Last night I found myself sucked down the Netflix rabbit hole (what to stream, what to stream) when I stumbled across a documentary about zombie movies.
Hey, I like zombie movies. I liked Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Why not?
It was a fun little diversion, and one of the interviewees said something we’ve heard before: that any artist—director, writer, illustrator, etc—pulls from their real life when creating their art. It’s practically unavoidable.
Well, of course, I thought. We filter everything through our own very personal Viewmasters. But it made me a little nervous about my work in progress, which explores the meaning of family. For the sake of authenticity (and because my family includes some of the most quirky, brilliant, hilarious people I know), I drew somewhat from my own family experiences. My husband is one of my early readers because I respect his opinion and he often has great suggestions. Two weeks ago, while reading a chapter about my protagonist’s marriage, he said to me, “This is kind of hard to read!”
I should point out that this novel is NOT about my marriage or my husband, but in my effort to humanize my characters and capture some of the complexities of being married, maybe I’d cut a little too deeply, drawn a little too heavily from real life.
In one of my favorite books on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says that if you’re going to write about someone you know—say, an ex-boyfriend—just give him a small penis, because then “he’ll never come forward.”
I love that line, and she goes on to make some great points about writing about people you know. You don’t want to libel anyone, and you know in your heart what will cause your loved ones to carve you from the tribe should you publicly share it—but sometimes a snippet of dialogue or an anecdote is just so perfect you are dying to use it. And this is where common sense and good judgment come in.
We all have demons to purge, and if we’re writing about something that hits close to home, it’s hard not to try and exorcise them in chapter fifteen. Sometimes it happens without your even realizing it.
So how do you handle it when you discover halfway through your manuscript that your villain looks and sounds an awful lot like your Aunt Vera, an Oxycontin-addicted kleptomaniac? How much do you base your characters on real people?
(Mom, if you're reading this, I did NOT kill you off. The mother of my main character is NOT you. Love you!)
Jess Riley is the author of Driving Sideways, the characters of which are not at all based on anyone she knows in real life. Honest.