One of the questions I often get from those starting out on the fiction writing life is this: what if I piss off people with what I write? What if people recognize themselves in my characters?
Personally, I write what I don’t know a lot of the time, which keeps things interesting for me–so there’s little danger that some of my real-life friends, family, and acquaintances will recognize themselves in my writing.
I do use some people as models, taking either their physical, mental, spiritual or social characteristics and make them a hybrid. The characters who act on the page often do not have much to do with people I know, but the emotions they feel are sometimes informed by my own experience. This does involve vulnerability of a certain sort.
I got thinking about this when I read this article:
Vulnerability—in writing and in life—requires seeing the world around us and within us, lowering our shields in order to feel something, and then giving voice to whatever truths come out of that. Vulnerability has a lot to do with empathy—for the world, for others, and for ourselves. This exposes us to all kinds of danger (ridicule and rejection to name just a few). That’s why it’s scary. The protective device necessary when we’re making ourselves vulnerable is a rooted sense of self and worthiness—this “know thyself” impulse should grow throughout our lives, and as our identity is formed and solidified, so too is our confidence and security. With this intact, being vulnerable and the potential attacks affiliated with vulnerability won’t hurt as long or have as lasting of a sting.
The article goes on to include a few very useful tips on how to mine ourselves as writers. Check it out.
What about you? As a writer do you put yourself or those you know on the page? As a reader are you curious about how some your favorite characters came into being? Do you let yourself be vulnerable as a writer, use material from your own life? What are the pros and cons? What should writers be wary of? Who are your favorite fictional characters, and do you wonder where they came from?
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To a certain extent but there’s usually other imagery brought into it with my poems 🙂
I don’t think I write too much about myself, I try write about general situations rather than making them too personal
I’m not much of a writer but I am a reader and if I ever encounter a character that really intrigues or a character that I just find really interesting then I do want to know what the inspiration behind that character was but it isn’t a regular phenomenon
I definitely put pieces of myself in characters. A lot of them are the result of taking a particular emotional response, mine or imagined, from a particular scenario and extrapolating that into a person. It feels very vulnerable sometimes, especially when a character comes across as a little weird due to a particular trait that I happen to share and haven’t exaggerated very much. But when I do base characters on people in my life… I don’t know, I don’t think I do very often but when it happens it’s little fragments here and there. If it’s completely a whole person from real life that I’ve just given a different name or something, I either get too bogged down in being “accurate” or gloss over important descriptions that I take for granted in my own head.
Thankyou for sharing your experience. It is a trial faced by many authors.
loved this article!! as a writer, I am always in a fix whether I should put my real life on display or not. I do my best to put bits of my life out there while not giving out the complete thing. Yes at times I do feel vulnerable but I guess as writers we need to risk that if we want to write quality content!
I remember a situation where my wife really got worked up with what I wrote about her in twitter and I had to delete. I have identified myself with this writing and it’s inspiring for me as a writer. Anand Bose from Kerala
You have some tips and ideas for writers that are relatively new to me. I will think of what you said, the next time I try to write. It is like taking a spini naked in front of a room full of people! Is it that revealing?. All seriousness aside I guess I never thought of writing much fiction. I haven’t done much dabbling in fiction, but it was fun just open the gates and let it flow! The other day that was the daily post assignment, to write about a long lost relative joining you for dinner. I really enjoyed writing that, just let my mind run wild was actually like having dinner with my great-grandfather who died in 1915.
Thanks for your blog and your work helping mold other writers.
I try not to, but it’s definitely an unavoidable part of it. You just hope you don’t make anyone mad! Sometimes it’s necessary to tell the story of your heart, though.
Love your thinking. I wrote similar pieces a few months back Writing What You Know …
Reblogged this on Emily Arden, author and commented:
I love this post. We must be true to ourselves, but it is certainly not easy.
I think that the creation of characters is different from writer to writer. I like that you wrote a blog that makes people/writers think about exactly where their characters are derived from. Great post.
For me its about the writing. It maybe representative or relateable to my target audience which often times resembles me because I mostly write what I know. With that said I try to learn ALOT so I know more and can produce more from difference knowledge and experiences. The quote at the beginning is definitely true when it comes to the critique process for me. The line, “This “know thyself” impulse should grow throughout our lives” is what it is all about. Please tell my 22 year old that. I can’t believe how much I’ve grown in this last few years once I decided to pursue writing professionally. And each day I grind harder after it, in one way or another. Marketing, subbing, critiquing, revising, editing, tweeting, blogging, and the beat goes on. Thanks for the community, great work ~Blessings
Wow so many comments I couldn’t read them all unfortunately but I have liked some and of course I love the post. In my opinion, I put so much of myself and those around me in my writing. However, I assign them fictional characteristics. Most of what I use however is emotional. The same can be said for my blog posts. I don’t think it ,makes us vulnerable per say, maybe when those who know us well read our work?. Though it does empower us too. We are artists and I feel that artists put their soul out there when performing. The degree varies individually however but I guess that’s what makes us different.
