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Welcome to our week of mailboxes. A full week of me responding to your questions to help kick off the return of one of this blog's most beloved features. Sorry it's been a long dry run–if you've been keeping up, you have some idea as to why. But as my three-day-job life eases (thanks to all of YOU and your generous contributions to my Patreon), I am able to work a little less frantically to pay the bills since moving out, and have more of the old levels of time and energy back into this blog.
I had a question if you find a way to write an answer to in your blog or facebook page. I finished my novel and a big plot twist involved the protagonists daughter. It had a supernatural spookyish element. I ended up taking it out because I thought if the book gets published and is well read or even if at some point my daughter will know about it, it might freak her out. the obvious point is it's not true. I would be willing to throw almost anyone under the bus (ha ha) for the sake of fiction but not my kids!!!! it's not unflattering at all, the opposite but just a bit spooky. so I threw out a whole amazing plot twist to protect my daughter. even though it's fiction people would read into it. I of course considered maybe my son would feel left out that his sister got all the attention i the book - ha ha. it could go either way. the plot required it be a female and a young child... I ended up switching the ending but then it has another little twist. I replaced a daughter figure with a romantic figure. no supernatural part but a sort of surprise. so it went from a big supernatural twist to big reveal romantic ending. now I'm worried my husband will have issues since the protagonist has a husband in the book. the real issue is that this is all fiction. It's not real. of course. but I'm worried about overlap between the protagonists life and mine and what my closest relationships reactions will be. I feel my husband will understand the plot twist and the idea that it's fiction. better he than my daughter. if you would address that in a post or in a blog or any random thoughts to me much appreciated.
There's a key question I have to ask you, M, before I can really answer this, and since we're not having a face-to-face, interactive conversation, I'm going to have to answer the question twice based on each possible answer. It's really the most important question when you're dealing with characters in whom you think people might see themselves.
ARE you writing these characters as your family members?See most writers don't write people they know into their stories. Because that's some bad juju magumbo right there. Rather they use amalgams of many people they know to form a single persona. They may use a physical attribute they like from one person or a characteristic from another. They take that nervous tick from a third, and that speaking cadence from a fourth. I'll be using the names of a few people in my own current work in progress because that is a reward tier on my Kickstarter and Patreon, but the characters won't be based exactly on the people they're named after. These characters are all rooted in real people–that's how they get that spark of life. But none of them actually IS a real person. They're more like aspect Frankensteins, sewn together from the parts of many different folks.
The reason for this is twofold. First of all, exactly as you fear in your letter, terrible things have to happen to characters. Stories without conflict and stakes aren't interesting, so characters should basically be tortured by the writer for the entertainment of the audience. And if people see themselves as exactly that character, and that character as having nothing but a cavalcade of tragedies happen to them (and that before their grisly death), they may wonder if that writer has something against them.
The second reason is probably the more dangerous one. With the first reason, you could still say to the person: "Nah, it's just a story. Sorry I killed off your family, had the bad guy eat your dog, and had you get slowly lowered into a thresher while you begged for mercy, but it was just a fun tale. Nothing personal." But with this second part, there is no way to slip the noose so easily.
Writers tend to be practiced at seeing people. I mean really seeing them. They notice foibles. They see flaws. They pick up on that habit you have for avoiding a topic, and they probably have a guess or three as to why. They see you blanch when certain things happen. They pick up on that tick you have that you think no one really notices. They perceive how often you sabotage yourself. They catch how many of your greatest obstacles are of your own making. I've guessed (correctly) when people were cheating on their spouses. I've picked up on intense insecurities. I've been right about people having PTSD or pasts of sexual abuse. I've predicted drug addictions long before I confirmed them. I've known before people themselves did that they were falling in love, and I've also been able to figure out when a couple was about to break up. It's not a superpower or anything, and I would never dissect anyone for sport like House M.D. or Sherlock Holmes–especially since I'm wrong enough to get me into big, big trouble if I tried. But when you look closely at the world and you don't flinch from the problematic side of the truth, you see contrast of beauty and its opposite in everything.
