Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Don't Put Real People In Your Novel... Seriously, Don't Do It

People say some confusing, frustrating, and outright rude things to writers. I've chronicled some of them in Things You Should Never Say To An Author and More Things You Should Never Say To An Author, but there's one which hasn't made it onto these lists yet. It's a question which only comes from people who've read your book (or at least some of it), and most of the time these people probably don't realize they're being insulting. That question?

Who is this character, really?

Your mother.
There seems to be this strange, mis-guided belief among the reading public that authors are all petty, vindictive dickheads who use their novels as an excuse to inflict pain and suffering on cardboard cut outs of people in their real lives. That is not to say there aren't authors who do this. I'm sure there are plenty of authors who've parodied childhood bullies, unpleasant in-laws, and ex-lovers in their books. But you shouldn't, and here's why.

Reason #1: This is Not Amateur Night

Think about the last person you met whose work included references to actual people from the author's actual life. Chances are good that instead of Ian Fleming (the author of James Bond who based a lot of the super spy's story on WWII-era spies he worked with) you're probably thinking of that kid from your high school creative writing class whose stories were all about rebellious teens and their cartoonishly restrictive parents. Or maybe you think of that one friend you had in college whose protagonists always wound up with beautiful girls who were suspiciously similar to classmates he could never get to go out with him.

You are shooting blanks, my friend.
The point is that taking real people from your life and sticking them right into your story is not good for your art. It prejudices you regarding the person portrayed (for good or for ill), and you are more likely to write them as a parody than as a character with any actual depth. You rarely know real people as deeply or as thoroughly as a character you've created from the ground up, because you don't have access to all the facts and background of real people. With characters you sort of need that.

Reason #2: There Might Be Consequences

Maybe you're thinking hey, this is my story and I'm not going to let some random guy on the Internet tell me how to write. And you're correct, you don't have to listen to me. The person you might have to listen to though is the fellow in the black robe holding the little wooden hammer.

Tough critics ain't got nothing on lawyers.
It is not overly common for people put into your novel to sue you, but it is definitely possible. The more famous you get, and the more money the book generates, the more likely a lawsuit becomes though. Maybe the guy you made into the villain feels this book is libelous. Maybe a woman whose character was murdered is claiming pain and suffering. The reasons can vary from the legitimate to the ridiculous, but even if you win the suit there are the legal fees, the cost of defense, and the fallout the accusation might generate. It could damage your reputation, get your book panned pretty harshly by critics, and if you're publishing with a company instead of doing it yourself it could get your book pulled from the shelves.

What You Should Do Instead

Unless your book is explicitly about real people (or parodies of real people) you should not attempt to cut large swaths out of reality and paste them onto the page. With that said though it is a good idea to carefully observe the people around you. Look at how they act, listen to the things they say, and attempt to understand their psychology. If you can do that then you'll end up creating deeper, more believable characters.

And how is that any different?
Because plagiarism is copying down a single document verbatim. Research is taking parts and pieces from different documents and gluing them together with your own words. The former is considered bad form, and is something you should avoid. The latter, while harder, ultimately creates a better finished product that you can't be sued over.

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1 comment:

  1. Your advice regarding the depiction of actual people is very well taken. You should note, though, that what you call "research" is also plagiarism. Cutting and pasting pieces from several sources is plaigiarism just as much as employing a large swath of someone else's work; the only difference is that you're plagiarising from several people rather than one. The best advice is not to use ANY of other people's work. Do your own.