Writing is tough. As an author, you want to create compelling characters whom your readers care about, settings—rooms, homes, hospitals, supermarkets, bakeries, towns, cities, countries—that readers are able to see, smell, and feel, so they can immerse themselves completely you’re your story (without realizing they’re doing so). You want to construct scenes that put your readers on edge (and keep them there with a few breaks in between), all while you, the writer, are achieving what you need to achieve, i.e., advancing the plot, creating character motivations, tying up loose ends and, as best you can, entertaining everyone in the process. Tough stuff, that. As Tim O’Brien says, “Fiction is a lie that is told in the service of truth,” and that lie ain’t easy to pull off. So, as writers, we pull things from our real lives and the lives of others. Which, as we know, can be a tricky proposition.
The question, of course, is how much of our real lives (or the real lives of others) can we or should we use in our fiction? It’s a complicated subject, for a variety of reasons. Writing about our own histories is difficult, especially when our parents or family members are still alive. We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and we don’t want to have uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas vacations, family reunions. We don’t want Uncle Steve, three shots to the wind on Añejo and dancing around in a stained Santa hat, asking why one of the uncles in our novel is a drunk wife beater. We fear our cousin, Angie, who lives in Pelham Bay and whose father (it’s been rumored) had gotten one of his underage congregants pregnant, will sit us down to tell us how fucked up it is that we’re airing our (probably fake) dirty laundry just to sell some books to people out on Long Island who think they’re better than us. That’s not why we write. Or, at least, that’s not why a lot of us write. So, what do we do, and how do we do it, when it comes to using the events that affect us in real life in our fiction? It’s easier than you think.
I worked in marketing and advertising for years. I’ve had one or two (I think) short stories about the things I found ridiculous over my marketing career published in literary journals. I didn’t name names, nor did I get overly specific on the events I wrote about. Instead, I tried to take the absurdity of common, everyday activities and tasks I encountered, and write about them in ways that perhaps included the titles of my colleagues, the working relationships between the various disciplines that worked together, all while avoiding the exact situations I found interesting or funny. If you’re in that industry, you know the quirks and personalities and often the behaviors of the creatives (they art and creative director types, the copywriters, the analytics and data guys, the directors, VP and SVPs jockeying for that next title, the HR folks whose jobs aren’t at all to help you, the employee, improve your station but rather to protect the agency from lawsuits and angry employees delivering their shit pancakes for everyone to consume. What you want to do is tell your story, but switch things up a little so no one gets hurt, especially you, the storyteller.
Here are 9 WAYS TO USE REAL LIFE EVENTS IN YOUR FICTION:
I don’t tell the exact story. You’re writing fiction, not memoir or nonfiction, so your ability to fictionalize other parts of the story is a tool that’s available to you. If you feel like someone that’s a part of the story your telling will know, immediately, and without a doubt, that what you’re writing about includes them in some way, and it presents a less than flattering image of them, change some things up that’ll blur the story enough that your name won’t shop up in nasty Facebook posts about how your novel is full of lies and defamatory in some way to their character.
I change the sex of my character(s). If you’re fictionalizing a story about something you went through, and the event involves a man, change the character to a woman (or vice versa). Not that it’ll be impossible for someone to deduce you’re referencing an event that they were involved in, but changing the sex of the character makes it more difficult for them to argue that they’re the target of your fiction.
I change the locations/settings of where my story takes place. If in real life your story takes place in a private equity firm in Manhattan, maybe relocate your characters to a dentist’s office in Coral Springs, Florida. The change of setting is often too far a leap for your reader to associate what’s happening in your work with what went on three thousand miles away in another industry.
I change the important events of the story. I write literary fiction, so my works tend to be about emotionally charged situations. If someone is raped or molested in real life and then I write about the trauma suffered by that person afterwards, I may make the event a violent physical assault during a mugging rather than a sexually oriented assault at a party. The last thing I want is to further injure someone who has already been traumatized, but also because it gives me a way to explore different trauma (I research by reading books, articles, etc. to gather factual information of real trauma).
I rewrite aphorisms. So, if I want to use an aphorism similar to the connotation that “Actions speak louder than words,” or “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” or “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” I’ll play around with different versions of it, creating my own aphorisms that work for my story. This isn’t really using real life in your fiction, but it’s something I think is important to incorporate, in some way, into fiction.
I ask people who have stories I think would make good fiction if it’s okay to use the things that have happened to them in my writing. I still change the names and often the sexes and outcomes if it makes sense artistically. Sometimes I use names of friends who, for one reason or another, I think might work in my fiction. I did that in my novel, The Losses. While my friend enjoyed a bastardized version of his name in the book, his girlfriend at the time did not. The character was a child molester, and she wanted to know what kind of friend would do that to another friend. A writer! I thought.
I take plot points from something that’s happened in real life, and then create plot points that parallel the progression, using the former narrative to create the impact of the latter. What I mean is, say someone is fired from having an affair with their superior, yet the superior does not lose their job. Say that the superior pushed for the affair, which is obviously inappropriate. Say the person that was fired has video of the affair, pictures, whatever. And now they start to threaten that superior—I’ll go to your husband, I’ll go to the CEO, whatever. Plot, as we know, is about causality. This happened, causing this to happen, which caused this to happen, etc. There’s a series of events there that cause the story to increase dramatically. While I change the story, the beats of those plot points remain compelling from a structural perspective, and so I try my best to keep those beats happening at similar times/points within the story. It’s more pronounced in script writing, more formulaic if you will, but nonetheless it creates a structure that the reader comes to expect, and hopefully enjoy.
I wait for people to die. I know, horrible, yet, also, a little bit humorous. Conflict with anyone about your writing can be uncomfortable. For the most part, people want to be portrayed in a good light, and if you’re writing about someone, chances are that it’s the negative things that are interesting. As the first line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina states, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and in fiction, it’s the unhappy families that everyone wants to read about. So, let your real-life characters die. Let their stories live on afterwards in your fiction. Just make sure they don’t have anyone who loves them that’s going to go after you once they realize who you’re writing about.
This one’s a little different, but still applies. Historical fiction is a fantastic genre to write in because the world and events have already been created for you—literally. You don’t have to come up with something out of nothing. If you’re writing a novel set during WWII, you already know the events and outcomes that shaped how the war began, ended, and how we currently perceive those things. Now you just need to throw in your characters and your plot and get to writing. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle reimagines what life would be like if the Axis Powers won the war. In his version, the Germans, Japanese, and Italians win, and the world is a very different place.
As an author, you are the god of your novel. You can write whatever you want. But it can be a real downer, wanting to write a story based on real life events, especially when they involve your family or people you care about.
Don’t avoid a good story just because it’s close to home. Make that story yours by allowing your imagination to run wild with the potential, alternative avenues you can take to write the story you want to read. Hopefully some of the above tools can help you get you on your way to allowing you to express the stories beckoning to be let out and told to the world.
Cully Perlman is a Substantive Editor and Novelist. Reach out at Cully@novelmasterclass.com to discuss him editing your novel.