But seeing the world through that sort of untrammeled honesty has a downside too. People don't particularly want to be seen beyond the carefully cultivated mask they show the outside world. If you describe a drug addict as a "drug addict" in a book that is clearly about your friend, you're going to have to deal with some pretty pointed words about how they don't have a problem, fuck you very much, and you just lost a friend. Many of those things people keep to themselves, they do so for a reason.
When writers describe the world with honesty, it's not just going to be a toastmaster compliment-fest. They're not trying to destroy people, it's just that they see things. They see truth. This is the reason we can see the humanity in "the other guys" and the problematica in "our guys." This is the reason writers don't fit in with very many groups (except other artists) and often have the tiniest handfuls of friends.
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"Dont' fuck with writers. We'll describe you."
Of course most writers understand that everyone has these foibles and there's room to be both imperfect and loved. They accept despite flaws and they are equally honest about everything they see. There are no angels and no demons. There are just folks and we've all got skeletons hanging out in our clichés. It's more about observation than judgement and endless honeycombs of nuance in even the most immoral behaviors.
But most people are just so mortified to be seen that they keep us at arm's length if we ever show them that we have.
So when most writers write a character, unless it's someone they met once on a train or something who is never going to recognize themselves, they usually do a mix and match.
And because of this, a reader will often consider themselves in a character and maybe relate to them, but the reader will also know they aren't actually being exposed as a fraud or a bigot of some stripe or a felon or whatever. Also it gives the writer plausible deniability: "That character isn't you. I mean sure the shopping addiction and endless Gofundme's to help with rent are a little bit like how you spend too much on iTunes and then ask for loans, but that character is 6'3" and addicted to cheeseburgers. Plus they run a halfway house for lemurs and shoot ketamine into their eyeball. Does that sound like you?"
So if this is the case M, you're in the clear no matter what and you should write the story you want to write. The most you would probably have to do is sit down with your kids and say: "Look, Mommy wrote a story and there's a kid in it, but I want you to know it's not you." Same thing goes for your husband. It's just fiction, so you just tell him, "Look, this character is having an affair, but the character isn't me, and I'm not, and I wouldn't, and you're my huckleberry lambykins boopoo (or whatever you say to your husband that I don't want to know about)." That really should be the end of it.
And here is the second answer to the question above. If you are basing your characters on real live people and actually they are basically these people:
I would highly, highly, highly, unequivocally, in no uncertain terms recommend that you NOT do that.
You better not. It's just a really bad idea. For all the reasons I just said above.
And it's not hypothetically bad either. A lot of writers report their social relationships fell apart when someone could clearly see themselves in a character. Truman Capote wrote about his friends and then didn't have as many. A number of writers say they got a little too close to a character being clearly recognizable as a person in their lives and that was the end of that relationship. Autobiographers are constantly falling out with the people they write about–even years long friendships and loves. I can vouch for it too; I've gotten nuked from orbit by my friends (and righteously so) over some of my old Live Journal posts and really had to reevaluate how much I wanted to share my insights about a person (or even my feelings about an event) with the world at large. And even when I'm mashing up characters and slapping on a coat of superhero realism, if people think I'm complaining, I usually hear about it.
I mean that's why threatening to put people into your novel is...you know...a threat. We already do it to all the people we hate and don't care if we get into trouble with. *giggles sinisterly*
So your character's relationship with her husband is exactly like your relationship with your husband, and the affair is justified or romanticized, (and maybe you constantly complain about your husband's behaviors to rationalize it) someone's going to be sleeping on the couch for at least a few days, and that's if you avoid calling lawyers. But if your protagonist is clearly a different person than you, and the husband is clearly a different person than YOUR husband, you can probably just tell the folks involved that it's fiction, and not to worry.