Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Using Real Life in Fiction

Wow, when my subconscious decides to get going, it really gets going. After a week or so of struggling to write five to ten pages a day, I did thirty pages yesterday and probably could have done more, but I also had to finish a freelance project and then I was just too tired to spell words properly. My mom says I don't get writer's block, I get writer's logjam, so that once it's cleared, whole huge amounts of stuff then come pouring out. It's like ideas were building up and building up, but were stuck behind one part that wasn't working, and once that one part was figured out, then all the other ideas were free. I did find that things worked out in a totally different way than I'd planned, which I hope makes for some unexpected twists. Now I'm kind of curious how the rest of the story will go.

I'm now doing the "writing" part of a two-part post to answer a question. Last week, I talked about some of the elements of the Enchanted, Inc. series that were inspired by things in real life. Now I'll get into the writing part of the question, about how to use real-life elements in your fiction and where to draw the line between real life and fiction.

People are always telling aspiring writers to write what they know, and there is some truth to that. When you write from personal experience, your writing will likely be more vivid and will ring with truth. But that doesn't mean you have to write about your life, exactly. Your real life can inform and inspire your fiction without you having to write about people who are exactly like you and doing exactly the things you've experienced with people who are just like the ones in your life. In fact, it's probably better that you don't write a slightly fictionalized version of your own life story, unless you're a celebrity or have worked for someone famous so that people will buy your book expecting it to be just like the real story because they want a glimpse inside that world.

One reason for this is that, in fiction, the truth can be constraining. If you're too mentally tied to what really happened, that can keep you from writing something that's more interesting. Real life and fiction are two totally different things and have to work in different ways. Fiction has to make sense and be believable. With real life, there's usually evidence that forces us to believe what really happened, no matter how extraordinary or illogical it is. In fiction, there is no external evidence, so readers have to be able to believe it based purely on what's in the story. Characters have to have clear motivations that make some kind of sense within the world of the story, while real people don't always make sense. Real events seldom fall into a good, linear plot structure with rising and falling action and pacing that keeps events moving. If you're writing too directly from your own life, it may also be more difficult to be as objective as you need to be to tell a good story. You may end up creating a "Mary Sue" in the character based on yourself if you're afraid or unwilling to face negative aspects of yourself, let yourself be criticized by others or let anything bad happen to your story self.

"It really happened that way" can hold you back from really exploring the fictional possibilities of your story or from looking at it logically. I remember once doing a critique through a writing organization of a book that had the main character working as an up-and-coming criminal attorney downtown in a major city while living on and running a big ranch outside the city and also doing a lot of charity work and running for political office. I suggested that the author tone it down a little and pick one or two of those things to focus on because I didn't believe any one human being could do all that. I had friends who were up-and-coming attorneys, and they all worked about sixty to eighty hours a week. I also used to live on a very small cattle farm, with only a few cows that were practically pets, and I know how much time even that takes, so running a ranch is an even bigger job. Throw in the commute to get from downtown to a ranch, and there simply wouldn't be enough hours in a day. I got one of those snippy thank-you notes to the effect of "thank you for the critique, but here's why you're wrong" informing me that she knew one person could do all that because she'd based this character on a family member who had done all that. Never mind that it was some forty years earlier and he'd been in a small town instead of in a major city where it would be an hour-long (at least) commute to get from downtown to anything resembling a ranch. But the bottom line was, I didn't care if it had really happened or how it really happened. I didn't believe it as a reader, based on what I knew to be true and based on what was in the story the way she'd written it, and this author was so tied to the "it really happened" thing that she didn't try to make it believable in the context of the story. You can't stick newspaper clippings into your book to prove that the thing in your book really could happen. A note about a historical oddity that inspired your story is one thing, but you still have to make the story work in a way that readers would believe even if they didn't see the note.

