Consider: your life so far has been jam-packed with event, drama and occasional tragedy. You’ve learnt lessons, and, yes, many of your life experiences can be recycled, quite easily, for the purposes of fiction. As a writer, you are not afraid to scavenge anecdotes and episodes from your past to augment a character’s back-story, or use occasional fragments of real-life conversation to add colour to a scene, or section of dialogue.
Some of you will have had extraordinary lives, or witnessed momentous events – either by default or by design – and in such cases you might have enough material to form the basis of an extended narrative (and here the form might begin to spill over into the realms of memoir). By and large, it is the universal things – birth, death, love, loss – that the skilled writer uses in their storytelling by drawing on their own experience. However, in most cases, when fictionalising real events or real people, the writer must learn to recognise the advantages of using personal material whilst navigating a minefield of issues.
fact, a compassionate understanding of the things that make up ‘ordinary lives’ can resonate with a broader readership if they are written with wisdom and sensitivity.
Privacy So, using general, procedural knowledge about your profession is one thing, but what about using a specific episode from your private life? Perhaps you’ve had a messy divorce or fallen out with a parent or sibling, or had an affair with your boss. Perhaps it was an excoriating experience but you feel you can convey something honest and powerful about the human experience by detailing it and your responses to it. All you have to do is change the names and the locations and no one will be any the wiser, right? Right? Wrong! Let’s not beat around the bush: your friends, family and colleagues will recognise themselves in your fiction however hard you try to disguise them. (Be warned: they will, in fact, be reading your work with an eagle eye).
Occasionally an individual will feel
artistic control. Your friend or relative might want to see early drafts of their ‘scenes’ and try to exercise what they consider to be their editorial imperative. The priority for them will be how they are portrayed rather than whether or not the material works in the piece as a whole.
The legal implications, when portraying the lives of others, are pretty confusing too (and vary from country to country). There have been high-profile settlements here and in the US, where individuals cry defamation of character, and where, despite the writer’s attempt to conceal identity, the alleged victim feels that fictional information can be triangulated to arrive squarely at their door.
Bear in mind that truth is a defence in libel, so you can’t be prosecuted for telling your side of a story. But truth is subjective and the emotional consequences go beyond the legal ones. You may find yourself sans a friend (or family member) or, worse, people may be wary of revealing their secrets to you in future, for fear it might end up in your fiction.
From fact to fictionA writer’s real-life experience can provide ready-made material for fiction. But what are the pros and cons of writing what you know? Novelist Mez Packer on when real life is the story.
Authenticity Many successful writers have carved out literary careers by mining the wide seam of ‘what they know.’ Most authors, for example, have had other jobs before they became writers and use their professional experience to underpin their fiction. Law, policing, forensics, medicine (among many other professions), offer the potential for dramatic tension and give the reader a nuts-and-bolts insight into a world they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. So what if you’ve never been a criminal or a politician or a spy? Seemingly prosaic occupations have possibilities too. Your audience might not want to wade through the details of working as a supermarket cashier, but they will be able to identify with finding themselves living a life they hadn’t planned – or what it feels like to be overworked and underpaid. Ordinariness does not exclude the exploration of universal principles. In
honoured to have a walk-on part in your novel; after all, you’ve deemed them worthy of being immortalised in print and you have bothered to observe them affectionately – or, at least, minutely. Actually, a number of writers report basing minor characters partly or wholly on real people, and this technique can be particularly useful if the references are descriptive rather than revelatory. Having a real person to visualise – their traits, tics and mannerisms – can help us put flesh on the bones of a character; we are not using their private lives, merely painting their image in the same way an artist might use a model. But beware the misrepresented friend who feels you have been unfair in your descriptions, or lackadaisical with the facts. Or who is simply aggrieved at having the details of their life exposed for the sake of your art without their permission.
Asking permission is one way to go, obviously, but here you risk compromising
The same applies for private, or confidential information, which is specifically about you. People close to you will recognise you as easily as they recognise themselves. Perhaps you have spent time in prison, or worked in the sex industry many years ago and a character in your novel is struggling with similar problems or experiences. People will talk.
