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The Problem with Writing About People You Know, and 3 Ways to Solve It

This guest post is by Shanan Haislip. Shanan is a full-time business writer. She is also the webmaster at The Procrastiwriter, a blog about ways to fit writing in around a full-time life (without going insane). Follow her on Twitter at @Write_Tomorrow.

You’re a writer, and you’re also a person who has some family, friends and acquaintances, which means you’ll almost certainly have to reconcile a basic conflict eventually: Writing about the people you know without ticking them off.

mockingbirds fighting at a bird bath

Photo by Chiltepinster, via commons.wikimedia.org

The sticky awkwardness of writing about real people isn’t a problem reserved for nonfiction writers. It happens to fiction writers, too. When The Great Santini was published in 1976, American novelist Pat Conroy described his family’s reaction to the fictional work this way:

When The Great Santini came out, the book roared through my family like a nuclear device. My father hated it; my grandparents hated it; my aunts and uncles hated it; my cousins who adore my father thought I was a psychopath for writing it; and rumor has it that my mother gave it to the judge in her divorce case and said, “It’s all there. Everything you need to know.”

Writing about people you know can get uncomfortable quickly. A fiction writer might say, I hope my boss doesn’t realize I made him the ruler of the underworld in this story, or I might be looking for a new job soon. Or When this is published, a nonfiction writer might worry, some of these people might never talk to me again. 

Just changing names or a few details here and there isn’t enough to successfully address these issues. (Even writing only positive things doesn’t always work!) Here are five less-conventional ways to get what you want on the page without getting disowned by your family, dumped by your friends, and most importantly, losing the essence of what you’re trying to say.

1. Make ‘em zombies (that is, make them concepts).

I recently received this rather flippant, “Make ‘em zombies” piece of advice, and I thought it was ridiculous.

Then, I read part of a novel where the writer compares his main character’s hometown, a beautiful city on a river, to a woman. Not just to a woman’s curves or a woman’s beauty, but to a fully realized, anthropomorphized being. Through his characterization, that city by the river began to live and breathe. It had moods, it mattered, and it played a pivotal role in the plot.

That’s when I realized what “Make ‘em zombies” meant—take the essential realness of your real-life mom, spouse, boss, little sister, whomever, and roll their touchstone qualities into something else (not someone else) in your story. It could be a city, a structure, a storm or anything that’s affecting and real to your characters. Even zombies, because why not.

2. Spread the character around.

The unique qualities of certain characters can be critical to your story’s movement. Maybe your tale centers around a young boy’s quest for manhood, and putting  your own father’s powerful personality into your boy character’s life would be the perfect plot device. But you need the unsavory aspects of your father’s personality too, like how his roaming eye for the ladies led to your parents’ divorce, to drive your young boy character’s inner conflict. What do you do?

Try distributing pieces of your dad’s personality among a few characters. Give your boy an older brother and an uncle, and give both a trait from your father that’s important to the story. The older brother has the domineering personality, the uncle has an eye for the ladies, and you’ve stayed true to the traits that motivate your character without putting a real person’s past under a spotlight.

3. Change the timeline.

Shifting your real-person characters around in time, or changing their age, helps make otherwise faithfully rendered people appear unfamiliar. If your story needs a shy, retiring woman with a mysterious past, and you’ve found such a woman—a mom in your toddler’s playgroup—why not place her somewhere else in time? Give some of her traits to a childhood friend, a grandmother, or an school playmate.

But Before You Do Any of This, Nail the Essence of Your Story

I have a quote from novelist Anne Lamott tacked to the wall next to my writing desk. In part, it says:

Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.

The debate between truth and honesty is a lively one among writers, but in the end, both depend less on the faithful rendering of any one of your characters, and more on the note the story strikes with you and your readers. Once you decide how you want your readers to feel, you can better see how your characters should serve their purpose. And you’ll know exactly how to stay true to your story and honest about what’s essential in your characters, without revealing more than you’re comfortable with.

And try to find one willing soul.

Some people are surprisingly okay with being written into a story, even when they’re a fully fleshed-out character, warts and all. Try to seek out these people when you can, and approach the topic of writing about them carefully.

