Writers see threads of stories in people and events that surround them, often on a minute-by- minute basis. More often than not, these threads are gossamer and dissolve in the heavy thud and din of subsequent events and circumstances. (For such reasons, some writers try to take notes as they move through their day).
The chances of dreaming up an unimagined person are slim. A story’s character must be made up of elements from one or two, if not a dozen, of one’s acquaintances, be they friends or foes. It is far easier to develop an arresting character out of the kernel of a real person who has crossed a writer’s path than to imagine someone from scratch.
This week’s news brought us a strong clue to the archetype of Quasimodo: Not some horribly deformed monster whom French author Victor Hugo (26 February 1802 – 22 May 1885) spied skulking about the streets of Paris at the darkest hours before dawn, terrorizing les boulangers for fresh baguettes or bagels, but rather a perfectly normal carver, by the name of Trajan, who was working at Notre Dame in the 1820s to restore the damage made by revolutionaries in the 1790s.
If the hump on his back made Trajan shy about mixing with the other carvers, what would have been odd about that? Reuters news service tells us there was a 19th century British sculptor named Henry Sibson who wrote an autobiography and mentioned therein that he knew a French carver whose nickname was “le bossu,” or hunchback.
According to Adrian Glew, a British archivist who works on the Tate collection’s archives in London, Trajan was the real-life inspiration for Quasimodo, the deformed bell ringer of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.
A single element applied to the “what if?” spectrum can swell to disturbing and memorable proportions. While Victor Hugo may be applauded for the imagination and skill he applied to that element, the applause no doubt stopped short at Trajan’s door. When writers take inspiration, those who inspire may not be glad of their contribution.