Image: Matthew Loffhagen
When it comes to mining your life for artistic inspiration, proverbs abound:
Art imitates life.
Truth is stranger than fiction.
Write what you know.
It can be immensely helpful and inspiring to draw from your own life experience to inform your writing. It can also be a minefield. Authors who have attempted to put real-life people or events on the page have asked themselves: Is this going to offend her? Will he be mad at me? Am I misrepresenting what happened?
When debut novelist Teri Case, author of Tiger Drive, wrote about a dysfunctional family just trying to survive in a Nevada trailer park, she didn’t have to go far to look for inspiration. Teri explains, “I knew what it felt like to grow up in a poor family with too many secrets. What happens in Tiger Drive did not specifically happen in my family, but it could have.”
Teri’s approach to borrowing from real life to construct the fictional world is something she calls “faction”, a term coined by her brother. Teri was kind enough to talk with me about her process, and I wanted to share it with you. It’s a powerful approach, one every writer can benefit from. Most importantly, it starts with thoughtful intention.
Calculate the risk
What are the risks involved in writing what you know? You could offend someone. You could misrepresent a situation. You might even get into legal trouble. There’s plenty that can go wrong if you’re not careful. Don’t let the risks sideline a project, but do take time to fully think through your plan.Consider the potential consequences when using elements of real life in your writing.Click To Tweet
How do you do that? Here are a few things to keep in mind as you start out:
- Don’t just forge ahead without thinking it through. Before you plow into the project, stop and consider the implications of what you’re writing and who it might affect.
- Understand the extent to which you are infringing on other people’s lives, and calculate the risks of doing so.
- Ask yourself how far you should go, and be willing to stop before you go too far.
The best way to set your project up for success is to create boundaries and stick to them. Teri writes in her weekly newsletter that when she started Tiger Drive, she made a promise: “I would not tell anyone’s truths or cause any harm with my words. If I ran into blurred boundaries, I’d talk to the source and check their comfort level and get their blessing.” Teri goes on to tell the story of how honoring this boundary wasn’t always easy, but it created positive outcomes she could never have foreseen. We’ll come back to this later.
Define the boundaries
First, I want to talk more about the idea of setting boundaries. This is a critical step in knowing how far is too far, when a subject or story is off-limits, and how to walk the line between fact and fiction. It’s easy to say you need to set boundaries, but how do you actually go about it?
In addition to Teri’s do-no-harm rule, she relied on archetypes as a starting point for constructing her characters. “Anything that was archetypal was not only fair game… Archetypes offer the opportunity for a character to resonate with someone who might not think he or she matters.” Can you see archetypes as a starting point for constructing a true-to-life character without hitting too close to home?
Another boundary you might find helpful is Randy Ingermanson’s one-third rule: “Take no more than a third of a character’s traits from any one real person.” This doesn’t have to be an exact formula, of course, but the spirit of this rule is just right for fiction. Unless you’re writing a biography or memoir, you probably shouldn’t be aiming for this type of accuracy.Creating a character? Don’t borrow too much from any single person.Click To Tweet
There are always exceptions, though. If you are in a situation where mining real life could cause you problems but you still want to go ahead, consider writing under a pseudonym. Also remember that, while these boundaries are important, so are your editorial rights. What if an idea or character does push someone’s buttons? Are you obligated to change it? Not necessarily. This is your work. All final decisions are up to you.
Defining boundaries is not about submitting to what others are comfortable with; they’re a tool to help you set the rules for your writing and stick to them.
Consider the consequences
Pushing the boundaries of fact and fiction comes with consequences, though, doesn’t it? People can get hurt or be unfairly exposed or even find grounds to take you to court. There are serious consequences when you overstep appropriate boundaries in writing about other people. But enough doom and gloom; I think we’ve covered the risks. What about the reward?
Can there be positive consequences of mining real-life people and events for your writing? Yes! I mentioned earlier that I’d come back to Teri’s experience. Teri hit a boundary as she was writing one of her characters, so she met with the family member who might be affected. The conversation took a surprising turn when he shared a secret with her:
I was the first person he had confided in in forty years. As a result, he’s been in counseling ever since. So this is a good example of where I’m not telling his truth… but I found out a truth that we could actually help him with.
Similarly, when Teri’s mom read the book – something Teri dreaded, as her mom kept thinking Tiger Drive was more memoir than fiction – she was pleasantly surprised by the outcome.
“You know what my greatest takeaway was of Janice’s story?” my mom said. “I realized I’ve never grieved for your dad.”
I suggested to my mom that she has actually never been able to grieve for anything… that she has always been too busy trying to move forward, to survive, to make it to the next day. She never had time for grief. My mom said, “Thank you for saying that.”
The rewards of writing from truth can be rich and far-reaching beyond our imagination. How might your experiences, life lessons, and perspective bring good things to life?
Not only does Teri’s approach come from best practices and common sense, it springs from a sense of personal mission. “I have a responsibility to share my experience,” Teri says. Readers who find common ground with her characters “will relate to the book, and just possibly their worldview will be influenced. Am I trying to change people? No. Am I trying to offer characters that people can relate to and feel less alone? Yes.”When drawing from real life, be guided by your boundaries and your aims.Click To Tweet
At the end of the day, what is it you hope to accomplish with your writing? When you put yourself or someone you know into your writing, what do you want to create? Calculating the risks, defining the boundaries, and considering the consequences are the how of writing what you know. But digging deeper can tell you the why. And that’s where your writing can put something powerful into the world.
What boundaries do you set when drawing from real life for inspiration? What are some of the risks you consider when writing a true-to-life character? Tell me about a time your writing produced unintended consequences, for better or worse. For more great advice on this topic, check out How To Get Away With Using Real People In Your Story and How To Get Your Partner To Support Your Writing.