Writing fiction that doesn't depict your family in a bad light

How do you portray a fictional character having abusive parents, spouse, or terrible relatives…without readers thinking you are indirectly writing about your own family from your own experience? (I had great, caring parents and family, FYI, by the way - that’s why I ask how.)

You just do it.

I’m pretty sure if you write about dragons, people will not think you’re writing from personal experience. Writers write outside of their own experience all the time, or frankly they couldn’t write most of the compelling experiences out there.

Why worry what other people will think about it?

So are you saying that this piece of fiction is, god forbid, a work of imagination?

If I don’t depict my family in a bad light people will know it’s fiction.

I have tried to establish from the start that I am lying for your entertainment. Except for the part about Mila Kunis. That part is totally legit.

I tried writing about the happiness in my family. It turned out to be just like the happiness in every family.

There’s an old author joke that says whatever you write people will assume it’s based on things that really happened to you and not the product of your imagination…until you write your memoir, which people will assume is largely made up.

The only way to avoid people thinking it’s you is to write multiple books and not make it a major theme in all of them. In a single book you can’t really stop people deciding that it must be you, but if everything you write involves someone who has major issues with their family, it’s hard to say that it’s purely based on imagination.

Peter Hedges, who wrote What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, dedicated that book to his parents in a preface that said something to the effect of “To my father, who is not dead, and my mother, who is not obese.”

(If you haven’t seen the film or read the book, Gilbert’s father committed suicide when Gilbert was a boy and his mother is morbidly obese.)

There’s nothing you can do. Even if you say “My family was great, really!” those kinds of people will accuse you of being defensive and use that statement against you.

Experienced readers know that fiction is fiction. You don’t have to come from an abusive background to write about one because you can learn from other people’s experiences and you can just plain imagine it.

And here’s a little Biblical advice: “‘Truly I tell you,’ [Jesus] continued, ‘no prophet is accepted in his hometown.’” - the same is true for writers.

Andy Griffith had relatively little to do with the development and writing of the show that bore his name and he repeatedly- REPEATEDLY- said, in pretty much every interview where it came up, that while he was indeed from small town North Carolina, Mayberry was a fictional place that was not in any meaningful way based on or inspired by his hometown of Mt. Airy. In some interviews he went into detail: Mayberry was a fantasy, there was no way a real sheriff could go around unarmed and to this add that in the 1960s a small town southern sheriff would have been dealing with all kinds of integration issues and drugs just like every other sheriff. Basically he was clear: The Andy Griffith Show was a sitcom and not meant to be any more based in fact than The Honeymooners was inspired by a real bus driver.

And in half the short bios and articles and obituaries of him you’ll find words to the effect of “the town of Mayberry, based on Griffith’s real life hometown of Mt. Airy”. And if you go to Mt. Airy you’ll find a museum dedicated to the show and be told that they’re the real Mayberry, and find disappointingly little to memorialize the town’s far more interesting real life citizens.

So, to quote St. Paul of Simon, “man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”. Hey hey.

Of course I have the opposite problem. I’m about to make my family explode because I AM basing a work on them. Luckily other than myself the main characters are all dead and the living I’ve reduced to very small roles.

You assume that everyone understands both author and reader are grown-ass adults who understand what fiction is and what writers do.

Good to see you around again, Sampiro. How could you write a memoir in which your sister played a small part, though … ?

What about your sister, the fundamentalist pharmacist, or am I misremembering?

Dragons aren’t something people interact with regularly, but abusive parents are very commonplace.

Whenever I bump into people who read something I wrote that depicted them (though not by name) in a bad light, they just assumed I was writing about somebody else.

I remember reading that JK Rowling had said the only character in the Harry Potter series directly based on someone she knew was the cowardly blowhard Gilderoy Lockhart. She also said that was sure the real person would not only never realize he was the inspiration for this character, but probably thought he was the inspiration for the wise and powerful Dumbledore.

The few times I’ve written characters based on my family…I’ve improved them, making them nicer, healthier, happier, saner, and more generous than my real kin.

Now, the villain who resembles my old boss… 'Nuff said!

Unless you plan on showing it to someone who knows you personally, I wouldn’t worry about it.

SO we finally get to buy a book by you soon? Been waiting a long time since the thread on Behold Your Mother!