Here’s my experience: If I have any trepidation at all about asking a subject if they’d mind appearing in one of my writing pieces, they’re probably not the right ones to ask. So I apply the techniques above.

Have you ever written about a real person in your life? How did they react?

PRACTICE

Think about some of the compelling people you’ve met in your life. Have you ever used them in your work?

Take fifteen minutes to write about someone you know using one of the techniques described in this post, or a new technique of your own invention (surprise us!). What do you think of the result?

And as always, if you practice, be sure to comment on others’ practice pieces with your thoughts and feedback!

About Shanan Haislip

Shanan is a full-time business writer and webmaster at The Procrastiwriter, a blog about being a writer around a full-time life (without going insane). She lives and works in Connecticut, runs for fun and is a huge fan of pie.

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  • Brianna Worlds

    I craned my neck around to give Leora a more careful one over from my own bed in the Healing Unit. “And why are you here?” I asked her.

    Leora grinned contentedly. “Oh, it’s a long story. Short version, I was in combat class and I told Jayron his cornea and earlobe were having relationship problems, and he got really mad.” She frowned and I stared at her incredulously. “He whacked me too hard with his practice staff and kind of fractured my femur.”

    “Um, right,” I mumbled ineloquently. gaze still fixed disbelievingly on her grinning face. “I’m sure that happens a lot around here.”

    ~~~

    Leora is a mixture of two of my little sisters; the one who talks incessantly, and the one who comes up with all sorts of strange things that no one else would ever think of…

    • http://www.theprocrastiwriter.com/ Shan

      I like this seamless character mixture, but I can’t decide whether I’m more drawn to the deft way you rendered dialogue (only one dialogue tag) or your characterization. Both were enjoyable to read :)

      • Brianna Worlds

        Well, thank you :)

  • Jay Warner

    Fred stood proudly beside his Cessna as the photographer snapped a picture, a rotund man in a soft gray overcoat chomping a cigar and looking directly at the camera. He had just arrived from an aerial survey of his oil fields and was quite pleased with himself. A few more derricks, a few more acres, and he would have conquered everything he could about Texas. Time to move to Canada. There was no time to waste in this post war boom, it wouldn’t last forever.

    Picture taken, he wrapped his coat around him and headed for the hangar, the boys would park the plane inside for him, as he always insisted, and so he didn’t look back. The wind blew cold. Where did that come from? He entered the building on the east side, twisted the doorknob and rattled the wooden door as a gust shook the building and forced him to pull the door shut harder than he normally would. He tapped his cigar on the ground outside before entering, but didn’t put it out. Clamped firmly in his teeth, the image would later remind others of his son who went down in a B36 bomber in 1943, a similar look on his face. But that was so long ago, now, he had to direct his hopes and dreams to his other sons who waited in the wings for their chance to catch his attention.
    Yes, he would take them to Canada with him, far from the Texas sun and soil, and put them to work in Leduc. They would all some day be rich. Not bad for a farm boy who climbed his way out of a sod house with a frazzled wife and a baby who played in the dirt with the bugs that oozed from the walls. Not bad when you’re the first man in town to own a Victrola, to come out of the Great War unscathed only to have it fall apart in the Second Great War. There won’t be a third one in your lifetime and your sons will never see what you’ve seen, but that is what it’s all about, building a better life and surrounding yourself with better things in the hope that you can insulate yourself from hurt and disaster.

    He filled out his paperwork and turned in time to hear the immense explosion, reverberate from the tremendous pressure and heat – and blinded by the massive bright fire now burning outside, to see his Cessna burning to a shell of itself, the blackened struts crumbling and the wings melting into the pavement as the men who were moving her ran for their lives. The thought startled him that he was more vulnerable than he had imagined.

    • Christine

      Sounds like the great start to something, though I’d rather you keep that guy in Texas. :)

      • Jay Warner

        haha, I see your point Christine. It may hearten you to know that he returns to Texas (this character is loosely based on my paternal grandfather)

  • Alicia

    I’m going to use tip #1.

