As writers, we often draw from what we know to create our art, and the subject many of us often know the deepest is our family. But how do you write about your family without hurting them, especially if, like most of us, your family is less than perfect?

How to Write About Your Family… without Getting DisownedPin

Don’t Be Afraid to Write About Your Family

Writers have always written about their families. Famous authors like Pat Conroy, Anne Lamott, and Ernest Hemingway used their lives, and the lives of their families, as the basis of some of their best stories.

Pat Conroy, author of The Great Santini, says, “My books have always been disguised voyages into that archipelago of souls known as the Conroy family.”

The problem with this is that not everyone likes being written about—especially when they are portrayed negatively.

To contrast that, author Anne Lamott says:

You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.

Three Tips to Write About Your Family Safely

While this it true, through writing my own memoir, I have come to find that we can handle these situations in a way that doesn’t leave a wake of destruction.

1. Give Background

Is evil born or created? That might be up for debate, but what isn’t is that there is always a deeper reason behind the evil. I’ve found that giving background of a character is essential to creating depth in your story, and needed in order to be truthful.

I could write pages and paragraphs about how it might have been wrong how I was treated as a child, but that wouldn’t be the whole story. The whole story would be that my parents were abandoned and hurt from their own youth, and had never healed. Infected wounds only infect more and grow more painful.

There’s a reason for everything our characters do, and we need to create and portray the motive behind their actions by providing their side of the story. There are two sides to every story, and one-sided stories have no depth, and barely any truth.

Giving background is what creates a whole, deeper story. It will give your reader, and you a better understanding of the bigger picture.

2. Have a Conversation

I speak of my parents in my memoir occasionally. I edited my memoir over the last few months, and added in the appropriate background information about my parents.

Now, the reader could understand why my parents did or said the things they did. What was missing was my parents knowing why they acted that way, or perhaps it was why I needed to tell the story.

So here is where I propose we have a conversation. The goal of the conversation: to show your heart behind why you are telling your story.

I was skeptical of this idea at first. With a rocky relationship with my parents to begin with, I was unsure how a conversation about me revealing our family secrets was going to go.

To my surprise, after I explained that I wanted to share our story to inspire and encourage others, they were supportive. They joked about the ridiculous things my mother says and how that deserves a book of it’s own.

This step is especially important as you approach the publishing phase. Having a conversation prepares the person, and is a professional way to approach the situation.

To be honest, it will also relieve some of your stress. Whether the conversation goes well or poorly, you know what their reaction will be, and they know the deeper reason you want to share the story.

3. Forgive

While researching different writer’s lives I came across this quote from Pat Conroy:

And, you know, it’s a strange power a writer has. But the one thing that surprised me in writing it is that with all the violence we endured, with all the craziness – and my God, my family is nuts – that we survived. And there’s something that moves me every time I get together with any of my siblings. We’ll talk about mom and dad, but there’s something about it that is quite moving to me in the fact that, you know, we have forgiven them.

It’s true, a writer holds power, because words are powerful.

The biggest key to writing about people that have hurt you is the forgiveness that comes with it.

Once you write about them and begin to give the other side of the story, empathy comes. You may begin to understand that the other person was hurt, confused, or needed help, and sometimes it becomes easier to forgive.

They become more human and less villain.

What do you think? What has your experience with this been like? Tell me in the comments below!


Take fifteen minutes and practice writing a background for one of your characters. Explain why they might act or speak a certain way.  Post your practice in the comments below!

Kellie McGann is the founder of Write a Better Book . She partners with leaders to help tell their stories in book form.

On the weekends, she writes poetry and prose.

She contributes to The Write Practice every other Wednesday.

Share to...