Stealing people isn't wrong. Well, not if you’re a writer, and you do it with proper care. It’s a completely painless and invisible process, and the rule is that you never ever steal an entire person. Just take just a pinch of this one, just a smidgen of that one, a moment so small the person won’t even know what’s been taken. No photographs, no video, no evidence. It’s a glimpse, a possibility, caught in the mind’s eye.
You don’t even need to know the person. In fact, as I tell young writers, it is far better not to know them, to keep that possible character floating in the current of the imagination. By the time you’ve grown that brief glimpse into a fully rounded character, you’ll probably know them well enough for your own purposes.
An example. I have definitely purloined the sighting of an unknown teenager who, one wintry evening, vaulted over the central crash barrier in traffic near Heathrow. All I saw was the expression in his hard young eyes and the pale grey face, while he darted among the headlights of the jammed vehicles like a contemporary Billy Caspar, and vanished. I’ve stolen that visual image all right. However, I now have the writer’s work of building the rest of his tale around that moment, and giving him a new setting, I expect, and lots of other things besides. Maybe my fictional leaper wants to become a girl instead?
It’s interesting. One can even steal celebrities and harvest the famous, very quietly. Again, not an entire person, not even a part. You take much less than that, way less. Maybe the colour of someone’s hair, their size or stance, the way they show grief, their look of joy, one slight but significant second. I am particularly fond of a certain actor’s gesture I still have in my possession – the rigid elbow and clenched fist of absolute and powerless anger. It’s there in my head, waiting for a fictional character to claim that emotion for its own, though over time, my memory may have played its own tricks on my pictures.
Of course, as a writer, I then do some renovation or adjusting to size, as I always do. I will cut and change and trim. Brighten the hues. Lower the lights. Alter the age, and the time. Make a new and living picture there in my head from my stolen treasure, a person so new that I’m sure nobody would know they were stolen. Not even, I’d hope, if my original inspiration met themself coming back through the fiction.