    There was something about the room that I did not like. When
    I walked through the doors, the room was vast, but nothing seemed to fit
    together. Each wall was painted a different color. To the left was a bright
    pink wall that almost blinded me, and in front of us sat a large window that
    reached from wall to wall, floor to ceiling. The wall to the right was painted
    an awful gloomy navy blue that left a dark sense of repugnance in the pit of my
    stomach, and the wall that housed the door was painted a flaming, fiery red.

    But that wasn’t all I noticed. Taylor had decorated the room
    with a vast range of pictures. It didn’t appear as if any of them were painted
    by the same artist, but they were plastered all over the walls just the same.
    Some were happy, some were sad, but most of them appeared as if they were there simply to make a statement.

    A statement about what? I wondered. What was Taylor
    trying to prove with these paintings, and why weren’t any of them his own?

    It wasn’t just that the paintings used a different brush stroke
    or came from a different artist that made the room look odd. I knew that Taylor
    had an eye for art and was creative, but he arranged them in such a chaotic
    manner that I couldn’t pinpoint any sort of pattern to them.

    I found this blend of colors and arrangement of paintings
    quite annoying, and I wanted to run from the room and not return until all the
    walls were painted white and the pictures were organized in a clear, attractive
    manner.

    But I didn’t leave. Taylor was family, after all, and there
    was a voice in the back of my mind saying that I had to love him despite how
    chaotic his apartment walls appeared.

    http://www.thewritingrealm.com

    • Jay Warner

      Nicely done. The room really comes to life and the narrator’s description of the room and of Taylor say quite a bit about the narrator. I would say this is a three-way character description win-win.

  • Peter

    This is a refreshing affirmation for me as I dive into yet another revision of a novel which, for all it’s fiction, remains mysteriously a memoir. The main characters are all based on people I know, but I’m learning to let them take the lead in these final drafts. It’s when I show that I know them and can demonstrate their essence that they bring along their own stories, showing more than telling. “Truth is subversive.”

  • Christine

    His supervisor ‘s voice behind him was sharp. “Come on, Flash, get those wires joined. Everybody doesn’t want to wait for you.”

    Flemming scowled. How he hated that guy. The only thing that qualified him for supervisor was them Polack roots. Them Polacks all got supervisor jobs in this place.

    He thought back to school days, how much potential he’d had. His Grade Eight teachers all said it. Why did he have to end up in this dead end job?

    Why didn’t he get along better in High School? Science and Math had been okay – but Algebra made no sense at all. History was so dead. Then there was all those stupid book reports and essays in English class. Why didn’t schools teach a person something useful? Maybe that’s why he didn’t get along so well at his jobs?

    He brushed the thought aside. No point being down on yourself when it’s not your fault. It’s because of all them immigrants. They took all the good jobs in this country. Flemming hated immigrants.

    “Hey, Tyrone,” he said to the fellow next to him in line, “There seems to be a lot of prejudice in this place, don’t you think? If we were Polacks we could have supervisor jobs, too.”

    “Think so?” Tyrone glanced at him, his hands still busy.

    “All the Supervisor jobs go to the Polacks. They’ve got the connections, help each other up the ladder and leave us the bottom end jobs.” Flemming scowled at the supervisor’s back, watched him bossing someone else around. “If we were smart, we’d go burn his house down.”

    “If we were smart, we wouldn’t be here.”

    “Shut up, Tyrone. You got a big mouth. Anybody ever tell you that?”

    Tyrone grinned. “You do, at least once a day.”

    Flemming picked up his pliers again, jerking the wires as hard as he dared. Giving them a vicious pinch, he rolled electrical tape around them. How he’d love to slap that stupid grin off Tyrone’s face. Spoiled brat, thought he knew everything. Flemming hated these young boneheads. They were another problem in this country.

    His right hand formed a fist, the fist Sherry was going to feel in her face tonight if she got mouthy. That was the trouble with Sherry. She always got mouthy. Always begging for nice stuff they couldn’t afford.

    Why had life dealt him such a rotten hand? One of these days he was going to crack under all this pressure and really blow up.
    ———————————————————————————————–
    I had a friend told me (long after the fact) how her husband would beat her after every argument he had with his dad. I’ve moved him to a factory scene and added my parent’s prejudices. I remember mom threatening to add a -ski to her name so she could get a promotion, too. This is my effort to illustrate why some people are violently intolerant

    • Brianna Worlds

      I found this very interesting to read. This was very well done; the perspective of those the common society looks down on, whispering how could s/he? Although I felt bad for Flemming on one hand, on the other I couldn’t help but be irritated by his inability to look at life through the eyes of another, or keep a rein on his temper. A very believable character, though. Bravo!