Full disclosure My novel Among Thieves details all manner of criminal activity from credit card fraud to drug smuggling. Full disclosure: I experienced 80s alternative sub-culture first-hand. I was angry and rebellious and believed (and still do), that a person’s lifestyle could be a political statement. But like some of the characters in my novel, I was naïve and began rubbing shoulders with people whose criminality was born of greed or desperation. Nevertheless, bearing witness to those things meant I was able
20 | Mslexia.co.uk | Oct / Nov / Dec 09 Feature
to add genuine texture to the narrative. Using this level of detail does, however, lay the writer bare to the scrutiny of their loved ones, and the readership. You could also be weakening your writing rather than reinforcing it. It is easy to fall into the trap of imbuing our characters with too much of ourselves. We can get carried away with examining our own sensibilities or demons. This can make us lose sight of the narrative in hand. When I sent off the first draft of Thieves, I was sent a reader’s report via an agent whom I was pursuing at the time. I had worked tirelessly on all five of my firstperson narratives, but my favourite was Becca. She is desperate to escape her deadend life and gets mixed up with a gang of smugglers who are importing drugs from India to England. I wrote her as a northern lass and made her beautiful and sensual, but she was me, pretty much – certainly in terms of how I felt about the world when I was a 19-year-old. I gave her my feelings, my frustrations, my anger, my voice. When the manuscript came back, the reader’s report was categorical. All my characters were authentic – even the Albanian hill farmer – except Becca. The reader immediately recognised something I could not, that I had lost Becca, the character, to a version of myself. The solution was fundamental: remove Becca’s narrative and rewrite the character through the eyes of the remaining characters.
As soon as I removed my access to Becca’s inner life from the equation, I realized I had been using her to make sense of my own history. Now I was free to write her for the reader, for the story – not for myself. The rewrite took time, but through this process of detachment, Becca became a distinct character rather than a version of me.
Relevance A friend of mine sometimes describes the writing workshops she runs as therapy sessions. She never uses the term as a criticism, merely as a statement of fact, explaining that many new writers initially use dramatic episodes of their lives to kickstart their creative process. The death of a parent, an abusive childhood, an illness or accident – some people come to writing as a way of exorcising pain. Sometimes they write autobiographically, proclaiming in no uncertain terms that terrible and painful things happened to them. Other times they curse a character with their tragedies, and detach themselves. My friend maintains that this is a helpful practice, that writing personal or painful events through the prism of the third person can allow the writer to stand back and avoid overloading their fiction with irrelevant detail. Even the seasoned writer, she says, can overdevelop a character if they know them too intimately. She suggests writing each scene from the point of view of the other people in the story, so if you are detailing the agonies of unrequited love, say, in the first person, then why not try writing in the third person from the man’s point of view. Get inside his head, spend a week or two walking and talking like him. It can provide a wealth of revealing material that is not focused on you.
How interesting is it really? Agents and publishers often moan about the plethora of manuscripts they receive that are thinly veiled autobiographies. This, in itself, is not a problem, but how interesting are most of our lives, really? As I said in the opening paragraph, some of you will have had extraordinary lives – but they are rare. Detailing the tedium of most day-to-day existence does not make great
fiction (or perhaps only in a philosophical sense), and is relevant to no one but you.
There were real-life events in Among Thieves that I embroidered for art’s sake. Hampton Kirby was a real place (the name has been changed) but did not harbour a gang of thieves. And there were real tensions between students and Coventry hardnuts in the 70s and 80s, but I never knew a Jez or a Kev. There were also many stories I could have included but did not: scams and marches and protests and Stonehenge at sunrise and mad hippy endeavours, some that succeeded, some that failed – I wanted to include them all. I wanted to paint a picture of a time and place that I was witness to, that helped shape me. And I wanted to use writing to explore how I felt about it all, 20 years on.
But in the end I had to be ruthless, to ask, ‘What does the narrative demand?’ Our characters are not us. They can have traits similar to ours, express our thoughts and even have an inner life that resembles our own – after all we are writing them. But we have to take care not to become a ventriloquist putting words and thoughts into the mouths and minds of our characters. They will seem, and be, empty.
Should we use real-life in our fiction? Of course. Good fiction comes out of many things, and one of them is harvesting experiences, reshaping them in a relevant way. But think carefully about privacy issues and the future of your relationships if you’re intending to refer to difficult periods from your life. Bear in mind that memory is fallible and that, along with your subjective take on an event, there is always another side to the story. You might be happy to lay yourself bare for the purposes of your art, but these things rarely happen exclusively to us. There is a whole cast of major and minor characters in the stories of our lives who will have something to say about us using them for what they might see as financial gain.
Autobiographical events can underpin a solid, authentic plot. But imagine your characters intimately, and as separate from yourself and other people in your life, then mix in understanding and emotional acuity and use real-life experiences in a thoughtful, relevant way to breathe life into the clay. Only then will they be ready to walk and talk on their own.
MEZ PACKER was born in 1966. During the 80s she lived in Europe, singing jazz in nightclubs. In the 90s she brought up two children and travelled in Asia and the Far East. She now lives in the Midlands and lectures in Media and Communication. Mez’s debut novel Among Thieves is published by Tindal Street Press.
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