Sunday, 1 July 2012

Writing about people you know.

As some of you know, I've just come back from Ireland - my last post included some photos.

You might conclude, from that post, that I was on my own. Yet I was with a group of friends - ten of us, trooping along the cliff path and rewarding ourselves with guinness at the walk's end. And I haven't mentioned them.

Why not? Because I haven't talked with them about this blog, about the possibility of writing about them, about saying who was the muddiest after the climb up a landslip and who had the greatest capacity for alcohol (no, that wasn't me!). They are friends; the purpose of our being together was not to gather material for a blog, or a short story, or research their histories to weave them into a travel piece. We were together to have fun - it is a good enough reason.

Yes, there are some great characters among us - characters who would be fun to play with in a short story. But I won't use them - that feels, to me, like an abuse of our friendship, taking something from our private relations and waving it at the world for all to see. When I wrote about people in Over the Hill, I either had permission to write about them or - if I couldn't contact them - changed names.

I know - I've read the 'how to create a character' books. Find a friend or member of the family and change her gender, her shoes, her occupation. Then throw a storm at her.

I'm sure it's effective. But I won't do it - my friends and family are precious. I love to write - and I love them even more. Even Anna (some of you will have met my daughter - she pops up from time to time) knows if I'm going to mention her.

Maybe I'm being too precious. Maybe it would be fine to reassemble a friendship in fiction. What do you think?


  1. Interesting post, Jo. I'd agree that it would feel like an abuse of friendship or family relationships to turn someone you're close to into a character. However, I do sometimes recall people I knew in the past and nick a physical detail or a personality trait for one of my characters - nothing recognisable, though. And I often use things people have said about their friends and families. Again, I'm careful to make sure no-one could read it and say 'that's me!' unless it's something I know they would actually like!

  2. This one made me think...the first time I sat down to write was a children's adventure and based solely on my three children. It was written for them, about them, even using their names. That was fine when it was their story, but deciding to rewrite for submission has meant significantly changing characteristics, descriptions and definitely changing names! The ensuing book is very, very different from the original version, though I've still used many inspirations from my children and others I've observed over the years.
    Most of us use traits and characteristics from friends, family and acquaintances (even if it's unconsciously done) after all, these people are those who teach us about people and how we/they react in situations, but it's up to us to keep those unrecognisable.
    I would never write to be published using actual people unless, like you, I had permission. Even then I couldn't write anything bad...I'd worry too much about hurt feelings, even the mildest ones!
    I always think how I'd feel if someone wrote something that could be obviously seen as me...I wouldn't like it, so I won't do it myself. If anyone see's them self in my writing, then it's unintentional and completely by accident! Again, we all sometimes read something and think, 'That's me'...but generally we don't know the author!

  3. Thank you both - other people's feelings matter. And I agree - I'd be unimpressed if someone wrote about me, made me recognisable, without talking with me about it first.