The Truth in Fiction

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I took a creative nonfiction course in college. At the time, I wasn’t ready to share personal (or even slightly personal) details about my life. As a result of that, my essays turned out to be sorry attempts at humor that only explored areas of my life that I felt safe enough to share. Truthfully? They were all vapid.

But lately, I’ve found myself wanting to write about more personal things; particularly, I’d like to explore certain real life issues, but through fiction, and I’m wondering about how “truthful” I should be.

There’s a movie called The Best Man where friends get together for a wedding many years after college. The main character has just written a novel based on him and his friends and a secret is revealed: in college, the main character slept with his best friend’s girlfriend. The friends read the novel and start to piece together which character is which, and before long, the groom-to-be gets his hands on the novel, realizes that it’s based on real life, and discovers before his wedding that his best man and wife-to-be were once intimate. As you can imagine, chaos ensues.

I recently found myself writing a character who was eerily similar to someone I know. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say that this person is probably the most self-absorbed person I’ve ever come across. So much so, that if I put him/her on the page as they are, it’s very likely that no one would find the character believable. I find myself wanting to write about this individual to explore possible reasons for their behavior. To make sense of it on the page in a way that I can’t do in real life. To right wrongs, even if I can’t do that in life. Even, perhaps, so that this person may experience some sort of poetic justice, even if only in a fictional world. There are other situations that I would love to put on the page but I find myself hesitating because I fear a “Best Man” scenario where everything is revealed and as a result of that, relationships are ruined.

We all write for various reasons: to entertain, to make people laugh, to explore things that happen in our lives and make sense of it, to get through pain, to sort out our feelings. Sometimes characters are reflections of the people in our lives but once characters are on the page, they take on a life of their own and the truths they reveal  may not end up mirroring the truth of our actual lives. But what happens when they do?

Does anyone else find themselves hesitating to put certain characters on the page because they resemble people that you know? Has anyone ever experienced a “Best Man” scenario as a result of writing things that are close to home?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!






22 thoughts on “The Truth in Fiction

  1. I don’t have too much trouble with having to change anything about my characters but then again most of mine are animals and I really don’t think any of my pets are going to complain if I use their real names or real events in their lives. Recently I discovered, that while they are all very different with their own looks and personalities, several of my human characters actually are based off of different aspects of myself. I though I was creating complete fiction but I guess what I really did was write about myself but in different ways. In my first book I wrote about a girl who is a witch which seemed like complete fiction to me until it was published and people asked me how I came up with it and I realized that the way my witch uses her magic was based around my daydreams of what probably would happen if I had magical powers like some of my favorite TV characters. Apparently some of the way she finds ways around rules my mom saw as something I was good at doing at my characters age and still am though I don’t remember doing it at that age. My character eventually developed away from myself and into her own character who I guess ended up becoming a better version of myself. Then another character ended up with a personality based off of the me that apparently shows up once a month and when I get in a bad mood. Of course over time she too became her own character. Most recently I have been working on two chapter books. One based very largely off of true events though I doubt readers will pick up on any of them…hopefully. There are a few moments that make the story really good but I’m not sure I would be ready yet to admit to them being actual happenings. The other incorporating some of the events that have happened to me that seem more like fiction than the fiction parts. It makes the story good but if anyone ever asks me which pieces are true in this one they probably wouldn’t believe me.

    • Ha! That’s the thing about fiction. Sometimes truth is stranger so when you put certain events on the page, people will never believe it, even if you say, “But it really happened!” I think it’s great that you’re able to take certain aspects of yourself and turn them into characters. I can do that with my funny stories but for some reason, not with my paranormal stories (I’m probably too afraid to!), lol.
      Quanie recently posted..The Truth in FictionMy Profile

  2. Confession: I have a tendency to name my books’ minor villains after people I don’t like. >_< It's probably going to come back to bite me in the ass one day. Granted, of those people, only one is someone I've been around in the past ten years and they don't read the kind of stuff I write. …I think.

    But I know what you mean, and I see why it's kind of like packing up the can of worms and just waiting for someone to open it. The only way to avoid it might be to not do it. Or just try to disguise the person as much as possible. Eh heh heh.
    Mason T. Matchak recently posted..IWSG: What if I Fail?My Profile

    • Ha! I think it’s hilarious that you do that! I don’t think I’d ever be brave enough to. I even hate it when I’m writing something, meet someone, and then realize that one of my characters has that person’s name. I’m always tempted to change the name, even though I named the character before me and that person met. Sigh. The problems we have!
      Quanie recently posted..The Truth in FictionMy Profile

  3. Hi Quanie,

    First, I’d like to agree with everyone and thank you for such thought provoking posts. You always stir me up. 🙂 I don’t really have anything to add except that I had an experience with the truth in fiction the other day that made me pull-back and take out a sequence altogether. Scenes, or characters, are never one dimensional, they’re layered like an artichoke. I had a hard time disguising an event, because once I started getting under all those layers it was undeniable what and who it was about. And in order to make it compelling, sometimes you got to get under there and get dirty. So, it was easier to leave out my truth in that instance. Making that choice was weird for me. When you can’t disguise it, do you use it anyway because it’s your truth and it needs to be expressed? (I realize it’s in a book of fiction and you don’t want to have to call in the lawyers).
    Burnita recently posted..TORTURE!My Profile

