The Life of Your Neighbor, or The Basis for Your Next Character

By: Aryanne Ferguson

Last week I heard a news story on the radio about a Russian website that broadcasts live webcam feeds. The website claims it’s not illegal because they only post the feeds from people who didn’t change the default passwords when they set up the webcam. Check out a news article here. My first thought was “wow, some Russian writer is getting some great story ideas.” I apologize for my insensitivity – please change the default password to your webcam! Then I heard more of the news story: the webcam feeds are posted with GPS coordinates. Creepy. Please change the default password to your webcam!

Concerning writing, this story got me thinking about the difference between being inspired by the life of your neighbor versus writing your neighbor into a piece. Let’s face it—as a species, humans are nosy. People have gossiped for thousands of years. We’ve built million dollar industries around viewing the lives of others. One such industry is called TV. Another is called cinema. Another is publishing. I’m sure you can name more. So yes, we want to know what’s going on in other people’s lives. We want to know their inner thoughts, desires, and weaknesses. When we don’t know, we speculate. Is that what my novel is—my speculations concerning the actions of a character who I cobbled together from pieces of people I met (however subconsciously I did the cobbling)?

And yet, I can never truly know my neighbor. In my writing, I can only include my perceived image of that person, one which I created by witnessing their outward behavior and hearing what they chose to say. And what they choose to say is probably only a quarter of what they think. Their feelings, I can never truly know, only speculate from facial expression, body language, etc.  So when authors include the blurb in the front of the book saying no characters were based off of real people and blah blah blah, is that statement true by default?

Do we writers all have our figurative webcams, and is that good, bad, or necessary?