Blogging challenge 4 – art imitating real life

We write to remember our nows later – Terri Guillemets 

A piece of advice that I’ve often seen given to new writers is to write what you know. In its most direct form this can mean basing characters and events in what you’re writing on real people that you know and things that have happened to you. Autobiography disguised, to greater or lesser extent, as fiction.

Leaving aside the question of whether writing what you know is always the best thing to do, I think that there are a number of pros and cons to using your own life in your writing.

On the minus side:

  • Real life has a habit of being messy – readers like to see resolution of conflict and problems overcome but in real life it’s not always that straightforward.
  • You need to be careful not to offend people who were involved in the real world events and recognise themselves in the new fictional version.
  • You also need to consider whether people will assume that because some of the events are based on real-life all of them are. I worked with an author a few years back who was recognisably the lead in her book and had based the husband on her own, her own house even appeared. When I pointed out to her that this might lead people who read it to assume that the character’s various affairs and rather interesting habits were also based on her in real life, she was horrified.
  • Sometimes people use writing as a form of therapy for a traumatic event, for example a failed marriage. I always suggest that they consider how they will feel if the book becomes a best-seller and they’ve basically aired their dirty laundry in public. How would they feel about their parents and children reading about what went on?

On the plus side:

  • You’re likely to find a lot to write about. Nobody has such a boring life that there are no dramatic moments to use, no heartache or triumph to channel your characters through.
  • If you are basing scenes on real situations it can really help you with achieving believable dialogue.
  • If you have a strong emotional reaction to the people and circumstances that you are writing about it can be much more powerful for the reader.

I guess that what it comes down to is being careful about what you use and what you don’t use. If you are writing fiction then it needs to contain a fair proportion of imagined stuff as well as any of your own experiences. It’s fine to use the bones of a situation from real life but then take the opportunity to run with it in totally different directions.

Remember that your characters aren’t you and need to be allowed to develop their own personalities and reactions to given situations. Let yourself be surprised by them and allow the reader to share that surprise. That’s when your stories start to come to life.

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