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Ethical Considerations: Using Others' Experiences as Inspiration for Your Fiction


a woman standing with a lot of pictures for a collage
Writers Borrow. They Steal. They Use Whatever They Find Compelling to Tell Their Stories. You Just May Not Know It.

We all do it. Maybe not intentionally, but coming up with original ideas in fiction is a very difficult thing to pull off. A friend of mine said, There are no new plots,” and I believe him. You may have a new way of moving around the plot points or have a different take on how to wrap up your story or change up the dialogue or whatever, but in some form or fashion, it’s likely you’re stealing something, however minute, from the people around you. Is it ethical? I don't know. But that's where "Ethical considerations: using others' experiences as inspiration for your fiction" comes from. If you don't care, more power to you. I, however, do have a slight inkling to do the right thing.


I recently started writing a new novel (after completing a 502-page novel [my longest ever,] and one based on many current political realities), and the events that my new novel is based on I’ve pulled directly from a friend’s life. Now, I’ve changed a great deal, including the obvious changing of names, locations, and what ultimately the novel is about, but the story was so compelling that I’ve decided to risk being called out. In my mind, it’s that compelling a story. Good writers borrow, great writers steal, right? Well, I had to steal the heartbreaking story of my friend’s life, because its siren call was that strong—so strong I wrote the first draft in about 5 weeks—by hand! (normally I type, as I find I can still get the emotion I’m seeking by typing).


But it’s a risk. I haven’t told my friend that I’ve stolen parts of their life. I don’t know how they would react to learning about it, or about the liberties I’ve taken in order to use the base elements of their story to write a mystery (another first for me—I don’t write mysteries, but this story organically became one as I wrote). Everything, somehow, just fell into place. If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you know what it feels like to get that magic, to “be in the zone,” and you don’t fuck with that gift—you just strap yourself in and go for the ride. So, I went for the ride.


That said, borrowing and/or stealing the events from the lives of your friends or family members or acquaintances carries with it a risk you must be willing to take. Not everyone is going to be thrilled to have their story told in your fiction.


As a writer, primarily a novelist, I’m always searching for names, and so there’s a lot of names I’ve used, some of them the names of my friends, sort of as a cool “hey, look, you’ve made it into my book” sort of thing. In my novel, THE LOSSES, there is a wealthy pedophile who molests one of the main characters. I took my friend’s name and moved around a few letters, but if you know him you know I borrowed his name. But I told him about it prior to the novel’s publication, to ask if it would be okay. He said, Go for it! and I did. And it’s there for everyone to see. He liked the fact that his name was in print. His girlfriend? That was another story. She was upset, apparently, that I’d made him a pedo. He’s a little off, like most of my friends are (he’s an actor and English teacher and, recently, a Spanish food blogger), so I sort of knew he’d be cool with it. I couldn’t care less if his girlfriend found it offensive—he’d given me the go ahead, and so I went ahead. He’s memorialized and loves it.


woman peeking through the blinds
If You're Friends With a Writer, Remember: They're Always Watching.

But not everyone is like my friend. There are plenty of people who think like my friend’s girlfriend (actually, ex-girlfriend, as they’ve broken up since). I find that most of these people aren’t artists—not painters, not writers, not musicians, not actors, just regular people. Civilians, as the criminal elements amongst us like to say. They don’t understand the appeal of being seen as anything less than good, honorable people, even when we know they’ve probably got their own less-than-godly attributes.


My own name was used in a novel without my knowledge, but I read the book one day and knew the author used my name, and I was thrilled. If the author would have made me (although, let’s be honest, most times authors just use names because they fit into the work rather than the author actually referring to the person whose name they’ve decided to use) a murderer, or a pedophile or a philanderer or whatever, so be it. I’d just be happy to have been thought of when the author had been writing her book. Some people, though, do take offense, to the point that they consider legal action, which I find absurd. And, frankly, insulting.


The issue, I suppose, is what, or how much, of a person’s life can you use without offending the person whose story you’re stealing, or worse, hurting them unnecessarily. If their story is painful and you decide to write about it, even with the changing of names and other elements of their story, you may be causing pain to the person and/or their family in a way that may be unfair to them. Or that they believe unfair to them. And they may drop you as a friend. Or they may disparage you to other friends and family, who may be friends and family that you have in common. If that’s the case, you may have to be prepared for the backlash. You may have to suffer through the consequences of your actions. It may help to ask yourself a few questions prior to going off and riffing on your friend or family member’s life story.


  • Some of the questions you may want to ask are:

  • Will you be potentially hurting that person/people?

  • Might you want to ask that person/people if they would mind you writing about them/their story?

  • Would they want to read your finished work for accuracy? For the ability to provide you with input?

  • Might they consider legal action if you do or don’t fill them in on what you’ve written post publication? (They may not likely have a case, but it can be an awkward circumstance).

  • Should you maybe collaborate with them to get the facts straight if you’re telling it verbatim?


Are the details and the events different enough that your friend/family member won’t even recognize that it’s their story? If that’s the case, you’re golden, Pony Boy.


These questions may help you write your novel, or they could kill it before you even start. I use events from other people’s lives constantly. But I change the details so much that people don’t really ask if I’ve based my work on their lives. Once, when I was younger, I let an ex read a work in progress. I’d written the novel before I’d started dating her, so it was based on my experiences in a foreign country and had nothing to do with her. Still, my ex asked me if I’d based the novel on her. Without being rude, I told her no, I had not. I had written the novel before I’d even started dating her. Which told me that what I’d written was a universal experience that could apply to anyone, anywhere. Which is what good fiction is, isn’t it? Pulling the universal out of the personal?


sad man sitting down shirtless with a rainbow across his face on a blue background
Sometimes, as Writers, We Must Steal or Borrow Someone Else's Trauma. Maybe Ask Them if That's Okay.

These days, I tend to not take into account what people may think about what I write about, because, inevitably, someone is going to think you were writing about them. But this current novel I’m working on has given me pause. I’m not going to stop working on it—I think it’s got the elements of something that can be special—a little bit mystery, a little bit literary fiction. But I will be changing some things around because I know the novel has the potential to cause some pain. I won’t get into it—it’s too much to divulge, and not my place to do it. But I can fictionalize it enough (I hope), so that my goal is still reached. That goal is to write compelling fiction that every one of my readers can relate to, can feel deep inside, because they know it can happen to anyone of us, at any time, anywhere. But be careful when stealing someone’s life for your writing—you may lose some friends and family in the process.

 

Cully Perlman is a writer, editor, and obsessive reader. If you have a novel ready to be edited, he can be reached at Cully@novelmasterclass.com 

 

 

3 Comments


Jon Tobey
Jon Tobey
Apr 30

I once met a guy in a bar who claimed he was Al Capone's undertaker. I always meant to go back and find him. I didn't care if his tales were true. They were fantastic.

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Replying to

I always find it odd when people just make stuff up at bars, etc., claiming the story is true. Maybe it is/maybe it isn't, but I guess if it makes for a good time, what's it matter.

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Guest
Apr 30

Interesting. I’m sure I’ve taken plenty of “facts” from others around me, but I’ve never had anyone get mad about it or point out that they thought it was them.

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