Writing is brave work, especially when it comes to the tricky badlands of your personal business.
When a real-life person inspires a fictional character, we sensitive writers are often afraid that the subject of our inspiration will recognize him/herself. We want to draw inspiration from our experiences, to write what we know, and yet, we don’t want to hurt feelings or offend. Consider what Anne Lamott has to say on the subject:
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
I love this. It inspires me to be honest, especially because there are other people who have gone through the things I’ve gone through and need to find themselves in a story. They need to know they’re not alone. We all need to know that. But as much as I love Anne’s quote, I love Emily Dickinson’s even more:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
I’m a slanter, and not just because I don’t like to make people mad at me. I’m a slanter because I write fiction. And fiction, as art, gives you a different way to look at reality. You wouldn’t tell an impressionist to just take a photo and get it it over with. So, as fiction writers, we definitely own our stories, but we own something else: the right to make them into something new!
As a highly reflective person who is very interested in psychology, philosophy, and sociology, my stories always stem from either a character or a personal dilemma, struggle, question, or relationship. While at first this seems like it would allow me to have a more intimate relationship with all of my characters, I find that it sometimes actually gets in the way. I can focus too much on the person who inspired the character or my own thoughts/feelings instead of letting my character take on a life of his or her own. While in some ways, the character most like the writer can really take off and pop, sometimes this character is hardest to separate from ourselves, and so the hardest to distinguish.
If you’re creating a character who doesn’t get to live a life of their own, the result is something like a two-headed monster: the real-life person and the story character are vying for control, and it turns into a tug-of-war that keeps the life of the character stationary. Things get weird. And it keeps the story from taking off, too.
For example, a certain character of mine was drawn directly from a former boyfriend. A line from an argument we had years ago was stuck in my head–and I had it in my head that my fictional character had to say this line about 3/4 of the way through the novel. However, by the time I got to that point in the plot, it wasn’t working. I realized with surprise that the character I had created wouldn’t actually say those words. I had to let them go. But what about the inspiration? What about the essence of that argument? The essence of what came between us – the way it was shocking and inevitable and heartbreaking and ultimately the best thing?
I had to boil this interaction down to the core emotion. Emotions are universal. Emotion is what allows us to connect to fictional characters (and other real, live human beings) that are wildly different from ourselves. Emotion is our shared story, and it weaves its way into all of our stories in a billion different ways. And so, I had to tap into how that particular interaction made me feel in a more universal sense, and translate that feeling into my characters’ dialogue. And you know what? It worked.
I found a sense of peace in the creation of this character and his ending. It wasn’t the same as the real-life ending, and I liked it that way. I liked it better. I felt better about the story and the past, even though I knew it didn’t change my real life–or did it?
Fiction is real magic. Fiction is for healing. It’s for sharing. For processing. For questioning and recycling and reincarnating and resurrecting. It’s a way to step back from the harsh lights and sounds of real life and make sense of it, or just admit that it doesn’t always make sense. It’s a place where you can change endings. It’s a place where you can change yourself.
Giving your characters a life of their own can be hard. You have to free them from your control and expectations. You have to free yourself from your own preconceived notions about yourself and your story. You have to let your whole story take on a life of its own–a life that stems from your own life, but becomes something more. Something that can heal. Something you can share. Something that can change something…or someone.
Now that’s a pretty good reason to write your story!