    • Goodness! That sounds like a scene I would definitely LOVE to read! And you are right: sometimes you got to get under there and get dirty. Yes, ma’am! I see what you’re saying about the lawyers since none of us want to get sued, but you raise an interesting question: when you can’t disguise it, do you use it anyway because it’s your truth and it needs to be expressed? I say use it anyway and pray the involved parties never read your book! 🙂 But you’re always safe by your novel’s disclaimer that any resemblances to real life events is purely coincidental….
      Quanie recently posted..The Truth in FictionMy Profile

  4. Quanie, I love what you’ve been doing with your blog lately. Every time I come by, there’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking post, and I really appreciate that. I just had to say that 🙂

    You and I are on the same page, my friend. I just started taking a non-fiction writing class and already, one week in, I’m spending my day googling the ethics of creative non-fiction. There’s no easy answer. The stories I want to tell, the stories that people will (hopefully) want to read, are probably exactly the ones my family and my partner would really wish I’d just keep to myself.

    And yet, the only way to be successful in non-fiction is to be honest, to tell an emotional truth – and it’s also the only way I’ll be interested in writing it.

    So, I don’t have an answer for you. I think that in fiction, you can at least disguise your characters. The movie is a movie so it exaggerates for the sake of humor and plot (and I’m not disparaging the movie, just saying it doesn’t HAVE to be like that!). I think you’re a skilled enough writer to be more subtle, to create a character based on a real person with enough changes and enough disguises that you can protect that real person. It sounds like you want to get at the core of this person, which a) is fascinating and great, and b) means you can change every single detail about his or her life and still explore that core. Does that make sense?

    Finally (LONG comment, I know!), remember that you unfortunately can’t control people’s reactions to your writing. I’ve had friends and family recognize themselves in a character I’ve written, and be convinced I based that character on them, when truthfully I had no such intention. So do the best you can to disguise this person, and then write about it. anyway 🙂
    Liz Blocker (@lizblocker) recently posted..Insecure Writers: Extra Specially Insecure Non-FictionMy Profile

    • Hi Liz, thanks for that! It’s so hard trying to figure out what to blog about these days. I certainly am trying! And we are definitely on the same page! One reason I don’t write non-fiction is because I have a lot of trouble sharing tidbits about my personal life. The things that would be worth writing about, I could never do it because…well, I’d be putting my business in the streets, lol. And I don’t know how I feel about that! And I can’t believe you’ve had friends and family “recognize” themselves in the things that you write and think the characters are based on them when they’re not! So I guess I’ll just have to do what you suggest: do what I can to disguise the person and write the darn story anyway.
      Quanie recently posted..The Truth in FictionMy Profile

  5. This is a very honest and thought-provoking post.

    Several people in my life brought aspects to some of my characters (including myself), but not to the extent that they would see themselves. If you change enough details and throw in traits that are different from that person, unless their story/flaw is a truly unique one, you should be able to camouflage it well enough.

    Just make it a personal rule that you don’t talk about who inspires characters. That way, if people ask, you have a ready and consistent answer (and an out). 😉

    IWSG #184 until Alex culls the list again.
    Melissa Maygrove recently posted..IWSG – AugustMy Profile

    • Ha! Love that: “Just make it a personal rule that you don’t talk about who inspires characters. That way, if people ask, you have a ready and consistent answer (and an out).” That’s probably the best route to take (I also usually say I don’t like to talk about certain things because it will piss off my muse, but I like your response so much better:)
      Quanie recently posted..The Truth in FictionMy Profile

  6. In fiction we are exploring character truths and themes. If these are based on real people in our lives as authors we change the names and physicality of the place and character that is based on actual events. Think about it – if you wanted to be true to an actual event with real people there are whole decades/generations of back story, genetics, religious rituals, financial dynamics and so much more when you’re dealing with real people. This doesn’t make entertaining fiction and is how the “stereotype” was born. Good fictional characterization is in the middle between a five-tome Jewish biography and the “red-headed-Irishman” designation.

    What you want is the distilled essence of the character as it is beneficial to the theme of the story and the objective of the plot. Consider taking those “real” people even farther into the dangerous category, they won’t recognize themselves even if you try and play it safe so why waste that writing time?

    How much of this “Best Man” movie relates to anyone you personally know, or what you see in the global news? Get your story written.
    Terri Patrick recently posted..A proactive intentMy Profile

    • “What you want is the distilled essence of the character as it is beneficial to the theme of the story and the objective of the plot.” I couldn’t have said it better! You’re totally right. And like most people have been saying here: people will most likely not even recognize themselves as characters so all this worrying I’ve been doing seems to be for naught. I’m actually looking forward to putting this character on the page in the future and seeing what eventually happens.
      Quanie recently posted..The Truth in FictionMy Profile

  7. I actually plan to blog about this topic in the upcoming months. Great minds think alike. 🙂

    Little things from my family and friends inspire my characters, and sometimes I do intentionally take a personality or physical trait from people I know because it’s perfect for a character I’m creating, but it’s so small they wouldn’t be able to figure it out.

