This week we're taking a dive into a deeper, darker place: the ethics of writing about real people and real events. Rather than create a how-to guide, we decided to ask our resident Scribble how they feel about this area of writing and how it impacts their work and process.
I once had a conversation with a friend of mine about the night his dad died. That conversation became one of my favourite stories. It is one of the only pieces of writing that has ever worried me in regards to the ethics of writing about real people.
We were staying on a farm just outside of York and everybody else had gone to bed. In the early hours of the morning, drunk on rum and the comfort of our relationship, my friend opened his heart to me and talked about the worst night of his life. A few days later, in the privacy of my bedroom, I started typing and what came out wasn’t my story – but it was a good one. That story had to be written down.
I told my friend what I had written and asked him if he would read it. I told him that if he wanted me to, I would delete it and nobody else would ever see it. I was nervous. I was worried that I might have abused a boundary in our relationship that couldn’t be reinstated. A few moments after I pressed send, my phone rang.
You have to publish that. I love you.
That story remains unpublished (despite my efforts).
Published or not, it is in my opinion, one of the best things I have ever written. I owe that to my friend for sharing his story with me and allowing me to do it the best justice I could. If I didn’t use real people and real events to inspire my writing, that story would not exist. Of course, there are certain courtesies that must be made when writing about real people to preserve their identity and protect ourselves from legal action. That’s fine. But I believe that the best stories come from real people, from real emotions – from places of truth. I believe that as writers, it is in our best interest to draw from these people and their stories – with respect and honesty.
This is not something I tend to worry about too much, because in my experience, people very rarely recognise themselves in fiction - particularly not their less-flattering traits! Of course, one must be careful of the legalities, so make sure your pen-portraits are not recognisable, and try to be fair, even if you can’t be kind. Names, job, places, etc must be changed to protect the innocent (and the not-so-innocent), but all of that is window-dressing anyway. The truth of a character is in their, well, character, and remember, your writing is only your version of the truth. Everyone else who has met them will have a completely different perspective, so your character is not likely to be instantly recognisable to every single one of your readers anyway.
As far as writing about real situations goes, the same applies. Protect yourself by changing the necessary details, but other than that, write your truth. It’s your version of the situation, and you are presenting your perspective. You have a right to do that, but of course with rights come responsibilities, and these must be taken seriously.
This question, for me, has very little to do with making a character look like someone you spotted in IKEA and more to do with revealing hidden truths.
I think your problems really start when you take a real person and represent them, recognisably, in a potentially bad light, or you plausibly imply fictional action took place with an obviously real 'character'. To tarnish someone, in some way. It's just as possible to do this in fiction as in nonfiction or memoir, by the way. Not only are there potentially dodgy ethics at play here, but you could also be leaving yourself open to legal action. It's a really murky subject.
Honestly, this is something that bothers me a lot. I've written a few true stories that are never going to see the light of day. I needed to write those stories and, at the time, I needed to write the truth. I felt, and still feel, that changing the details would be a disservice. They are good pieces too; I'm proud of the craftsmanship that went into them. Those stories are never going to see any sort of publication in their current format because they are true and dark and damaging to people other than myself.
The official line here is that when you want to draw on truth like this, you should change enough of the detail that the person and / or event is unrecognisable. Until I'm ready to do that (or publish under a different name), those stories will remain buried.
Let's remember, before I sign off, that we're talking about whether this is something that bothers me. This is not a template of what you should and shouldn't do - only an assertion that decisions in this vein should never be made lightly.
Like I said at the start, it's a murky subject!
There is always worry attached when it comes to writing about real people. If you write too much of the truth, the writing can become biased or guilty of plagiarism. But if you don't write enough truth, your characters or narrative can become wishy-washy and two dimensional. How you approach the truth depends entirely on the intention of your piece and what will fit best.
My advice is to borrow pieces of people. If you've decided to write about someone you despise, base your character on them but write them how you wish that person looked/sounded. Maybe you want them to have a stupid voice, or an unsightly facial feature. Sometimes it's cathartic to do that, although I would suggest not being too obvious (we don't want any lawsuits!).
My other advice is to write your truths; your writing will be far more authentic and relatable if you write your own truths. This doesn't mean you need to name names, or explicitly describe the people you choose to write about, or who have inspired your writing. If you want to avoid being too overt, there are often ways to include the essence of someone; perhaps write the advice they gave you, or the actions they took that impacted your life. Ultimately, the options are endless.
Write your truth, most people won't notice you've written about them and, if they do, they'll be flattered right? Unless they've behaved badly...
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