The Most Absurd Things in Life are Real
Guest Post by Brian Wilkinson, author of The Golden Slate (2018)
The most absurd things in life are real. All of my characters, to some degree or another, are based on real people. There isn’t a single character that I can point to and say, “this is clearly so-and-so,” but my friends and family would recognize character traits and quirks from themselves.
As a teacher, I see hundreds of students each day and have come to know thousands over the decade I’ve been doing this job. They are a weird, wild, and interesting bunch. Half of the things that happen here sound like fiction anyway, so why not adjust it and put it into book form?
All of the names of the characters in the story are taken from real life as well. Many are amalgamations of my real friends and others are direct tributes.
In The Golden Slate, the character of Lucas is particularly important. In that book, Lucas is quiet but gets into all kinds of trouble. He is misunderstood, and runs with that rather than challenges it. In real life, Lucas was a boy that I knew from a day camp I worked at in Guelph. I was a counselor and he was one of the many kids in my charge. How do I put this? Lucas was a jerk.
Every day, that kid caused new problems. He stuffed a kid in a locker using a random combination lock that had been left around and that was that. We had to get bolt cutters to get the kid out. Lucas wasn’t trying to be mean, he was just all action. If it felt good, Lucas did it. That held true when he lit a garbage can on fire after finding a book of matches on the ground. He got so bad that the camp held a meeting to talk about throwing this 11-year-old out, even though he had a personal support worker with him who tried to curb most of his bad behaviour.
I stopped them. I don’t know why, but I was sure I could handle this kid. And to a degree, I did. I got him involved in the planning of the day, would let him run activities or participate in them, and gave him small rewards if he was good. Little things, really. Insignificant.
At the end of the summer, Lucas climbed on top of some storage cabinets and kicked a whole bunch of balls off. Again, not being bad on purpose, but not good. He was tossed with only a day left to go. I had a bunch of things I was planning to give him that last day already with me, so even though he hadn’t been good I wanted him to have them. He gave me a hug and told me that he loved me.
I didn’t know what to say. “I love you, too,” I told him. His worker was shocked and told me later he hadn’t said that to anyone in years. Not even her.
Here’s what you don’t know about Lucas… yes, he was a jerk. He also was on his fourth or fifth foster family. He had been bounced around for years. His first family was so abusive that when he was four he got into the family van, doused it with gasoline, and lit a match. He got out okay!
This was a kid with so much pain that it made all the bad things make more sense. At the end of the day, he wanted to be loved and not to be ignored. He was someone you could dismiss based on the surface, and then miss out on someone amazing you could find if you just dug a little. I’ve met dozens of students over the years just like him. They all shine once you polish them.
And I make sure that I do that, because I can’t help Lucas any more. Months after I last saw him, he had an argument with his foster family. They were good people, but Lucas was pure raw emotion. Late that night, there was a light on in Lucas’ room and they went in to talk to him. That’s when they found him.
It hurts to talk about this. It hurts to remember it. But I tell my students, each class, about this every year. One year it came up when a student asked me, annoyed, “Why do you care so much?” My answer is Lucas. My answer is because no matter where they go or what they do, at one point there was someone who cared. Who believed in them.
The Lucas in my novel is different. They share similar stories, yes, and similar pain, but the fictional differs in other ways. The character is older, has a different background, different motivations. In some ways he’s what I imagine the real Lucas might be like.
Other characters follow a similar trend. Owen in The Golden Slate is named for my son. Nora in Paramnesia is named for my daughter. Each book features a character with the last name of “Culshaw,” which is a family name, and indeed the characters are all related in one way or another. There is no deeper meaning (not yet, anyway) but it pleases me anyway to know that I’m doing it on purpose!
Do you draw from real life when creating your characters?