Monday, January 3, 2011

Who's in that Story?

Tukerization is an informal writing term derived from the name of science fiction and mystery writer Wilson Tucker. Tucker had a reputation for using friends, family, and colleagues as minor characters in his stories. The more formally recognized roman à clef is the depiction of a real person as a fictional character.

To a certain extent, all writers do both. Usually characters are built from bits and pieces borrowed from real people. A practice of mixing Uncle Jeff's fondness for bad puns and the grocery store cashier's extensive collection of mismatched earrings with your father-in-law's ridiculous political views to create a minor character who drives your protagonist crazy on a long bus ride causing the bad mood that leads to the argument that triggers a divorce/fistfight/murder/runaway. But sometimes the guy you need to shuffle onstage and make the offhand remark that enables your protagonist to solve the mystery lives next door, literally. A quick sentence about sly eyes and a stutter that rings true can seamlessly save a character who's really a prop from looking like a cardboard cutout.

To be Tuckerized is considered an honor among science fiction fans. Top selling authors have helped charities by auctioning the right to appear in a novel. But more often the inclusion is an in-joke. At one point in Keith DeCandido's novelization of "Resident Evil," the characters find themselves on "Killiany Way" – described as a winding road that leads nowhere. I've used the names of my children, members of my church, even a couple of my fellow novelnauts to round out my cast over the years. Dayton Ward likes to kill people he doesn't like in his stories. I now of one writer who gave the name of his wife's divorce attorney to a disfigured pedophile.

Done correctly, neither a Tuckerization nor a roman à clef will distract a reader from the story. In many cases a roman à clef will not be apparent to the reader until they're reflecting on the story after the fact. Tuckerizations usually escape notice altogether unless the reader knows the people involved. But done badly – and both are done badly far too often – either can throw the reader right out of the story. It can break the trust between reader and writer and cost you your reader's willing suspension of disbelief.

How about you? As a reader have you ever wondered whether the characters in a novel were based on real people? Or have you ever had a writer's roman à clef or Tuckerizations distract you from a story? Or enhance a story?
And as a writer have you ever "borrowed" someone you know – if only just their name – to add verisimilitude to your work?

5 comments:

Jewel Amethyst said...

I admit, though not a sci-fi writer, I've done many Tuckerizations.

So that "Killiany Way" to nowhere, exactly what is DeCandido trying to say? (lol)

Liane Spicer said...

Re "Killiany's Way": DeCandido doesn't like you very much, does he! :D

I can't recall being distracted by a roman à clef. It actually makes the story more intriguing. And I've borrowed lots from people I know: names, physical attributes, mannerisms, experiences. The whole shebang.

You've used Novelnauts in your stories? You've used...!!!

Charles Gramlich said...

I lost out on an auction to die in a Star trek novel. I've killed off quite a few friends however.

Captain Black said...

I'm not sure where you draw the line between people who've secretly been Tuckerised as characters and those where the intention has been to overtly Tuckerise them. I suppose mine are somewhere in the middle: traits more obvious than the deliberately changed names. Whatever the case, I've definitely done quite a few. Particularly violent deaths in my crime fiction.

Dayton Ward said...

I use the names of friends and/or fellow writers all the time in my stories...some times just to see if anyone's paying attention.

Friends or fans on message boards are always asking to have a character named for them, particularly in the Star Trek stories. My little "rule" on it is: If you ask, I'm probably going to find a way to kill your namesake before the story's over. :D