How To Write About People You Know
Let’s face it-life can sometimes make great material. A hilarious family anecdote, that one entertaining aunt, or the crazy road trip you had to take with your grandfather-many of us have been left thinking that something that happened would make a great story, or that someone we know could be a great character.
So you write your book, brilliantly describing your entertaining aunt, and the feedback is great-except for one person, who now will not speak to you. You guessed it-that one person is your entertaining aunt.
She’s hurt, embarrassed, offended. Everyone who has read your book now knows intimate details of her life-and worse, has found them entertaining. Now you have to repair your relationship with this person, but there’s no going back-you can’t un-publish your book.
So how can you, reader, learn from this situation? How can you write about people you know without oversharing or offending them ?
- Ask. Nothing could be more simple than saying “hey, I think you’re really interesting and I’d love to use some of your qualities in a character I’m writing.” It’s respectful, it’s flattering-and best of all, it doesn’t blindside her when she reads your book and realizes that you’ve been laughing at her.
- Have her in the loop-and in on the joke. Have her read rough drafts and passages that you’re working on. Consult her about aspects of her character. Tell her you want to exaggerate some features, or that you think it would be funny to place her in such-and-such scenario. Have her sign off on these choices. Remember, you are potentially giving a large platform to your interpretation of a real person-so be aware that how you view that person may not be who they truly are. Is your interpretation of them more worthy of a platform than what you may have missed about her? Make sure you’re getting it right-and if you just want a character based on your interpretation, then let her know that and write accordingly-which takes us to number 3:
- Change some things. If the person inspiring your character isn’t comfortable being a whole character in your book or if you only want a character based on your view of that person, ask her if you could simply borrow some of your favorite mannerisms or backstories-and then change the rest. That way, the character won’t be based on her as much as partially inspired by her. This way, she probably won’t feel as “exposed” or misinterpreted.
- Respect. Do not try to delve into painful, traumatic, or deeply personal aspects of her life. Know what to ask for, and what to leave alone. You’re not entitled to make material out of people’s tragedies, so don’t treat people like their trauma or personal stories *have* to be in your book. They don’t. They’re not your stories, so anything they give you is a gift. If the person wants their story told, then go ahead. But know how to approach it, and when to leave it alone.
As a writer, remember that what inspires you isn’t always yours to share-and that it’s better to build bridges than to burn them.
Originally published at https://michaelwolkindqc.net on September 13, 2021.