Using People for Fun and Profit

Marian Allen writes science fiction, fantasy, mystery, humor, horror, mainstream, and anything else she can wrestle into fixed form.

Allen has had stories in on-line and print publications, including multiple appearances in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress anthologies. Her latest books are the Sage fantasy trilogy, her science fiction comedy of bad manners Sideshow in the Center Ring, her YA/NA paranormal suspense A Dead Guy at the Summerhouse, her collection of science fiction stories Other Earth, Other Stars, and Shifty, her collection of fantasy stories set in the world of Sage, all from Per Bastet Publications.

Allen is a member of the Southern Indiana Writers Group. She blogs daily at Marian Allen, Author Lady

I’m sometimes asked if I actually know people like the people I write about. This is usually asked in a tone that begs me to deny it.

The answer, though, is, “Of course I do!”

I don’t know any one person who is exactly like any one character, but I do take bits and pieces from people I know or see and use those bits and pieces in my writing.

Aunt Libby, a character in a currently out-of-print novel, is based a great deal on my twin aunts. They were both small in stature but large in attitude. They were each on a first-name basis with Jesus and practiced what they preached. Neither one of them was afraid of anything or anybody, and would speak truth to power while shaking a finger in its face. When I decided to use those aspects of them in Aunt Libby, the plot, which had been rather flat, inflated with life.

I used an incident from the youth of one of those aunts in my short story, “The Dragon of North 24th Street,” which was published in Dragonthology, an aptly named anthology of … well  … stories about dragons. When she was a new bride, my aunt heard that a neighborhood prostitute was making a play for my uncle, so my aunt took a knife and blocked the woman from leaving her apartment until she promised to keep away from him. Since the woman needed access to the street in order to ply her trade, not to mention that the necessary facilities were in an outhouse, the promise wasn’t long in coming. It was the perfect story to set up the character of Pearl and foreshadow the manner of the climax’s resolution. It also tickled her descendants, my cousins.

To go farther afield, sometimes I cast some of my characters. I’m a character-actor junkie, and always have been. I especially like people who specialize in playing villains, if they can make those villains juicy and/or well-rounded. Sometimes I cast them as good guys. I get a kick out of writing big leading parts for people who are usually second- or third- (or further down the cast list) level players, and giving them the much harder job of making the good guy juicy and well-rounded.

Anthony Zerbe plays Dr. Andrew Walton in A Dead Guy at the Summerhouse. Jack Weston was the model for Jackie Eastman (Oh! How clever I am!!) in Sideshow in the Center Ring.

Sideshow in the Center Ring was inspired by a photograph I saw of Salvador Dali’s household in the 1970s. Each member was highly, not to say insistently, individual to the point of looking like they were competing for attention. So I imagined what it would be like to live in a social group in which it was your job to show off and to draw attention to your patron, and in which failure to grab enough of the spotlight meant ostracism. The challenge, then, was to create a character who was believable in that role, sympathetic to the reader, and capable of transcending the limitations that had recommended or necessitated such a demeaning life choice. I think Connie Phelan, my abrasive main character, fills that bill.

And, no, I don’t know anybody like her. Relax.

Sideshow in the Center Ring is available at Amazon in print and for Kindle , at Untreed Reads in multiple electronic formats , in electronic formats through your library (if your library lends eBooks), at many other fine electronic booksellers, or from your friendly neighborhood independent book store . Seek and ye shall find.

8 thoughts on “Using People for Fun and Profit

  1. Pingback: Rescue #amwriting @StoryADayMay - MARIAN ALLEN, AUTHOR LADY

  2. I enjoyed the post. I imagine writing characters likened to people you know make them more genuine. I enjoy character driven stories, and while I don’t have to like all of them, I do need to feel them.


  3. I thought this was a wonderful interview; Ms. Allen’s wit and method of writing characterizations helped to inspire me with my own feeble attempts. I believe it is difficult NOT to include things we know and feel comfortable around ( or uncomfortable) to create a believable plot.


    • Well, thank you so much, skyecaitlin! I think you’re absolutely right, that it’s difficult NOT to include your own experiences in some form. I think that’s what “Write what you know” really means.


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