Magpies, according to tradition, are thieving birds that have a particular fondness for anything that glitters. My grandmother would tell me it was a known fact a magpie could make off with a silver spoon or so, using it to decorate its nest. Hmm. Have you seen a magpie’s nest? Not the most elegant construction in the bird world – however impressively robust – and far too much of a dump to require any type of pimping.
Anyway, whether they deserve it or not, magpies are lumbered with the reputation of being robber birds. As far as I can make out from the two that live in my garden, they couldn’t care less what we might think of them, they go in with their full, satisfying lives (scaring off cats, bickering with the crows, finding new ways of upending the birdfeeder so that they can get at the seeds, etc. etc), now and then swooping by us to see what we’re eating.
Writers have a lot in common with those proverbial magpies. Constantly we observe the people around us, we keep our ear to the ground for details, stories, little windows into other people’s lives & souls, and quite often we use these snippets when writing our books. But where do you draw the line? Is it okay to use episodes from your own childhood when writing a book? I guess everyone would say “yes” to that one. How about episodes from your son’s childhood? You know, that endearing little scene when Tommy, aged two, fell flat on his face in the mud and … Once again, most of us would say “yes” – after all this is cute, even Tommy will find it cute. But what about a pimply Tommy drunk as a skunk at age sixteen (he’d helped himself from the liquor cabinet) or when Tommy arranged for an open house at age seventeen while you were away, an event that ended up with him being dragged off to court for serving alcohol to minors? Somewhat more unclear, no? Even worse, what if a friend tells you of a sexual encounter and you write that into your next steamy little sex scene? Won’t she/he feel very exposed and betrayed?
For a writer to create a believable character, that person has to be fleshed out with particulars and preferences, have virtues and vices – like all of us do. And where do we find these traits? Well, mostly from the people that surround us – it’s called stealing with pride. Yes, we exaggerate some things, tone down others, we pick and mix from various people. The reason why some books remain stuck in your brain forever is because that particular writer did a very good job of making their characters “real” people, not because of the action scenes. (Okay, so plot is very important as well. Madame Bovary without the adultery – however banal – would not be quite as gripping, Edmond Dantes without his hellish years on If and his determined quest for revenge would be quite forgettable.)
In conclusion, I think all good writers are like thieving magpies. They steal those objects that glitter the most in the real world that surrounds them and weave them into their make believe world, thereby making their characters spring to life. I guess the real challenge lies in doing that so elegantly no one will know from where the original inspiration came from, right? (Or maybe not, he he … I have this little piece of pilfered sensuality involving buttons, cardigans and … Nope. No way. My lips are sealed.)