Writing advice: “write what you know.” Really? I know that there’s a lot I don’t know and I allow my curiosity to determine what I write about. “Write what you know” can also apply to people — yourself as well as people close to you. So how much of yourself do you use in your writing? How much of other people? I started thinking about this after reading Damyanti Biswas’ post “How much of yourself do you put on the page?” at the Daily (w)rite this past week.
When I was working on the first draft of the first draft of Perceval’s Secret, I included several incidents from my own life that I gave to Evan Quinn. At the time, they fit. Or I thought they did. Over time, as I worked on the story, and on Evan, I realized that none of my personal incidents truly fit Evan’s life experience. He was his own person with his own experiences. He didn’t need mine. And he also didn’t need the people in my life. He had his own friends and family.
I cut all the details from my own life, but I think they helped me to reach into Evan’s mind and experience to discover his life. Now, I’m quite happy that I cut those personal details. But there is a lot of me in the story. I wrote it, after all. My research, learning, and knowledge are there. Emotional and psychological truths are there. And my fear. What truly frightens me is what appears to be benign on the surface but turns out to be deadly beneath. The beginning of the movie Jaws is a good example: two kids, a bit drunk, decide to go for a midnight swim in the ocean, an ocean that looks benign, but beneath the surface lurks a Great White Shark. I wanted to capture the essence of that threat in Evan’s story. A hero can also be a villain.
Writing about real people, or basing characters on real people that you know creates a similar situation as writing about yourself. With one important difference: you can write about yourself as much as you want, but you really need permission from other people to write about them. A lesson about characters in fiction early in my writing life was to always — always — disguise a real person by changing the name and physical characteristics if you used that person as a character in your story and hadn’t cleared it with that person. I realized fairly quickly that characters tended to want to be their own people with their own lives. What a professional writer needs to be able to spot is when a character takes off on his own and leaves the real person far behind. Let the character live his own story.
Evan Quinn is a young American orchestra conductor. While doing research on conductors and conducting, it occurred to me that someone, somewhere, would say that Evan was actually some real, famous American orchestra conductor disguised. I needed to protect Evan as a fictional character by insuring that I gave him no physical, personality or behavioral characteristic that belonged to a real American conductor. Part of my research became talking with people who knew conductors, running Evan’s characteristics by them to find out if any matched a real conductor. The characteristics that matched surprised me because they were so…strange. The one I remember now is an obsession with socks. On the one hand, conductors stand for a long time on the podium and it only makes sense that they’d want good support for their feet with shoes and socks they wear. But one conductor had taken his obsession beyond that — sort of like the stereotypical obsession with shoes for women. Needless to say, Evan’s interest in socks got cut out.
Include real people in your stories or not? Write what you know or what you do not know? If you’re worried about angering someone you made a character in your story, maybe it’s time to ask yourself what about that person interests you enough to make her a character in your story. Then give that characteristic to a fictional character and explore different ways that character may behave with that characteristic as motivation. Let the fictional character determine the story and the action, not your interest in a real person. Each has a right to their own story.