Many thanks to everyone who made website suggestions. So helpful!
On April 9, 2010, Le wrote, I have an idea for a fiction novel, but the inspiration for the story is from my own life. Some of the characters I want to put in the story will be similar, but not exactly like people I know. Have you ever done this? Have you used people you know as inspiration, and if so, have they noticed they are similar to your characters? Were they happy about this, or offended?
I plan to change the characters quite a lot, so really it is a fictional character from my imagination with just some basic similarities, but those who know me really well might be able to guess who I got my inspiration from. This makes me a little nervous to tell the story.
Also if you use real events from your life as a springboard to write a piece of fiction, will a person think it is really autobiographical? I guess this might just be a possibility you have to accept if you write fiction. People will think what they will, but only the author knows the truth.
There is nothing wrong with writing from your own life and basing characters on people you know. Real people are a great way to get complicated, interesting characters almost instantly. Using them is a legitimate shortcut, and autobiographical fiction is no less an act of creation than making everything up is.
My friend Joan Abelove’s two young adult novels, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, are both autobiographical. Go and Come Back is about the time she spent as an anthropologist in the Peruvian jungle, and every amazing event is true, including what follows washing the turtle at the end. Saying It Out Loud is about Joan’s senior year in high school when her mother developed a malignant brain tumor. Joan changed a few things, made up the dialogue, but essentially she recreated two slices of her past on the page. Both books are for teenagers and older.
Years ago, I contributed a story to a collection about grandmothers. I wrote about this in less detail in my post on artistic freedom on March 24th of this year. (That post has bearing on this one, so you may want to go back to it.) The collection, called In My Grandmother’s House, is out of print, but if you’re interested, you may be able to request it from your library or buy it used online. Most of the pieces are reminiscences, and the contributors may be some of your favorite authors, like Beverly Cleary, Diane Stanley, and Jean Craighead George, and you may want to know about their forebears, who were almost all delightful, loving, cookie-baking grandmas. Joan also has a story in the book.
My contribution is fictional. I imagined an evening at the apartment of my grandmother and my two aunts. This is my mother’s family. I had only one grandmother since my father was orphaned when he was little. The evening could have happened. Grandma’s gambling loss really did, only I didn’t remember it. My sister remembered and told me. I disliked my grandmother and my aunts, who were all mean to my mother. Before I started writing I asked my editor if she wanted granny hatred in the book, and she said that would be terrific!
My aunts and grandmother were dead by then, also my parents, but my mother’s brother was still alive, and I didn’t want to hurt him, so I called him and told him about the project. He was horrified that I thought he might interfere with my creativity (he died last summer, a lovely man), and he told me a few more family stories that did not show Grandma in a favorable light.
I didn’t ask for permission from his children, who’d had a better relationship with our grandmother than I’d had. If they objected, they could write their own stories. I went ahead. Writing the tale was surprisingly moving, especially bringing my parents back to life. Details flooded in (with help from my sister on the olfactory side), and I recreated our family in the early 1960s.
No one has ever complained.
The grandma story is the only strictly autobiographical fiction I’ve written, but Dave in my historical novel Dave at Night is based on my father’s childhood, and the character of Solly in that book came from my friend Nedda, who was alive. I didn’t talk to her about it until long after, because Solly may be the most positive character in any of my books. I didn’t see how Nedda could be insulted, and she wasn’t.
This is not to say that I’ve never gotten into trouble. I named a main character in one of my books after a family member. My intention was to honor her, but she didn’t feel honored and didn’t tell me. I found out years later from someone else. I named the fairy Rani in the Disney Fairies series after my sister, who gave me permission, but then she wasn’t happy about some of the shenanigans her namesake got into.
If you are combining characteristics of real people – Marianne’s generosity with Barry’s habit of never covering his mouth when he yawns with Pam’s inability to apologize – you are on entirely safe ground. Or suppose you rename your friend Vince, call him Samuel and turn him into a character, keeping everything about him the same except for the physical description. Once you throw him into new situations, you are on safe ground. As soon as he acts in circumstances that you’ve invented, he becomes your creation, Samuel, no longer Vince. Vince wouldn’t do just what you have Samuel do; he certainly wouldn’t say exactly the words you give Samuel.
If you are afraid of hurting feelings, you can discuss what you’re planning with the people involved. You won’t know their reactions until they react. One person may be flattered, someone else insulted, and then you can decide what to do. But if you’re changing this and that and moving events around, you don’t need to tell. You can even deny. Without too much wickedness you can say, “You think you’re like that? Huh! How fascinating!”
It isn’t hard to disguise people. If you make Vince short when he’s tall, give him a talent for the accordion, and have him deathly allergic to peanuts, you are probably home free.
I once read descriptions of several personality types, and I found myself in each one. It is likely that if you write your characters precisely as you experience their real-life counterparts, the actual people won’t recognize themselves. The girl you know is beautiful may see herself as ugly, or she may not be aware of how smart she is. The person who truly is a miserable human being will very probably not see himself in the villain unless you give the villain his first and last name.
Life is an author’s source. Don’t hold back from dipping into the well.
Here are some prompts:
• Write a memory as if it were a story. Make up the missing bits. Take yourself back to the moment with sensory details: what you see, hear, smell, touch. Include the mood and your thoughts and feelings.
• Extend the memory beyond what you recall into a fictionalized future or even a few versions of the future.
• Think of a time when you were victimized, maybe teased or ganged up on. Replace yourself with someone you know. Write how that person would have handled the situation. Make it into a story. You can try this with more than one stand-in for you.
Addendum: Five minutes after posting this I got worried. If you are writing about a memory that involves a crime or something that would seriously damage a real person’s reputation, I think you do need to be careful, because you don’t want to be sued for libel. In that case, change the circumstances and the real characters enough to make the people unrecognizable.