Real-life characters – Elizabeth LaBan

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By Elizabeth LaBan

I have a favorite check-out person at the grocery store I go to almost daily. I would rather wait in line to have him check me out than go to someone else whose line is empty. Sometimes I pretend I’m looking at something so I won’t be called by another person. He is kind and comforting, and chatting with him while I wait to pay is a stress-free moment in a usually busy day. ♥

When I was writing Not Perfect, I knew the main character Tabitha Brewer would run into him at some point. Well, not really him of course, but a version of him. She lives barely a block away from the store, and she is certainly in need of some comforting. See, she used to be rich. She used to shop at this same store multiple times a week. But since her husband disappeared, and her funds have dried up, she has not been to the store at all. On one particular night, though, when she is able to score a free fresh baguette, she craves a tomato more than ever. That’s when she runs into my favorite check-out person, uh, her favorite check-out person.

Anyone who knows an author has a chance of ending up in one of his or her novels, for better or worse. From main characters to smaller ones, most fictional people start somewhere, and in the real world is the most likely place to find them. I have recognized myself in a few books over the years, and it is always a bit of a shock, like I’ve been exposed in some way. The first time was in Jennifer Weiner’s Good in Bed. There is a character who is married to the local restaurant critic, with whom Cannie Shapiro, the main character, is friends. The critic’s wife Ellen shows up a few times during the book. She is kind and there is really nothing embarrassing or disturbing about her, but Jen, who happens to be my good friend, did hook into the fact that I am married to a restaurant critic but have somewhat unadventurous food preferences. Jen took it to another level, as we authors tend to do.

“In one of life’s supreme ironies,” Good in Bed reads, “Andy’s wife, Ellen, was possessed of the least adventurous palate of all time. She eschewed sauces, spices, most ethnic cuisines, and was constantly frowning over menus, desperately scanning them for things like plain baked chicken breasts and mashed potatoes that weren’t truffled, garlicked, or otherwise gussied up.”

I went on to write a whole novel about the subject, The Restaurant Critic’s Wife, and if I have said once that my husband is nicer than Sam, the critic in my book, I’ve said it a thousand times. And I mean it every time. But here is that important thing about fiction, it has to be interesting. So if I wrote a story about my nice, generally reasonable husband, it would be a very boring book. I had to make that character a little crazy, a little (a lot?) difficult, and I had to make his fictional wife Lila push back way more than I want or need to push back.

A few weeks ago, I took a copy of Not Perfect to my favorite check-out person. I marked the page where the big scene with the character inspired by him appears so he could find it easily. I explained that I changed his name, and that what he was going to read didn’t actually happen (he would have realized that soon enough), but even so, he was the person I had in mind when I wrote the scene.

“I don’t know why you tell people you based a character on them,” My daughter said when I told her I dropped a book off at the store. “It rarely goes well.”

She is right about that. I have told other people I based characters on them, or named characters for them, and it did shift our relationship slightly. But sometimes for the better. What if he likes it? What if it makes his day? I think it’s always worth taking the risk, and, to be honest, I am usually excited to tell people.

Still, I was worried when I went in later that week to buy eggs and lemons. I approached his line, my hands were even shaking a little as I lifted the fruit onto the belt. I looked up and he was smiling. He told me to check his Instagram when I got home. There, on his account, was a picture of the book, proudly displayed, and a note below saying it is his favorite book of the year. I was so pleased, and, of course, relieved that I don’t have to find a new favorite check-out person.

By the way, I got my hair cut yesterday. My stylist said something really interesting and it made me think, she could make a fascinating character. Excuse me now, while I jot down a few ideas.

Elizabeth LaBan lives in Philadelphia with her restaurant critic husband and two children. She is the author of The Restaurant Critic’s Wife which was published by Lake Union, the young adult novel The Tragedy Paper, published by Knopf, The Grandparents Handbook, published by Quirk Books, and Pretty Little World, which she co-authored with Melissa DePino. Her latest solo novel called Not Perfect is out now.

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