Thursday, 16 October 2014

How far can you go when writing about real people you know?

Dear all,

This is going to be a very short (and a bit weak if I'm honest) blog post, please excuse me.  After the wonderful but tortuous heat of the summer I thought it important I get back to the gym and of course the inevitable happens…two days after my first session and I am in pain in ninety percent of my body. I had intended to write about a couple of subjects but the painkillers and tiredness are telling me it is not the best idea. So instead I’ll cover just a few pointers I was thinking about the other day.
I mentioned in my last blog post that I am using names of real people I know for characters in the story I am writing. As I am just starting I find it easier to get working on temporary ‘profiles’ that will grow and develop as I write and I will change (probably) the names as I make a significant level of progress. It’s an interesting challenge for a novice like me because there are lots of dangers in writing ‘what you know’ as per one of the most often quoted pieces of advice. During my studies and in all of my reading life there is one charge novice writers are often cited against – writing a modified version of your own autobiography.
The element I think I can just about cope with today is the question of how to use real life characters to write realistic, but not real, people.



Before I start, the photos I am posting are from the city of Cartagena. I spent a day here last week and am very grateful for my friend giving me the tour, I saw a lot of the city and it’s a beautiful place.

   Barnes & Noble

Write what you know (or who you know?)

I am writing a contemporary drama set in London.  I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about the two main characters and I have built up a good framework to get them going and I hope that now that I have started writing their profiles will become much rounder and more detailed. The same goes for a fairly large number of secondary characters although they were far less developed when starting.  To get myself going I have given these people names of real people I have known. Here’s the question – how far should we go when using real people?

                                                Rosetta Stone Spanish language-learning software

An interview with Truman Capote sticks in my mind. Please do a quick search on him and the controversy surrounding his ostracisation from the well heeled society he kept. In brief once it was discovered he had written (or rather, was in the process of writing, I believe he didn’t finish it) about his friends using extremely thinly disguised characters and in good old fashioned tabloid terms – spilled the beans – on their private lives by describing their affairs, money, politics, etc. he was, to politely put it, not welcome anymore. In YouTube clips he discusses this in chat shows and although I won’t put the links here because I cannot verify the channels they are on, they are worth searching for if this interests you. It highlights an interesting dilemma for the writer.

So, not for one second putting myself on that level, but just wishing to use it as an example – what if I were to write a story that uses all the real lives of friends and family? Is that morally acceptable? Is it legal? Is it cheating?
            The reason I ask is that I do fear this situation in the future. What I am working on is totally made up (that makes it sound good doesn’t it…) but the second I started using my friends names in order to help me get going I started panicking a little. I find myself drawing far closer to them than I thought I would simply because of the name and I wondered what would happen. Here are some of the problems as I see it. My friends and family have the right to a private life, just because I can write about it, doesn’t mean I should. In a way it feels that should I steal some of their emotional experiences it is the same as stealing physical possessions. This is where that problem of writing about what you know can be tricky.

   Barnes & Noble

Should I talk to them individually should I want to use some of the incidents they have been through? If I get their approval do I also need to give them approval on the ‘edit’ as well, as if I were handing it to a newspaper editor? Do they get editoral control because it is theirs forever? Or once they say yes, can I do what ever the hell I want, twist and change as much as I care for? In that case, is it still their story or something I have made up and why did I ask them in the first place. It will vary hugely on the situation of course, what about if I want to write about a person that is still going through whatever it is I am writing about rather than it being in their past? What if they say no? Do I respect that and take it out entirely or do I change it around a bit until it is vague enough not to be seen as identical? Again, in which case why did I ask them in the first place and not just do whatever I wanted? 

What is the different between a deeply important issue, such as a powerfully emotional event they may have gone through, divorce, physical assault, bankruptcy, etc. and a funny anecdote of the ‘you’ll never guess what happened when we went out last night’ type? Can I treat those experiences just the same? After all, if they are not mine, they are not mine, no matter what? If I run out of ideas or inspiration for a certain scene is it fair of me to start digging up the past of others (the skeletons in the closet) in order to come up with something?

What about the temptation to use a person you know for revenge? It is an often quoted saying on writers forums, ‘Don’t upset a writer, they may kill you in their next book,’ but how dangerous is it? Will a momentary desire to use a person’s name you may dislike or has wronged you in the past come back to bite you in the backside? Will you regret it later? Is it childish to think that way? If I want to use the name of someone for a particularly deviant horrible character does that show my lack of maturity rather than being any kind of insider funny joke? 

   Barnes & Noble

How far do you have to go before you can not be mistaken for using a real person? If I use my name, 'Robert' for a character that could be a thousand different I need to use their real jobs, their real parents names, their real home town? What about physical descriptions, if I gave a character the exact same appearance as someone but called them a different name, is that enough?
           The more I think about it the more I realize that I am probably going to come up against this sooner or later. My story is entirely fictitious, but it is based in a real city with real locations (towns, buildings, parks, etc.) and with real life events (it will be set in modern day London and will reference world events) so I wonder how long it will be before I realise…this sounds a bit like Tom, Dick or Harry’s story of when they did X, Y and Z. 
     What exactly would the fall out be? Am I prepared to have friends annoyed at me for a little while but it all smoothed out over a pint or two? Or would I ever go so far as to risk a friendship? What about where I live? If I describe my home town in certain ways do I risk being unwelcome? It all sounds so preposterous for someone at my stage of writing but it's thought provoking none the less.
        This is of the personal kind. I am not talking about using real life company names, politicians names, people in the public eye and so on. I realise I will have to be very careful with libel and deformation and will keep that in mind. The 'Robert' example I gave above is different for example if I use, 'David' and say his job was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom...that sort of implies a specific person doesn't it! When it comes to upsetting your friends and family that is something else. As I said, it is not something I am worried about...yet...but it got me thinking.

          Again, apologies this is a short post but rather than waiting until I am feeling better and keeping the posts too far apart I thought it best to highlight an issue that I have only recently considered. I'll try and be back writing a more in-depth bunch of nonsense soon...

                                                Rosetta Stone Spanish language-learning software

I will leave you with an early attempt at using the Hyperlapse app from Instagram. It's a bit rubbish and I need some more practice but I'll share it with you anyway. As you can see from the photos above we travelled up one of the mountains, this is a 10x speed clip of the journey down. 

Take care,


Barnes & Noble

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