How to use friends and family in your fiction without pissing them off

One of the most frequently asked questions students ask in my fiction writing classes is, “How do I write about my life–my friends and family–without pissing them off?” Let’s be honest, the usual fiction disclaimer, All characters are a figment of the author’s imagination, any resemblance to real people living or dead is blah blah blah, just doesn’t cut it.

Everything is food for our fiction, including people we know. The good news is, much of real life is fairly boring; fiction spices it up. So here are 6 things you must do if you want to use people around you for, ahem, inspiration:

1. Ditch the guilt. You have to be willing to take risks on the page. Guilt will hold you back and stop you from digging into the deep stuff where the real stories are. Let it go.

2. Change names and details. The sooner you change Aunt Mabel the crazy quilter into Joey the crazy biscuit maker, you free yourself–and your character–to be who he/she really is. If you’re writing about a friend who picks their teeth with a toothpick when nervous, think of another odd habit that “your character” has. That’s our job, to make shit up, so be creative.

3. Change your mind. Stop thinking of the friend or family member and start thinking of the character with a life, feelings, hang-ups, shortcomings and bad habits of his or her own. When you are fully immersed in your characters, they will become more real to you than the people who sparked your idea for them in the first place.

4. Air out the story. Choose a few select folks to read a draft as soon as possible–preferably not the people you are writing about. If you can read it aloud in front of an audience, even better.You’ll know you have some rewriting to do and where.

5. Don’t remove; rewrite. Writers reflect what they see, but that doesn’t mean we have to expose the people we care about to humiliation or shame. Only you can decide if a line has been crossed. Before you delete, rewrite. That’s what revision is for–shaping raw emotions like humiliation and shame into good fiction.

6. Check your motives. Are you writing for yourself or for your audience? Are you writing to hurt someone else or to work through your own hurt? Words are powerful. Use them wisely.

Now, quit worrying and start writing!

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6 thoughts on “How to use friends and family in your fiction without pissing them off

  1. I love writing fiction. It all stems from my RPG days. I corrupted a few of my high school friends with the concept of gaming because I was (as they put it) a great story teller. Many of the games and characters I scripted were based on real life people and events – exaggerated of course. I have a lot of creative freedom though because the game I ran was set in a Lord of the Rings type theme so the possibilities were endless.

    Great post. I’m glad I’m staying true to the checklist (having never actually had one to look at before). 🙂

      1. I love it. The best fictional characters always have a strong base in reality. It’s a matter of picking and choosing characteristics from different sources.

        My name’s Ian btw. Good to finally meet you (officially). 😉

      2. Hi Ian, great to “officially” meet you too! Your blog’s name cracks me up, I love it. I think it’s hard for beginning writers to know what to pick and choose or what’s acceptable. My kids are writing a lot in elementary school now, and the things they can write about are pretty structured, I know why that is, but I think that’s where the fear begins. After so many years of that, it’s hard to push past it. But it’s so necessary–and the stories are so much deeper–when you do.

  2. Great ideas, Christy. I think not wanting to piss people off is a big reason a lot of folks don’t write their memoirs. I recently had to coach a client through this very process. You want the characters to be real, textured, lovable (or “hate-able”), but they can’t be those things if you sugarcoat the rough spots.

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