About two years ago when I started writing the first draft of what became my third book, the novel Paris, He Said, I knew that it would focus on a young woman named Jayne Marks who had talent as a painter but didn't yet have the confidence and discipline required to pursue a career in the arts. Artists interest me as characters in part because for five years after graduate school, I worked at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the student affairs office. During those years, I met many painters, sculptors, digital artists, architects, and filmmakers. For two of those years, and for several afterward, I lived with a visual artist and observed his creative process closely; I also listened to how he spoke about art-making, which, like any profession, has its own lexicon. Hearing him describe for the first time his paintings as more abstract than narrative was a moment I still remember well. As a fiction writer, I realized then, I tried for the opposite effect. (Perhaps this was why the relationship eventually ended? No, probably not.)
It was about a year ago, when I was well into a complete rewrite of an early draft of Paris, He Said—my editor having gone through the manuscript word by word and asked so many good questions that I knew I couldn't hope to improve the novel without rewriting about ninety to ninety-five percent of it—I happened to cross paths with a painting instructor, Susan Kraut, I'd known from the Art Institute at a mutual friend's book release party. Susan told me that she was still teaching at the school and painting in her studio in her Evanston home on weekends and weekdays when she wasn't on campus. Before long, I heard myself asking if I could include her in my novel as herself, and would she mind showing me her studio sometime and letting me assail her with questions about her process?
She was extremely gracious and said yes. She had read my two previous books and was willing to believe that I would do my best to write about her without making her seem cartoonish. I had been floundering for weeks in the tepid waters of the new draft, and Susan's appearance at our friend Peggy Shinner's book launch party on that brisk, windy penultimate day of March felt like serendipity.
Within two weeks, I was visiting Susan's studio, which is on the top floor of her stately wooden house in central Evanston. She is very modest about her work, despite its moody brilliance, and it wasn't hard to introduce her into the narrative of Paris, He Said because I knew that Jayne needed a mentor, but I wasn't yet sure who it would be. Susan was perfect for that role, and because she is so kind and self-effacing, I was almost certain that I would be able to cast her as a sympathetic character without much difficulty.
The biggest challenge was writing truthfully but not sycophantically about her paintings and her key support of my character Jayne (Susan was the only wholehearted, early supporter of Jayne's work). In the novel, the two women meet at a summer studio class that Jayne begged her parents to help her pay for during the break between her junior and senior years at a college in Washington, D.C. I had to verify that the School of the Art Institute did offer such a class, and it was a lucky break that Susan had taught one of these summer courses many years ago.
Fact-checking was the easy part. What I spent more time thinking and worrying about was how I could make Susan the fictional character compelling in ways that kept the narrative moving forward. I also needed to ensure that her chemistry with the other characters seemed organic, or, maybe more aptly, non-toxic. I used her paintings as the point of entry—I described them from Jayne's point of view (which in this case was also my own) and hoped to establish Susan as someone deserving of readers' admiration too.
After this, when it was time to show Susan and Jayne together in scene, I thought about our own conversations and email exchanges of the past several months and tried to imbue them with the gentle supportiveness that seems to come naturally to Susan as a teacher and a friend.
One detail that I ended up pulling out before the book went into galleys was what Susan (the character) tells Jayne before Susan joins her in Paris to take part in a group show: that her husband suspects her of using speed instead of coffee to give herself extra energy. I worried that people might think Susan the real person really did use speed. She's a college professor, a mother of three, etc. If she had been made up wholesale for the book, however, I probably would have kept that one detail.
This was the first and only time I have ever included a friend as a character in one of my stories or novels. It was a pleasure because I only had nice things to say, but if you can't portray someone you know personally in a positive fashion, you will probably lose this friend and/or be sued for libel. There's also the chance that what you might really want to write is narrative nonfiction instead of fiction.
The main criterion for including a real person in a story should be whether there is a true dramatic need for her or him. I didn't have to shoe-horn Susan Kraut into Paris, He Said because Jayne did need a teacher-mentor; Susan's presence provides context for Jayne's early and continuing development as an artist. It's a happy potential corollary to the story that Susan Kraut the artist and living person might also find new admirers.