    I do have one WIP with a character based off someone I know, but I made sure to change the character as much as I could from height to race to job and everything in-between. I also used my past for a few short flashback scenes but I rewrote them for my heroine. A few people could read it and possibly notice similarities and guess who the character is, but none of them read my books. As for the person who I based the character after . . . he has no clue I’m even an author. 😉
    Chrys Fey recently posted..Utilize the DarkMy Profile

    • Well, that’s good that the person who you based your character on doesn’t know you’re an author, because he’ll never go reading your books to try and find himself in them! I think that’s definitely the way to go: changing the character so dramatically that even if the real life person would suspect it’s them, they might doubt it because the person’s so drastically different. And definitely looking forward to your post on this same topic! Great minds do think alike! 🙂
      Quanie recently posted..The Truth in FictionMy Profile

  8. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about whether or not indulging in my character’s persona would jeopardize someone getting hurt in real life. But then again, even though we might not think we are writing about someone we know, we actually might be doing so without even thinking about it. For this, we must be very careful.
    I have thought about building characters which resemble those around me; especially my boss and a malicious ex-step mother. I think when we are surrounded about those who really push our buttons or somehow have a huge impact on our every day lives, then it’s only natural to embellish with their actual beings by using our imagination.
    Gina Stoneheart recently posted..Celebrating One Year & the Blogging From the Heart TourMy Profile

    • You know what? When I’m writing humor I always draw inspiration from my family, and to me, those characters are so funny and lovable that I don’t even think twice about that. But when I’m writing more serious stuff, I try to be careful not to have characters directly resemble people that I know. But just as you say: if someone really pushes our buttons, how can they not end up in the things that we write (most likely as the villain???).
      Quanie recently posted..The Truth in FictionMy Profile

  9. I think as long as you can properly disguise it, it can work. The interesting thing is, people generally think the best of themselves, so they might not even recognize themselves, especially if you make them a larger-than-life villain. It’s important for legal reasons to have no identifying traits mentioned in the book…but mostly for personal reasons, you won’t want to make someone look bad if you still want that person in your life afterward. I think the writer of The Help was sued by her former maid…and I think the maid lost the case, but I can’t remember for sure, so that’s something to think about. If your book becomes a blockbuster, people will be trying to find ways to cash in if they can.
    Stephanie Faris recently posted..Musicals: A Love-Hate RelationshipMy Profile

    • “If your book becomes a blockbuster…” Okay, so, I receive that! I’m getting the impression from the comments here that people generally won’t recognize themselves unless it’s painfully obvious, so that makes me feel better. Just as you say, if you make it big people will be looking for ways to cash in, so I’ll just make sure that I don’t reference specific situations and just stick to exploring character traits.
      Quanie recently posted..The Truth in FictionMy Profile

  10. Love that movie and the sequel! One of the things that stood out for me was that in the end the book’s revealed secrets eventually brought the characters closer together…it just took a LONG time. For me, I often base my fiction off of reality. Writing is the way I let myself be totally vulnerable. Anyone that knows me will see me in my writing and in my characters. But that’s the thing, they’ll see ME. I rarely expose people I know. The only person that I’ve written about that may take offense is my ex…and he doesn’t have a clue, so I’m good! Interesting and thought provoking as ususal Quanie!
    Faith Simone recently posted..All Up In My E-Reader (July Edition)My Profile

    • The only person that may take offense is your ex? That’s it? LOL! This is crazy, but I typically can’t write about myself in my fiction. My experiences somehow never “fit” the character’s story so I find that I have to leave myself out of my stories. And you’re right: the characters in The Best Man do end up patching things up, but honey…if that had been my family or friends…let’s just say the story would have ended with someone going to jail….
      Quanie recently posted..The Truth in FictionMy Profile

  11. Hi Quanie,
    I used to worry, but I wrote my mother into one of my books and even included a childhood story she told me about. She read the book and recognized nothing of herself. I saw no point in helping her to see herself since I believe it’s really the negative aspects of her character that she may not have known she held that made the character unrecognizable to her :-). I think if someone made me into a character, there’s a good chance I might not recognize myself because who we feel we are and who other people see is two different things.
    Now, plot is another situation. If you put a unique life experience to paper you have to assume that like in Best Man, even if people don’t immediately see themselves they will eventually connect the dots based on the experience.
    Ava Bleu recently posted..Guest Author Parker J. ColeMy Profile

    • Hi Ava,

      How funny that your mother didn’t recognize herself! I often wonder about that: do people see themselves the way we do? If they don’t then you are right. There’s a chance that they may not even know we are writing about them (a good thing!). But writing about specific situations may be a dead giveaway, so maybe the trick is not writing about particular instances, but instead, character issues.
      Quanie recently posted..The Truth in FictionMy Profile

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