Should writers draw characters and plots from real life?

Ivy Compton-Burnett

Dear Literary Ladies,
How much should real life supply a writer with characters and plots? Should we be looking for people to base our fictional characters on, and stories upon which to model our plots?

“I think that actual life supplies a writer with characters much less than is thought. Of course there must be a beginning to every conception, but so much change seems to take place in it at once, that almost anything comes to serve the purpose — a face of a stranger, a face in a portrait, almost a face in the fire.

And people in life hardly seem to be definite enough to appear in print. They are not good or bad enough or clever or stupid enough, or pitiful enough. They would have to be presented by means of detailed description, and would not come through in talk. I think that the reason why a person is often angered by a supposed portrait of himself, is that the author leaves in some recognizable attributes, while the conception has altered so much that the subject is justified in thinking there is no resemblance.

And I believe that we know much less of each other than we think, that it would be a great shock to find oneself suddenly behind another person’s eyes. The things we think we know about each other, we often imagine and read into. I think this is another reason why a supposed portrait gives offense. It is really far from the truth.

In cases where a supposed portrait of some living person has caused trouble, I have thought that the explanation lies in these things,  and that the author’s disclaimer of any intention of portraiture is in the main sincere and just.

A plot is like the bones of a person, not interesting like expression or signs of experience, at the support of the whole. As regards plots, I find real life no help at all. Real life seems to have no plots. And as I think a plot desirable and almost necessary, I have this grudge against life.”

  Ivy Compton-Burnett: A Conversation, Orion I

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