Writers (Pro or amateur) - putting friends/family in fiction story

I’m an amateur writer. I believe I’ve come up with a tremendous idea. Basically my actual life is the starting point, so obviously my friends and family are a large part of the drama. I don’t think any real person (other than my character) gets shown in a bad light. I know I’m looking five steps ahead, but any writers out there have any backlash using “real” people in your fiction writing? The majority of the drama comes from my “wife” being killed off pretty early in the story. Non-writers, would you be upset if your life was dramatized in a fictional story?

Two things:

" I’ve come up with a tremendous idea. Basically my actual life is the starting point" Putting these two statements together usually invalidates the first.

Thre is often backlash using real people in fictional stories.

I’ve been a character in a book (without being asked permission), though the author changed my name and insisted it wasn’t based on me (a pretty ridiculous denial, since she used a part of my past that was unusual, to say the least). I didn’t mind, but I like the attention.

I’ve occasionally used historical figures in my fiction, but no friends and family, primarily because people I know wouldn’t behave the way my characters would have to for the story.

As for the legal aspects, if you use someone’s name and make the character recognizable, and if the person doesn’t like how they were portrayed, they can sue you. I don’t offhand know how often this succeeds – probably not often – but you could end up paying everything out of pocket if you lose the suit (book contracts stipulate this routinely; some even allow the publisher to settle and you pay them*).

*If you have a book contract, make sure the clause on lawsuits includes the words “if sustained,” which means a court has to rule against you and a publisher’s settlement is not money out of your pocket.

I would definitely not use any actual names. I’d also consider actually creating characters who are different from your friends and family.

Two comments:

I had a friend, now regrettably deceased, who was a middling-name sf/f writer. He would occasionally threaten surly clerks and the like with: “You understand that I’m a writer… and I can make you IMMORTAL.”

It’s common for writers to borrow names from friends and acquaintances, but NOT identifiable characteristics. By name, I appear in a a few midlist novels; by personal quirk, I appear in another. I am amused by these appearances but if any of them had made an identifiable portrait of me, I wouldn’t be.

It’s an exaggeration that every work of fiction by every major literary fiction writer in the past 100 years uses friends and family as the base for the characters. But it’s not all that much of an exaggeration.

Is there backlash? Always. Sherwood Anderson made himself forever persona non grata for Winesburg, Ohio. (That was 100 years ago and the start of what we consider the modern age of fiction. I’m sure that it was true earlier, but I’m not expert enough to say for sure.) Was the backlash meaningful? Not to him. Again, it’s an exaggeration - but not much of one - that every major writer has said at some point that the purpose of friends and family is to supply content for fiction and that they couldn’t care less what the reaction is.

Here’s another point: what makes you think anybody will ever read your amateur work of fiction to be bothered by it?

If you want to write, grow a thick skin.

That’s known as “tuckerization” for Wilson “Bob” Tucker, who would put friends’ names in his stories as a joke. Some authors even auction the right to have a character named for the winner, with the proceeds going to charity.

I can’t think of a time I put anyone I knew in my fiction, and I make it a point not to use names – even first names – of people I know.

I had a brief fling with a French dude I met in London - he came to Berlin to visit me and, well, it didn’t turn out well. He was a rather intense, odd guy (went off to become a sheepherder for two years). I found out he wrote and published a short book of poetry about our relationship and let’s just say I didn’t come across as a wonderful person. (It was in French, which I don’t speak, but I had a friend read it and tell me about the content.) It didn’t sell a lot of copies - but still.

I think the only problem with using real people is there might be a tendency for people to get upset at every single adjective, verb and noun. Even if you only fleetingly mention, “…she squeezed past me in the kitchen…” you will hear that woman say, “Are you saying I’m fat???”

“Does this novel make my ass look fat?”

In the sf community. I don’t know that the term has ever been heard outside it. But then, only mystery comes close to the level of author/reader incestuousness that sf/f wallows in. :slight_smile:

Yes, I do believe its a good idea. Basically I take my life right now and imagines if XYZ happens. Would this story ever get published, probably not. My wife would definitely want to read it. My wife, and her absence, is a major part of the story. I fear that attempting to put this imagined reality onto the page may hurt someone. Is my urge to write, worth it?

You can definitely write it. Whether or not you want to *publish *it is another question.

There’s no harm in writing it. The problem is telling people about it, and if you’re going to kill a character based on your wife, you need to tell her upfront and be careful about it. You don’t have to tell her before you sit down to write, but you’d need to do that early on. The rest of your family can wait, perhaps until you are sure you’re committed to all the tiredness and carpal tunnel that a long-term writing project involves. Ultimately I think this is a very individualized situation. Some people are just going to be cool with it and some aren’t. Just remember that you don’t get to tell them how they’re allowed to feel about it. If you’re committed to this, you have to accept that their feelings are not in your hands.

One of my father’s friends self-published a novel and used my name and my father’s for two characters who got killed off near the beginning of the story. I’m still kind of annoyed about it. I didn’t like the idea of being killed off and I thought he should’ve asked. (I would have said no.) That’s someone I don’t know very well. If we were close I’d probably have had to tell him what I think and then let go of it. If my girlfriend wanted to write a novel that kicked off with my murder, I would tell her to go ahead because I would want to be encouraging- but I think I would be weirded out. I strongly suggest you be upfront with her if you intend to do that.

