August Newsletter - Vol. 60
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories.
If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”
- Anne Lamott
The Truth in Every Fiction
While we recognize that fiction is fiction and doesn’t bear any intentional resemblance to the living, dead, or undead, editors see enough writer memes to know that sometimes, characters in books are based on people the author knows. Maybe you’re borrowing a tattoo from a barista, or an embarrassing event from a middle school friend, or using your book as a form of therapy to process a horrible trauma. We’re not lawyers, so don’t take anything we say as legal advice, but let’s discuss some pros and cons of using real people in books!
The biggest challenge when writing about real people is that sometimes, those people don’t appreciate being included in your novel. If Sarah from middle school reads her embarrassing event in your novel, she might find it funny... or she might get upset. Depending on how upset she is, she could leave a bad review, write you an unkind letter, or even pursue legal action against you.
Using your novel as a way to process trauma is a wonderful tool. You can explore the events that happened to you and how you felt about them. You can even change the ending, rewriting your own history. And if you change enough, it’s possible no one reading the novel will realize you’re writing about things your parents actually did. But remember that if you’re writing about people you see on a regular basis, you may end up dealing with fallout once they read your book. Are you willing to hear your mother complain about your book every Thanksgiving for the next twenty years?
If writing helps you process, but you’re not sure about how much fallout you’re willing to accept, write the book! Just because you write it doesn’t mean you have to share it with anyone. There’s nothing wrong with keeping a personal story buried on your hard drive, never to see the light of Amazon.
But sometimes, you have to share your truth. Maybe you know that it’s the best book you’ve ever written. Maybe you want to help other people going through something similar. Maybe you need the validation of making something good out of a horror story. If you find yourself needing to share your story, here are some tips to protect yourself:
Change names. Obviously, we all know this one. You want to make sure that no one reading the book will call up your middle school friend and tell her that she’s in your story.
Change identifying traits. Pretty much for the same reason as changing your character’s name. If you’re going to use your barista’s Nickelback tattoo, don’t also copy the barista’s hair color, eye color, and other tattoos. Make some changes.
Choose a different setting. Unless your story won’t make sense in another city or decade, change it up. Universal truths about guilt and shame will still be valid in a story set in space in 2075. (One caveat: Do be careful if you set your story in a real culture you’re unfamiliar with. Do your research to make sure you’re representing the culture well.)
Change major events. If you’re processing feelings of abandonment because you were left in a mall when you were a child, consider making it bigger. Instead of being left at the mall for an hour before your parents came back, have your character stay in the mall overnight. Have them run from security. Have them break something, or hide from cleaning staff, or hunt through the food court trash cans for dinner. That way, when your mom reads your book and gets mad at you for including your childhood trauma, you can honestly point out that it’s fiction and she never left you in the mall overnight.
Talk to a lawyer. When in doubt, always consult an attorney.
Do you have any tips you've gleaned from experience? Email us with them, and they might end up on our Instagram! Until next month, take care and happy writing!
- The Joy Editing Team