      • Christine

        Thank you.

    • http://www.theprocrastiwriter.com/ Shan

      I enjoyed how you put your readers in Flemming’s internal narrative by giving us his grammatical foibles not as quotations, but as part of the characterization. Really engaging!

      • Christine

        Thank you. Just trying to go with voices I’ve heard in the past.

  • http://beginingsinwriting.wordpress.com/ R.w. Foster

    I’ve written about someone who was a big deal in my life, a young woman named Christine. You may have heard of her from some of my other comments. A lot of my villains are her, just a different sex, or race. Sometimes both. I don’t have to worry about upsetting her because she’s no longer with us.
    I currently write someone very important to me, and her traits are either all over the love interest in my stories, or she is the main character. I’ve heard that when these characters are described, they sound like descriptions of her. Every time she’s asked about being in my books, she lights up. It helps that she is my ideal reader, too.

    • Katie Hamer

      I can see that you write about your characters with real conviction. I guess if the character is believable to you, then the chances are it will resonate with the reader. I like the idea of a male writer with a female protagonist. Nice one :)

      • http://beginingsinwriting.wordpress.com/ R.w. Foster

        Thanks. It helps that I have such a strong, wonderful woman to be inspired by.

  • Karoline Kingley

    The novel I’m currently writing has some characters who are meant to be based on certain people in my life, and other characters who simply manifest a few aspects of people I know. One of the characters is based of somebody I know, but don’t really KNOW, so the character exemplifies the thoughts and feelings I have for that person. Safe? I hope so…

  • Katie Hamer

    I came up with a character based on an acrostic:

    Shocking
    Upbeat
    Saucy
    Amorous
    Nimby

    Susan is spontaneous, funny, carefree. However she is also quite snooty, likes to keep up appearances while being disorganised in private, and doesn’t like undesirables taking over the neighbourhood. she is always anonymously writing letters of complaint about neighbours and shop workers while being nice to their faces. She is two faced and gossipy but people love her because she is the life and soul of the party. She always knows the right thing to say to people and is a bit of a side stepping pig. Will she get her comeuppance? (Not based on a real person, more a patchwork of personality traits I’ve noticed over the years. This is someone who is a socialite with a ruthless streak. I guess the nearest literary equivalent would by Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair.)

    • http://www.theprocrastiwriter.com/ Shan

      An acrostic is an awesome tactic for making sure your character is organized yet completely unique! What I really like about your characterization here is how round it is. You’ve captured the face Susan shows to the world and the one she keeps private, and best of all, you did much of the characterization with actions rather than adjectives, so we can “see” both of those faces.

      Nice job!

      • Katie Hamer

        Thanks. Much appreciated :)

    • http://mojitoandme.com/ Patricia Storbeck

      I agree with Shan. Nice job! and a great idea. Now I can finish my story too using your ideas and those mentioned in the post.

  • Katie Hamer

    I used example one for this one:

    Beware whosoever sits in this chair. It is grand, made of ebony inlaid with ivory and mother of pearl. Its exact origin is unknown but it is rumoured to have originated from Morocco during the Middle Ages. Legend has it, that the chair was commissioned for an African chieftain, as a wedding gift to his future bride. He was to marry a most graceful feline like Egyptian princess. However the princess died tragically before the wedding. The chieftain would often sit in the chair and weep. It has been said that the chair loves misery.

  • Ben2537

    I’m still conflicted about these issues.

    I think it’s tricky when you’re doing personal essays and creative non-fiction. My only solution, although not ideal, is to leave out the person’s name, or even mention their gender or physical description, as I tried to do in this piece I wrote for Medium:

    https://medium.com/we-know-what-you-did-last-summer/2fac8da5eaac

    The case usually ends up being that my friends will immediately recognize the person – if from nothing else than the dialogue and character’s way of speaking. However, friends and family probably know the story prior to reading because I would have told them about the incident long before I wrote anything. I think the tricky thing is when everyone but your subject knows you wrote a story.

