As some of you know, my book, Do the Wrong Thing, is based on my own life. “Based on” does not mean “is”, though. Nonetheless, I’m coming up against issues where I question what I’m sharing. I mean, I can be as honest as I want about myself but what about people I care about? Or people I didn’t care that much about when I started writing but who I now care about more, through the process of turning them into characters and seeing life through their imagined eyes?
How would I feel if someone turned me into a character, perhaps using things that, if I didn’t explicitly state were in confidence, just assumed that we were friends and the discussions would go no further? We all say things when we’re with friends that we wouldn’t say in public. What is fair game for fiction? What is not?
People I care about
On one hand, I defend my freedom to be completely and irrevocably honest. If, over tea/drinks, or while we’re hiking through the woods, you make fun of a friend or a certain kind of person and I want to use that in a novel, I want to use it. On the other hand, if you, my friend, are giving me material, I have to be grateful and respect you. Otherwise, speaking purely from a rational and self-interested point of view, I’ll be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. If you, my friend, feel offended or taken advantage of, you’ll stop sharing your ideas, turns of phrase and jokes with me. I have to be careful. I have to be grateful and nourish my fantastic friendships.
If I’m going to use your words or POV in a story, I need to run it by you to see if you are ok with it. It’s true that those with less economic power will always allow those with greater economic power to use their ideas, words and POVs more than those in the inverse. I’m not 100% sure how relationship works but I do know that how much a person values themselves and their own words, opinions and ideas, is reflected in how much others value these things and the person. If I think I’m stupid, you’ll be more likely to think I’ms stupid and vice versa. It’s an imperfect relationship, as perfectly imperfect as everything in existence.
How does a person get the greater economic, sexual or political power that gives both access to more ideas, words and POVs and the power to say “no” to others who want to use their ideas, words and POVs? By hard work and treating people with respect, making sure to include themselves in that pool of people they respect? Is it so simple? Or is that simple sentence deceptively complex?
What happens when people are more or less evenly matched? What is off-limits? Women are notoriously the butt of all jokes, yet we never complain because we can’t. Our survival, to a great extent, depends on it. But if I make jokes about my husband, boyfriend or boss, presuming he’s male, he is much more likely to take offence. “Off-limits”–it’s open to interpretation.
We all have that friend who thinks their shit doesn’t stink, who feels they should have absolute control over your relationship. You may remain friends for a variety of reasons: family ties, longevity of the relationship—maybe they once did you a fantastic favour that’s hard to forget… yet, if they’re cramping your style, making it hard for you to do what you want to do, write the story you want to write—telling you you can’t use them… well, I guess you need to change their character until they’re completely unrecognizable. Condensing several people you know into one is a good way to deal with this. You can even get your jabs in by giving their “character” characteristics you know they loathe.
People who I didn’t care about when I started writing but who I now do
These people are harder to deal with. If you didn’t like them before you started writing, and now you do because you’ve gained empathy from representing them, you own that empathy and can remove it at will. The person or persons did not give you the empathy. They are fair game. They are not a golden goose, laying golden eggs for you—they are goose food and you are the goose. They should, in fact, be grateful that you’ve come around to care for them, that the changes in you due to your writing and/or analysis of them has given you the empathy to care for them. They didn’t have you as a friend before, now they do. You don’t suddenly, owe them that friendship or concern.
How would I feel if someone turned me into a character, perhaps using things if I didn’t explicitly state were in confidence, just assumed that we were friends and that the discussions would go no further?
Friends have disagreements. They are not necessarily pleasant but they help us grow. A friend who doesn’t challenge you won’t remain your friend for long. You’ll get bored. What one person might consider off-limits for sharing outside the friendship, or turning into fiction fodder, another might think is fine. This is a dance. It happens among friendships as well as in writing.
“Gloria told you that I said that?”
“I didn’t think you’d care if I told Gloria…” that kind of thing.
If you’re friends with a writer, you’re going to have to be pretty explicit about what you don’t want turning up in a book or character. If you’re friends with a beginning writer… sigh. I guess we owe it to all our friends to let them read our work before publishing so they can comment on it.
If you haven’t talked to friends in years and don’t know how to get hold of them, err on the side of caution: capsize them into a composite character. Make them unrecognizable. Don’t assume that no one will read your book anyway so it doesn’t matter. Have some self-confidence. Realize that once the book is actually done and published, people who were indifferent to your little hobby beforehand will suddenly take notice. It’s the nature of humans.
“Hey, I’m writing this thing and I’ve used some of our past experiences and conversations in it. Is that ok?”
If not, obfuscate, obfuscate, obfuscate.
There are a lot of problems in not realizing you have power. You do have power. Your words matter. People will read them. Make sure your loved ones are ok with it.