It’s risky to use real people in one’s writing. If they recognize themselves, they tend to get offended.
The author of the Dilbert comic strip would tend to change the race or gender of any real person he used. Then he would watch that person laugh at himself or herself in the strip.
I was always a research based writer as most of what I did focused on business and tech. Then something happened that led me to bare my soul on the blogosphere. Now I write almost everyday – a story of my life – without wondering what people are thinking about it. In both these avatars I really didn’t need to create characters, thankfully so, because I don’t think I’s have been able to do that.
I think many people write either intentionally or unintentionally with characters formed at least from parts of people they know, if not about a particular character, altered somehow for the story. 🙂
It’s funny. When I’m writing I’m thinking about how the characters feel or react to each other, and not about who I am or what I’m feeling. I thought that was what everyone did. 🙂
I try not to purposely include people I know on the page, but I have accidentally done so. I also go out of my way to examine some of my MCs to make sure that they aren’t really me . . . it creeps me out when people assume that every MC I right is me in disguise, or if people assume that they “know exactly” how I think after reading something I’ve written. Um, no. I’ve written stuff from both heroes and villains’ perspectives. I’ve written stuff from male perspectives and female perspectives, from child perspectives and elderly perspectives. I don’t want to necessarily fit exactly with any of my characters – I want to take a walk in someone else’s shoes when I write and explore the heart-truths of my own heart, but also the heart-truths of those around me. I want to explore big concepts, too, and wonder . . what happened to someone to make them like they are – which is a different kind of exploration of that concept that I’m calling a heart-truth here.
First of all, I love the quote. Yes my blogs include me and my friends but mostly fictional imaginations that could be inspired by real life events I’ve watched unfold or news items that have caught my interest.
As a writer do you put yourself or those you know on the page? Absolutely. The great advantage that literature has over art forms like TV and cinema is that the reader can get inside the head of the charater(s) and see the world from their perspective. But ultimately, each of us only understands the world from inside our own head. So we have to find those elements of our own experience that are universal and then bring them to the page to make our characters relatable. As for those I know, again, yes, and for the same reason. Like you, I might hybridize multiple people into composite characters, and the situations in which they exist might be entirely unreal comparatively, so they might not recognize themselves.
Do you let yourself be vulnerable as a writer, use material from your own life? Yes, though that’s difficult, writing in the fantasy genre that I do. I haven’t personally had the misfortune to live in medieval times, so I have to make do with recreations and imagination. As such, it’s even more important for me to make myself vulnerable and find the universal in my own life that will make characters and situations understandable to readers.
What are the pros and cons? The greatest con is that it’s hard. There are dark parts in any soul, places that we hide away even from ourselves. Opening those places up and shining a light on them can be terrifying. But therein lies the pro: once you’ve faced down those fears, they don’t own you anymore.
What should writers be wary of? Self-deception. Stories are about conflict, and conflict is borne out of fear. Deceiving ourselves about what we fear and why will keep us from getting to the heart of the story.
Thank you for sharing the link to the article; that was an interesting read. I’m off now to try and decide how much of myself I am inserting into my writing. It’s possibly something I should have thought about before now, but that’s one of the great things about learning this craft – you learn about yourself as well.
Reblogged this on Elizabeth Daugherty.
First visit to your blog – by gum I have some catching up to do. I take myself out of the writing i.e. it’s my muse who has the story, which is filtered/fed through me. I’m incidental, and just trying to get the story right.
my muse is awfully generous, and knows all the best stories.
An interesting subject and you have nicely expressed yourself.
Agree with you. One can’t express under a feeling of being vulnerable. One needs to lower the guard; it’s a risk worth taking.
Early on, I used to sample a lot of people for my writings as well as myself. Now, I only use the areas where I live and the personality traits of the people who I’m friends and who I admire.
Very interesting topic.. It is said of Somerset Maugham that he used to frequently turn real-life character into a fictional ones. I know of a well known hindi writer who did that too and in the process angered people who discovered themselves in her stories. As writers we are the product of our environment and there are stories we have to tell. The only time I based a character on a real life one was in a story. Names and incidents have been changed but some did indeed know who I was writing about.
