on pieces of paper, and blindly assigned a few to each fate, not checking until I had reached the end of the book. I was appalled by the result. I tried to cheat. Finally I left their fates to the perfection of accident.
Parents feel sadness when their children grow up and leave, going off into an undefined future. I have felt something like that in letting my characters go, beyond my control, a book ended. Now the doubts: will they be able to fare alone after the last page is finished?
For me, concern grows when I model characters on actual people. If at the end of a book, a character is on the brink of giving up or surviving, what choice — if there even was a choice — was made in real life by its antecedent?
Virtually every character in my first novel was modeled after someone I knew, interacted with, sometimes intimately, other times only fleetingly in telling moments. When that novel was published, with all those lives interpreted — or misinterpreted — I was ambushed by guilt. Since many of the characters I had written about were people in a turbulent world then secret except to them, I wondered whether I had betrayed their lives by having lived among them, with them, as one of them, and then violently separating from them, becoming a writer — escaping, as it were — a life that I had recorded having for most no exit.
What, I wondered, happened to Chuck, the lazy cowboy who lingered under apathetic palm trees and the Los Angeles sun in the old Pershing Square? He was genial, popular, a cowboy without a horse — no frontier left to discover — living from day to day as long as his youth survived. In my novel he will always be basking in the warm sun, untroubled, certain that tonight will allow him another tomorrow. In real life, did it? How old would he be now? Alive? The world I shared with him and others was only blocks away from skid row, waiting.
For me, finally, there is, unassailably, this to justify it all: within the artistic creation occurs the only means of stopping time. All characters can be brought back to life, simply by opening the first page of a book. Don Quixote begins his quest, the Governess moves undaunted into Bly, Molly pursues the evasive Yes of her ruminations, Marcel struggles for his mother's kiss, Tristram delays his birth, Odysseus is on his way back to Penelope, Emma prepares for the ball, Catherine's ghost searches along the moors.
In a favorite movie of mine, Moulin Rouge, the original one by John Huston, about Toulouse-Lautrec, as the artist lies dying, the ghosts of those he has drawn appear as they were when he first saw them — some dancing, others sashaying about, all vibrantly alive again. Zsa Zsa Gabor, of all people, playing Jane Averil beautifully, leans over the dying form of the artist who made her immortal and she gushes, "Toulouse, Toulouse, we heard you were dying and we just had to say goodbye."
What a beautiful farewell to a writer that would be.
John Rechy is an American novelist, essayist, and nonfiction writer. In his books he has written extensively about homosexual culture in Los Angeles and wider America, and is among the pioneers of modern LGBT literature. An earlier version of this piece was given as a talk at the University of Texas at El Paso, where John Rechy received the 2007 Distinguished Alumni Award by UTEP and the UTEP Alumni Association; it was later revised for a talk at the Los Angeles Institute of the Humanities and at a City of Night celebration recently at UCLA, and again for publication here.
John Francis Rechy is an American author. He is the recipient of PEN Center USA’s Lifetime Achievement Award and The Publishing Triangle’s William Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement. Among the pioneers of modern LGBT literature, Rechy is the author of over a dozen novels, nonfiction books, and plays, and has written essays for The Nation, Los Angeles Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, The Saturday Review, New York Times Book Review, San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dallas Morning News, London Magazine, Evergreen Review, New York Magazine, The Advocate, Mother Jones, Premiere, and many other national publications.
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