I’ve spent a couple of years working on a memoir and I think everybody in my family had a complaint at some point. Most of them were not huge. Maybe there will be bigger disputes if I find a publisher; we’ll have to see. In the meantime I’m working on a novel that is not about anyone I know well, but is very heavily inspired by people I knew briefly. I’m essentially using some basic facts about their lives and making up the rest. I plan to show it to everyone involved at some point and we’ll see how they feel about it. But at least I can say the characters aren’t supposed to be them, they’re just sort of based on fleeting impressions of them and all the details (and plot points) are made up. Maybe that will get me off the hook.

I used to do it, but stopped for primarily ethical reasons. Mainly because the bulk of my fiction writing has been erotic BDSM short fiction. I would base my female characters on young women I knew or was acquainted with in real life, usually using their real first names and physical descriptions. (I should note that I was writing this stuff entirely for private, personal use, with no intent to publish. My writing “career” started long before I found the Internet.)

My reasons for stopping were twofold. First, I eventually came to the realization that basing my characters on people I actually knew was subtly influencing how I perceived them in real life. Given the subject matter, I decided that wasn’t a good thing. Second, it’s one thing to be a young man writing out my sexual fantasies about the young women I knew in my peer group. It’s another thing entirely when my characters don’t age along with me (I got older, but my characters were still 18-25), forcing me to look to the next generations of 18-25-year-olds that I knew in real life. That started feeling especially creepy when I got old enough to actually have a daughter in that age range (I could theoretically have a 25-year-old kid now).

Thankfully, the Internet solved that problem for me. It gave me access to a virtually unlimited supply of “anonymous” models from which to draw inspiration, and I name them based on what I think would be a suitable name for the character. Since they’re already porn performers, I don’t feel bad about sexualizing them, and I can publish my stories online without worrying about somebody recognizing themselves.

Well–now wait–w–
Come on now, that is ***totally ***unfair!
I mean, someone who can put the entire Dune series in a back left pocket has got to admi…
Well, should ad…
Well, probably ought to… :frowning:
I’m gonna take my pillow down to the garage early, okay?

The people at UBI-Soft admitted that they created the Ghost Recon character names by compiling an employee roster and then mismatching first and last names. I don’t think most novels have enough characters to make that technique work very well with your real world associates’ names. Best to change a few more details, as well.

My creative writing instructor in college encouraged us all to feel free to model our characters after people we knew. The key, she noted, was in making sure we changed especially recognizable features – making a fat left-handed blond guy into a skinny ambidextrous brunette woman, that kind of thing.

In the old series Barney Miller, the cop named Harris (Ron Glass) was an aspiring writer in his off hours. When he published a book, several of the regulars found themselves depicted and the siren-chasing lawyer threatened to sue. Harris protested that he had changed the character’s name, but the lawyer claimed it was a sleazy two-bit ambulance-chaser who would gladly overbill his grandmother for settling her will and “Even my Mother would recognize that as me!”

I don’t remember if it was Bradbury or Asimov who once said he liked using his fiction in order to maim and torture his real world enemies (by name or description) in the most horrendous ways. I suspect Science Fiction can be particularly good for such catharsis. It would also be a great way for an author to ‘win’ the love (or soul, or just the body) of the real world people that caught his interest (fancy, infatuation, romantic obsession) over the years, as well.

Please Sir or Madam
Won’t you read my book?
It took me years to write
Won’t you take a look?
…–Lennon and McCartney (Beatles)
Paperback Writer

There was a movie, decades ago, featuring a newspaper comic strip writer/artist who drew his main character to match himself and who killed off his character’s wife. His wife saw the advance drawings and was crushed, fleeing in tears to an unknown location and leaving her ring by the drawings.

Since it was a whacky comedy, she came back at the end, just in time to keep the police from arresting him for her murder. But things don’t always work out that well, so be sure to warn your wife before you write her off.

I’m not sure I understand the question. Like Exapno Mapcase said, writers base characters on people they know as a matter of course. With different names, and not necessarily a one-to-one correspondence, but they do it.

I always write characters that are composites of people I know, but nothing that is so unique that someone can say “hey that’s me!” or if they think it’s them it would be too vague for them to prove. I definitely would not use any real names.

Truman Capote seriously pissed off some people by using them as characters in his unfinished final novel, Answered Prayers.

Aren’t you familiar with the cliche of fictional writers who do this and then get raked over the coals for it when he goes back home? Hell, it’s a big plot of multiple TV shows: October Road, Gossip Girl, Glory Days.

Besides not wanting to offend anyone, I wouldn’t because a. it’s lazy writing b. I don’t really know anyone interesting enough to make a character, myself included.

Maybe it is lazy writing, but some people are that interesting.

I completely forgot about this, but I was fascinated to find out that Allison Poole, a Jay McIreney character who also appears in two Bret Easton Ellis novels, was based on a woman named Lisa Druck who would become best known as Rielle Hunter.

And there are a number of Philip Roth books where the main character’s an author whose family disowns him over scandalous revelations in his best-selling too-true-to-life novel. I don’t know whether this plot in turn mirrors Roth’s family’s reaction to his risque best-seller ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’, but I think the parallels are deliberate.