This is going to be a two part series. The first part will be about writing from life and how to keep from going too far and the second will be about writing from a story someone else wrote (commonly called fan fiction). Both have their own challenges and own group of people who believe strongly one way or the other. Please try and keep in mind this is only my opinion and should be taken with a grain of salt. If you believe otherwise, that's your prerogative. Keep the comments nice, please.
I always say you should write from life. Many of my characters and the situations they find themselves in come from life. I do believe there's a fine line that, when crossed, says you went too far.
But how to know when/if it was too far?
Here's my quick checklist to know if you've taken too many liberties:
- If someone can read your story and know who you're talking about (not the individual the character was based on).
- If many people could read your story and know a deep secret and who it belongs to.
- If you use the name of the person you're writing about.
- If the situations are exactly as you remember them and someone was humiliated or harmed in any way.
Here's the way I do it:
- I never ever describe the person my writing is based on exactly. I make changes to their appearance (brunettes may become blonde, shorter folks may become taller, etc...) and their personalities.
- If it's a deep secret you were told in confidence, change the setting and the descriptions drastically (if it happened in a hotel - make it happen in a house, if it had two people - add a third person, if the situation included a discovery - change it so something similar but different was discovered, etc...).
- I never use the names of the people involved. Ever.
- I never expose someone else if they were humiliated or harmed in any way; even if the story is out of this world.
I have a great example of believable fiction writing! When people began reading Shelia, they asked me if that happened to me. It didn't; but I was able to make them believe I'd experienced it by the way I described the situations. I'm a student of human nature and am familiar with the reactions of those who have been put in tough positions. I listen when people talk. I empathize with them and try to walk in their shoes. Those situations in Shelia were pure fiction. No one ever told me a story like that. I've heard stories that were similar, but I would never have written those down. Because they weren't mine to tell.
Never talk to people; talk with them. Be a listener as well as a participant. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, it becomes all about me, me, me. Make it about them. This is a difficult skill to hone but, once you have it down, the world becomes your Google.
I once read an article about a photographer who had some great photographs of refugee women that had been beaten and raped. They were getting off a boat at the rescue mission where he was. He took their photos as they stepped from the boat but never published a single one. That photographer went on to win a Pulitzer for other photography work he did. Most likely, he could've gotten one with one of those images of the women. When he was asked why he never published them, his answer was: "Because the pain on their faces was so raw. They didn't need to be humiliated further by having those photographs published for the world to see." Ahhhh ethics at their finest.
Carry that with you as you write. Be like a doctor: Pledge first to do no harm.
Well, that's all for today, folks! Until next time, WRITE ON!