This is because a lot of non-writers assume all novels are thinly disguised autobiography. If they know a fiction writer, they're always looking for themselves in the stories. Sometimes they can get pretty paranoid about it.
There was even a case in Portugal a few years ago where a women's family sued her—and won—after she self-published a barely-fictionalized portrait of her in-laws that was less than flattering.
But that's not usually the case. Most novelists make stuff up. We can't help it.
Donald Murray said, "all writing is autobiographical," and I suppose to a certain extent that's true, but not in the way most people think.
In my critique group recently, I read a scene that revealed the antagonist's abusive childhood. One member said, when he finished his critique:
"You pretty much described my childhood there. Have you been reading my diary?"
He was being funny of course. He knew I was tapping into an archetypal human experience and expressing it in a way that happened to relate to his own.
But other people aren't so understanding.
"That awful mother is supposed to be me, isn't it?" your mom says, looking teary.
"Of course not," you say. "It's fiction."
Although maybe, now that you think of it, the bad mom is a little like your mother when she first started getting those hot flashes…but no, the bad mom is more like your childhood friend's narcissistic Aunt Gloria. Funny, you never thought about her when you were writing the novel, but there she is, saying those dreadful Aunt Gloria things…
Do you owe Gloria an apology? Should you find out if she's still alive and ask permission to put her nasty remarks in your novel?
Na. Aunt Gloria would never recognize herself. She'd think she's the beautiful heroine.
Good fiction is inspired by real life, but it doesn't imitate it.
If we wanted to write about a person or story "the way it really happened," we'd be writing nonfiction, which pays better.
Novelists can't help making things up. It's what we do.
As John Steinbeck said— "I have tried to keep diaries, but they didn't work out because of the necessity to be honest."
But what happens if there's a real incident or person in your life you want to write about, but you don't want it to end up with a jumble of half-truths—like James Frey's infamous memoir, A Million Little Pieces?
I had to face that dilemma with the story that became the core of my mystery novel, The Gatsby Game.
A few years later, he was found dead on the floor of actress Sarah Miles' motel room during the filming of the Burt Reynolds movie, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing.
The incident caused a media frenzy, and has been called one of the "Ten Most Notorious Sex Scandals in Hollywood History" because it tanked Sarah Miles' career and her marriage.
The death was ruled an "accidental overdose" although the medical expert said David didn't have enough pills in him to kill anybody.
Nobody knows for sure how he died. But I've always had my suspicions based on what I knew about him.
I fought writing about the incident for years. I don't have any experience with writing true crime, and I don't much like to read it. Plus I was scared of the legal repercussions.
But the story wouldn't let go of me. A few years ago, I decided to write it down—just for myself. I wrote in a journalistic Joe-Friday, just-the-facts-ma'am style.
It was so dry, even I got snoozified.
I realized I'm a novelist and can't change. So I made another attempt—not trying to tell the "truth," but simply telling a story. I invented a fictional protagonist—a smart-mouthed nanny. Telling the story through her eyes made it come to life and added a lot of humor. I moved the setting to the little California oil town of Taft—originally called "Moron." (For real; truth IS stranger than fiction.) I'd always wanted to set a story there, and it was a perfect stand-in for the real site of David's death, Gila Bend, Arizona.
The result was pure fiction. The dead man became more childlike and endearing than the real David. The Burt Reynolds-type movie star faded into a walk-on. The story became a hero's journey for the nanny character. I gave her a down-to-earth romantic interest to make up for the dead delusional boyfriend.
Some of us can't write real stuff. Everything we touch turns to fiction.
And good fiction tells a more universal truth.
I think if you want to write true crime or nonfiction, that's great, but you need to get your legal ducks in a row. If you want to write novels, let the characters and story take you wherever they want to go. Stay true to the story, not the factual events.
What about you? Have you tried to write about a real incident and found yourself changing things for the sake of the story? Have you ever created a character or story and realized later that it's inspired by a real person or event?
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