Writing Who You Know

By on October 31, 2017
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Sooner or later, just about every writer faces the dilemma--how do you write honestly and artfully about the people in your life without alienating them, or maybe triggering WW III?

That's an obvious challenge if you are writing a memoir, but novelists and poets can find themselves navigating minefields, too, when the time-honored technique of "writing what you know" leads to the tricky matter of writing who you know. That quirky uncle at Thanksgiving dinner may be an irresistible character for your novel, but he may not see himself quite like you see him, or like you render him in that hilarious scene in Chapter Three.

Famously, author Thomas Wolfe alienated his entire city when his autobiographical novel Look Homeward, Angel was published in 1929. In it, he included more than 200 thinly-disguised characters from his native Asheville, North Carolina. The town's response was so angry that Wolfe left his hometown and didn't return for eight years.

So what can a writer do?

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Well, for one thing, keep in mind that your memories and your interpretations of the people, places, and events that fuel your writing are yours and yours alone. Nobody else sees the world (or that crazy uncle) through your eyes, and nobody else has the same story to tell. Knowing that might not pacify the people who find themselves landing on your pages, but it can help you keep your focus on telling a great story.

At the same time, don't lose sight of the fact that the goal of all good writing is to in some way explore, uncover, and understand. Writing for revenge, for example, or simply to ridicule, isn't likely to achieve that. Even when your subject is deeply flawed, compassion is in order.

Sometimes, however, even the most complimentary portraits won't be well-received. One memoirist tells the story about a scene in his book in which he depicted some of his family members as he had always known them--a bit brash, and not exactly svelte or sophisticated.  He described them lovingly since these were relatives he cherished, but they were people who were very different from the urbane world in which he travelled. And when he sent them a copy of the book they stopped talking to him. This so disturbed him that when it was time for the paperback edition to appear he changed the descriptions.  

Depending on your genre, that may work for you as well. One technique many writers use is to disguise characters drawn from real life--only a lot more fully that Thomas Wolfe did his! Change the relationships between people. Switch genders around. Move ages up and down. And don't be shy about it. Descriptions can be completely switched so that tall becomes small, and a blonde Caucasian becomes a person of color.

Alternatively, you can build composites from the people around you, whether you are fictionalizing a story or, in some instances, writing fact-based articles of the sort that such magazines as "Ladies Shelter” employed years ago--as long as you acknowledge the technique to your readers. That last point is critically important, by the way. Anytime you are writing non-fiction, make sure you let the reader know just what the ground rules are.

Composites can be fun to write, too. If you are writing about Survivalists or people with phobias, merge them. Perhaps one of the Survivalists has seen a therapist because she turned to her lifestyle out of fear for the future. Perhaps another interviewee suffers from claustrophobia. Combine them and mix them up so that the characteristics of the one are now the traits of the other.

In one sense, of course, any character you create--even out of whole cloth, as it were--is going to be a composite of the real people you know or have encountered in real life. As writers, we draw our material from the people around us.

The trick, as Thomas Wolfe may have learned too late, might be to disguise them a lot better than he did.

 

About Ken Salzmann

Ken Salzmann is a writer, journalist, and poet whose work is widely published in newspapers, magazines, web publications, and literary journals.

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