I don’t really care how people might react if they read what I write. It’s my work, after all, my story and I have every right to express what I feel. I do borrow a lot from my own life ; sometimes I model them after people I know and sometimes I chisel them based on fantasy and imagination.
Hello Damyanti..this is my first visit to your blog and I am fascinated by the contents. Very inspiring thoughts that have a direct bearing on us as writers .. Creative writing I agree comes from random observations but the true inspiration is oneself with his or her journey through life..well that is my take!
You mention concern by the writer that readers will fixate on where the characters originated or what motivated them. I love to read but I look at reading like a fine meal I will enjoy the aroma and taste but I never think about where the ingredients came from. A book should be devoured whole and it should leave you wanting more… just like a fine meal.
I never directly transfer people I know in life into my writing, but I do use certain things that I have observed. For example, as a Young Life leader, I work with teens a lot, so when I’m writing something from the perspective of a teenager, I kind of know how their brain works, how they use language, and their common dreams and insecurities. I can use all of those things to weave an entirely new personality.
I don’t intentionally put myself into my writing, either, but since really each of us only have our own eyes through which to see the world, and our own minds to translate what we see, I’m betting there is more of me (this is true of any writer, probably) in my work than I am aware of. What a mortifying thought!
I do put a lot of myself in my writing with streaks in characters or situations. A way to let go of things and a current book I am writing is quite biographical in a fiction package. I think it helps in sketching characters.
Love this Dee! I (sadly) don’t write much. I hope that will change in the future, but I just never really find myself just sitting down and writing a story for fun and LIKING it. I tend to start something and then delete it all because I don’t like my own work. I think if I did write fictional stories more, I might worry about this more. Sometimes I do wonder if authors put people from their lives in books, and from my experiences, most authors will say that they might put attributes of people or things they have experienced in the book, but not completely base a character off of a real person.
I tend to reach out for characters and events that have nothing to do with my own, rather ordinary, life. Then I get to know and build these characters and imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes. So yes, I use myself, but by going into someone else’s world and experience.
I tend to take little things from people I know (traits or certain behavior) but generally create characters from imagination and just being around people. Interesting questions to think about, Damyanti.
I do it all. write about myself and my experiences, people I know, but mostly it’s all imagination. It makes for interesting conversations and some times a bit of exposure, but you’re always in control. Nothing is recognizable unless I point it out. Life gives us many opportunities and the what if’s are my favorite questions. Although, I’m beginning to think I need to write the word fiction on all my work. I wrote one story and my husband looked at me open mouthed. “Did you really do that?” He’s stunned. I couldn’t believe he was asking but it let me know that not even the man I’ve known for 30 years really knows me, and he too wonders what is the truth and what is all imagination. That’s good, right?
I am a trait thief. I’ve even blogged about it, how I watch others then steal certain attributes that I think bring my characters to life. I believe it’s paramount to creating living, breathing being that step off the page, and into your living room. However, I rarely use an entire person as one character. Much like a mixed breed dog found at a shelter, they have deeper personality and story, in my opinion.
Great article! Cheers – Stephen
This is really food for thought 🙂 As a new writer, I think that thinking about this as I write will help me with progressing my stories. Thank you 🙂
I haven’t written much fiction, but in the story I’m writing now, my characters started as fairly abstract. Through their actions they began to take shape, and I found one of them emulating some of my ways of thinking. She’s definitely not “me on a page” but I take thoughts I’ve had and place them in my characters’ heads and mouths sometimes.
I hope I don’t write too much about myself into my fiction. I read somewhere that having people see the writer’s personality emerge through a character is a big no-no. But I do find inspiration for plots and characters through things/ people I see, or experience first hand and just add a twist.
I love to watch and listen, too. Is there a reason a writer’s personality shouldn’t show in a fictional character? I tend to do that quite often and am just wondering if maybe that is something that keeps me stuck. Hmm.
To write, I think, you have to be intimate with your characters. In a way, that stops you from writing about anyone in real life other than in hybrid form.
I don’t think I put too much of me in my stories. Neither Byron nor Aden are me. And I really haven’t used someone as a model for a character. Most of my character’s traits have come from watching people in general.