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  • Christina Chenier

    I used the 1st option. Makin’ ‘em a zombie!

    He reminds her so much of the candy shop she had to pass every morning on her walk to Elementary school… The colorful sweets displayed in the window would call to her to come inside, have a look; spend the nickel she found on the sidewalk. During the winter months, she’d long to be embraced by the arms of warmth emanating from inside. Sometimes, she could see some other children in her class poking around inside with eyes wide open in wonder and a feeling of jealousy would fill her mind; but she would still walk past. She’d have been late for school and it wasn’t worth the trouble she’d get in with her parents when the teacher called. She would have to wait till her walk home. Then she could get what she wanted.

    Just like she had to wait now; twelve years older, now stuck waiting for when she’s old enough to finally, at long last, fall in love with him.

    • http://mojitoandme.com/ Patricia Storbeck

      Nice, love, Christina. A man vs a candy shop and it works. Well done, I can relate to this one.

  • http://mojitoandme.com/ Patricia Storbeck

    I’m still writing my murder story….have posted parts of it already here. Then I nearly made a fatal mistake, by using part of the story in a newsletter. By chance I checked my email list again and lo-and-behold a character in the story is on the list and she would have noticed the similarity and she would have p***ed-off to put is mildly.
    My husbands comment – no one in town will ever talk to us again, that is if we are not murdered first..LOL
    Thank you VERY MUCH for this post. Now I can finish my story at last.
    Patricia

    • http://www.theprocrastiwriter.com/ Shan

      Thanks Patricia! I live in fear of that very type of thing happening to my work! Glad this post was helpful to you.

  • Linda_Brendle

    Shanan, Anne Lamott has another saying, the gist of which is that if her friends and family don’t like what she writes about them, they should have behaved better. I’m not sure I’m brave enough for that. I write narrative non-fiction and memoir, and I try to employ the principal of speaking the truth in love. It has worked so far, but then my memoir hasn’t been published yet.

    Thanks for your insightful article.

    • Ben2537

      I’d love to hear more about “speaking the truth in love.” It seems like a great idea to try out.

      • Linda_Brendle

        Ben, the idea is not an original one. It comes from Ephesians 4:15 where the Apostle Paul is writing about the unity of the church. As it pertains to my writing, I include the “warts and all” when it’s important to the point of the story, but I always try to do it from the perspective of the mutual love and understanding this person and I share and not from any thought of anger or vengeance. I try not to include anything I haven’t worked through and given or received forgiveness for.

    • http://www.theprocrastiwriter.com/ Shan

      “I’m not sure I’m brave enough for that.” Me neither! I would love to be a fly on the wall at a memoir launch party to see family and friends’ reaction to being put into a book. Or maybe not…

  • Christina Chenier

    I’ve already participated in this prompt, but I’m still inspired by it. Here I go again.
    _____________________________________________

    Oh Summer, where did I go wrong? Why are you leaving me to bear the cold alone? Was it something I did? Was it something I said? Come back, please! You’re the only one who ever listened, who ever gave a thought to how I felt.

    Oh Summer, I miss you; more than I can bear on my own. There are no words to describe to what extent I miss you. I miss your sunny smile and your exuberant laughs. I miss your deep breathing, of waves upon the shore. I miss your green eyes and the sound of your voice on the wind. But most of all, I long for your warm embrace to envelope me once more.

    Oh Summer, why couldn’t you have stayed longer? Why did I waste us away by reading books instead of enjoying your company while I still had it? I never meant to hurt you by looking forward to school. You may think you have left me entirely, but you’re wrong. You may have left my presence but my feelings are still here, whether or not you are. You’re always in my thoughts, there’s nothing I can do; and you’re in my dreams every night.

    Oh Summer, I’m so sorry. Will you ever forgive me? Will you ever accept what I’ve done? I have a feeling you’ll return, but when? You’ve never been one to give up. You stay in my mind all year, distracting me with the anticipation of seeing you again. the hardest part is waiting for that day, when I’ll run into your warmth again.

    Oh Summer, come back to me soon.

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