I spent this past weekend navigating a minor crisis with my dad’s side of the family. Though we spent this one as a (mostly) united front, we more often resemble a real-life sitcom. Many families do. And they provide excellent fodder for the writers in their ranks.
Every writer uses tidbits from real life to inspire characters and stories. But what if you want to use more than a tidbit? Whether the subject is a beloved parent or an abusive ex-spouse, sometimes we feel compelled to immortalize someone, or something, in our writing.
However, if you draw heavily from real life you need to make a few extra considerations to protect yourself and your writing. The wrong approach can create fractured relationships, legal challenges, or a story that fails to engage its readers. Ideally, you want to avoid all three of these scenarios.
Give it time.
If you have a lot of emotions or drama tied up in a situation, let the dust settle before you weave it into your writing. Give yourself time to develop a well-rounded perspective. If you try to write about it while you’re still too close, you may miss something important. Complex writing requires a level of objectivity we lose when we get too deep into the weeds.
If you feel a burning need to start writing despite this advice, do it for yourself at first. Don’t take it to your critique group or beta readers just yet. Write what you need to write, organize it so you’ll know where to find it later, and begin your book in earnest when you have the necessary distance.
Stay loyal to the story — not the facts.
When we write fiction inspired by real life, it still needs a serviceable plot. Your final product will have at least a few major diversions from the events or people that inspired it.
You may at some point find yourself responding to criticism with a defensive, “But that’s what really happened!” Consider this a huge red flag. You’re writing a piece of fiction, and that makes “what really happened” irrelevant. Your first responsibility is to write a good story. If you can’t let go of the non-fiction truth, you may still be too close to your source material.
On the other hand, you may always feel a greater loyalty to the story as it really happened. In this case you probably have a memoir on your hands, not a novel.
Distance and abstract.
While you may want to write a story about actual events and people, it’s best to abstract those subjects into something unique. And that means more than a few tweaks to physical appearance and backstory.
When you abstract, you free yourself to create the best story possible. Most people want to read a good book regardless of the subject matter. Your story should grow out of a kernel of real-life inspiration, not be constrained by it.
Second, hewing too closely to real life may expose you to ethical — if not legal — concerns. Sometimes we feel compelled to write about real-life characters or stories because we see them as weird, quirky, or offensive. These colorful folks might not feel the same way. If they recognize themselves in your work, you could find yourself on the receiving end of defamation or invasion of privacy allegations.
Writers usually prevail in such cases thanks to the First Amendment, but novelists without the backing of a traditional publisher have a weaker legal defense. You should also consider personal ethics regardless of the legal details. Put yourself in your subjects’ shoes. If someone wrote a character clearly based on you, would you feel attacked? Would you feel the author had violated your right to privacy? If the answer is yes, you need to abstract your character further.
It’s still (just) a story.
Be fair to your subjects, yourself, and your story when you write about real life. Constraining yourself too closely to true-to-life replicas of actual people and events will undermine your writing, even if it doesn’t get you into hot water with your source material. As will writing about something you haven’t fully processed emotionally. No matter where your inspiration comes from, you need enough distance and objectivity to see the story’s flaws and accept critique on it.