Hello Damyanti, As population grows, the pressure mounts and people are increasingly under the microscope. Then there’s the curse of the age: political correctness. A writer is a prophet to her community: she speaks what needs saying. I write mostly articles that depicts Earthian life as I see it. Anyone complain, I just point out the obvious then remove myself from further discussion if the interlocutor is stuck on the theme of self-righteousness. Unless one is writing children’s books, it’s better to be ready to accept misunderstanding and denigration: usually those prove that I was right on the money in my assessment of that particular event within that particular society. If in fear of criticism, close the computer, go tend the garden. If one has any doubts about the piece to be published, delete it; start again, or better yet, learn to practice the art of self-empowerment, then publish it.
Lovely post. I often start with something directly from life, but it usually takes on a life of its own. The song you’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you entered my head. Maybe someone could see the idea of themselves inside my writing, but I hope I’ve dug much deeper than that before it sees the light of day!
I never use a specific person as inspiration for one of my fictional characters, as that approach seems very limiting. That doesn’t mean my friends and family don’t inspire my fiction; whenever I think of Double-J, one of the main characters in my novel, I can’t help but remember a friend of mine from graduate school. But Double-J is NOT that friend — I have other sources of inspiration for that character, and his actions, his speech, his persona are never a direct copy of my friend.
The primary inspiration I draw from my real-life acquaintances, is the impact they have on other people. How do my friend/family members make people feel? How do people react to them? What is it about them that causes people around them to respond the way they do? I find that by focusing on interactions rather than physical characteristics or speech patterns, I can create far more interesting characters than I could by merely trying to describe someone I know.
As a reader I am always curious to know what shaped the characters in a book. When I read about the author I see if I can find resemblances to people who have influenced her or incidents that have touched her. But when I write something I mix up people I have met and imagination.
Hi Damyanti – thank goodness I don’t write fiction! I have to curtail my blog posts sometimes – I’d love to put in a bit more, but blogging isn’t story telling – unless one writes that way …
I’m sure all writers take from real life … I have no immediate person I relate to …
I write non-fiction so lot of what I write comes from my life experience or that of others. I am always making a decision on how I use exact people or my own self, and try to make it more universal. Your post has provoked thought in me about how personal I can get in my writing …
Btw, I have changed my black background on my blog 🙂
Truth is, whether you write about the people you know or not, there will always be those who read themselves into the story. Sure, there may be similarities to someone we know, but isn’t that sort of how we find what we read appealing? Doesn’t the fact that we can see ourselves in a character, even in the slightest of details, part of why we may be drawn to a story or character? I may picture someone in my head that fits the description, but it’s usually just a starting point. By the time the character development is done, it doesn’t resemble the original person at all.
I explained my approach on my about page. This is what I wrote:
I’ve just been criticized on my flash fictionposted on my blog, BLUE SHIFT INTO ABSENCE, about how the universe ends — I was too preachy. Oops. I guess I put too much of myself on the page.
Ernest Hemingway asked writers to observe at all times and then to put those observations into our work.
For me, it would be rude to put people I know into my novels or stories. But I do put myself into them: McCord is how I am now; Victor is how I was on the streets (only smarter!) Have an end of the year that is beautiful, Roland
I guess what a person writes comes from the observations – direct / indirect. The characters are made picking up incidents, traits and characteristics that one has seen, experienced, heard or read about – the ones that left an imprint on the mind.
Love this. I put a lot of my self on a page. It’s the way my mind works. LOL.
I don’t think I put myself or those I know onto the page. If it does happen it’s unintentional. I do think it’s a good thing when readers can relate to the character and see at least a small reflection of themselves in the characters, so as long as it doesn’t become too personal and no one gets offended! 🙂
I used to turn my best friends into characters. (This was in junior high or earlier.) They were my biggest support group after all. As I grew up, and we grew apart though, I realized that my characters were limited by their origins. I wanted Nickki to evolve beyond her comical violence, but that was the only memory I retained of our childhood friendship. Sometimes I find myself drawing little things from people here and there, but I’m definitely worried someone I know will read into someone too much. I’m slowly finding a good balance between fiction and reality.
Great thoughts and questions. I’ve always been curious as to the ‘origin stories’ of characters I like, since to me that’s one of the best parts of writing fiction. And yeah…sometimes I wonder if people pick up on all the bits of me there are scattered throughout my work. I think we all leave a trail of our own person to some degree.
Thank you for sharing. I put my blood, sweat and tears onto the page, but always flip around the characters persona so it doesn’t implicate anyone I associate with in real life. Vulnerability is just as an important as confidence on the page; it lets your readers know the human elements of your work.
Beautifully Written. I too share your similar thoughts when I write.