Sunday, September 29, 2013

Writing About Real People - When Do You Disguise Who They Are?

My editor at Kensington, Peter Senftleben, asked me to draw a map of my world in the Twelve Kingdoms trilogy. This is what I plan to mail him tomorrow. In a poster tube, because it's big! Though I hadn't drawn anything in a really long time (20 years? More?), I enjoyed doing this more than I thought I would.

However, I also plan to tell him that, if they want to have a real illustrator redo it, my feelings won't be at all hurt.

So, this week's topic in the Word Whores bordello is - *rummages around in the purple pimp hat we store topics in* - Basing Characters on real-life people: the dangers and advantages.

You all remember I started out as an essayist, right? More, I wrote personal essays - about what I call pivotal moments. Those teaching events, big and small, that inform our lives. Which means, I wrote about real-life people all the time. As themselves. In fact, for my essay collection, Wyoming Trucks, True Love and the Weather Channel, my editor only let me change a few, very sensitive names, because she felt strongly that nonfiction carried a burden of promising the truth.

Now, any time you render a real-person into a character, even in a nonfiction essay, there's some "based on a true story" fictionalizing going on. There's really no choice, as it's impossible to fully represent the many complex details of a real human being on the page. You pick and choose key characteristics, much as in fiction.

The danger, of course, is picking the wrong stuff. We all bring subjective biases to our perceptions of others. In representing a real person, we want the reader to understand what makes that individual unique and interesting, particularly as plays into their role in that tale. It's not easy to do.

The other great danger, of course, is annoying, hurting or pissing off that person, depending on how they think they come off to the reader.

I had a writing teacher - a nonfiction essayist/memoirist - who insisted that a writer should never worry about the people in your essays ever reading them. She felt that the odds were vanishingly small that they would 1) see the article and 2) connect themselves with the character. (She was a big fan of changing names and distinguishing details.) However, she gave this advice coming out of writing for the magazine industry in New York City in the 80s. Pre-Internet.

Yeah. It made a difference.

There's another famous bit of advice, generally credited to Anne Lamott, to give a the character an exceptionally small penis, if you don't want him to recognize himself. It's a cute answer - though obviously a flip one. The principle might be sound, that you can somehow introduce a character flaw the real person would never recognize in themselves - or certainly not proclaim publicly - but it's not really practical. More, it defeats the purpose of writing about that person. If you're deliberately changing aspects of them, you're no longer faithful to the mission of nonfiction - see editor advice above on changing names. Taking that a step further, if you're not willing to own up to what you're writing about them, then you probably shouldn't write it.

I know this is a strong stance to take, but it's the same one I try to apply to everything I speak and write:

If I wouldn't say it to the person's face, I shouldn't say it at all.

Same goes for writing about the person.

This is not to say that I think we should only say happy, sunshiney things about each other. Sometimes we have things to say about how our friends, enemies and family members (a mix of both, there), that will not make them happy. The only answer is to own it. Be ready to respond, if they find out.

And, if that response means apologizing, then it's probably better to ask permission first.


  1. I tried writing a memoir once about my head injury - the 6-wk stay at the hospital, therapy, etc. I wrote the disclaimer - 'names have been changed to protect the no-so innocent as well as to protect myself from lawsuits' - and a few pages, but it never went anywhere. Writing about real people is way harder than making it all up in my head.

  2. I have been consistently fascinated to read about people and events in your life which I had some connection to, through the lens of your perspective, further filtered by your craft.

    1. Thanks Kev! I can see how it would be interesting to compare your perspective with my written one.