But where real life can help is when you use it in bits and pieces. I often say that I take pieces of my life and throw them into a blender with lots of fictional stuff, and then out comes a story. I may never have been in the exact same situation as the characters in my books, but I have been through things that gave me the kinds of feelings they might have had, and I can draw upon my experiences to write about the way the characters are feeling and reacting. I've had my heart broken, I've fallen in love, I've lost people and things I care about, I've been scared, I've been elated, I've been disappointed. I can take those emotions and use them in my writing to convey what's going on with my characters, even if the situations are very different. I can take sadness caused by one thing and use it to write the way a character feels because of an entirely different thing.

People are always asking me if the heroine of my series is based on me, since she does have a lot in common with me, but I say that all my characters are somewhat based on me because I'm the only person I know from the inside out. I can try putting myself in other people's shoes, but it's still going to end up being based on my own responses and experiences. I may use different facets of myself for different characters, and always mixed in with a lot of fictional stuff so that none of them are really "me." I may like or identify with some characters more than others, but I try to be objective enough to be willing to do what's necessary with all of them.

I can also take little details from reality and weave them into a story to create a sense of verisimilitude. For instance, in order to motivate the heroine of my Enchanted, Inc. series to respond to a fairly dodgy job offer and set the story in motion, I gave her a truly awful boss. I took details from all the awful people I've ever worked with or for and blended them together, along with lots of fictional details, to create the Boss From Hell. I get a lot of e-mails from readers who completely relate to having that boss or who claim that I had to have based that character on their boss. Although the character is entirely fictional, there are little things about her that are based directly on reality. I don't think the character would have worked nearly as well if I'd just taken any one real person and changed a few details to mask her identity but otherwise made her exactly as she was in real life. By blending true details from a variety of sources with fiction, I created a character that is somewhat believable (if a bit over the top) but that is also universally recognized, since everyone seems to have worked for someone kind of like this.

I've done similar things by choosing telling details from real events and adding them to fictional events in my books. An annoying aspect of a particular blind date ended up being part of an excruciating blind date in a book. I didn't re-create that real date. I merely used it as a starting point for a fictional event with a core of truth. You're not even limited by your own experiences. I may not have climbed Mr. Everest, but I've done things that were physically draining and exhausting but that led to a sense of extreme achievement, and I've been cold. I can take that, expand and enlarge it, maybe use some research from reading about people who've really done it, stir it all together in my imagination, and the result may be something that feels real, even if it isn't.

From a legal standpoint, be careful about basing characters directly on real people in a way that might make them identifiable. If it's way too obvious that a character is essentially a not-very-fictionalized version of a real person, to the point that people who know them can recognize them in the book, even if they don't know that you (the author) know the person, I'm not sure the "this book is fiction and none of the characters are real" disclaimer at the beginning will protect you. Steal a detail or two, but don't just use the real person as a character. Those thinly veiled celebrity "novels" get away with it because their fictionalized real people are usually based on public figures, and there's a different standard for proving libel for a public figure. Most of those also might fall into the realm of "satire," especially since it's a satire of a public figure. If a private citizen is recognizable in a novel in a way that could harm that person's business or reputation, there could still be trouble. I'm not a lawyer and this isn't hard-and-fast legal advice, but it is something you should probably think about before making your ex-boyfriend the villain in your next book. Besides, your ex-boyfriend probably isn't interesting enough to make a good villain unless you mix in a lot of fiction. You'd need to give him goals and stronger motivations, and conflicts that tie into those goals and motivations.

I would say you've used too much real life when it gets in the way of a good story. If you can't bring yourself to make some needed story event happen because it isn't the way it really happened (unless you're writing about a particular historical event) or because you relate the characters too closely to real people to allow that thing to happen, you're too close to real life. If a character needs to die, it shouldn't matter if he was inspired by your best friend. If a character needs to succeed, it shouldn't matter if he was inspired by the ex you want to see fail. Your novel shouldn't be your therapy. If you need to write about your evil ex getting run over by trains after numerous public humiliations, then write it, but keep it to yourself and keep it out of your novel unless that's really and truly what an objective person would say the story needs. If you need to write about yourself triumphing over all, again, that's something for your diary, not for your novel.

I'm open to other questions about writing, both the craft and the business.

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