We all cringe when someone hears a song or a poem, sees a play or film, or reads a short story or novel that we wrote and asks who every character is “supposed to be.” Even worse is when someone gets upset or angry with us because our character did something or said something, and the person just assumes we think the same way, or did the same thing.
In the past, I have gotten this reaction so often, I make an effort to ensure that any parents I mention are the exact opposite of my parents in every way, down to the smallest detail. Most of the mothers do not enjoy cooking or baking and are not skilled at it. My mother can make those cake sculptures you see on baking competition shows and singlehandedly cater dinners. The fathers tend to be frail, preppy or nerdy types. My own father is a tough retired police officer and outdoorsman. The mother in my first novel, “Lifting the Shadows,” was inspired by someone’s mother, but it was not my own.
All my fellow artists already know the rest of this, but it might be useful to share for the next time you get “Am I in your novel?” Or “Is the woman in your song supposed to be your sister?” from someone in your life.
Sometimes, real people are inserted directly into novels, songs, poems, or fictional screenplays. This may or may not mean anything else about the piece is true or actually happened.
I am a real person in a song. Lou Santacroce’s “The One Who Holds My Heart” was written for and about me, from his perspective. It was the best gift anyone could ever give me, an honor, and of course, it is now my absolute favorite song. Pieces written for and about someone in this way can be assumed to be completely genuine expressions of the way the actual artist sees a real subject.
The fiction genre known as “historical fiction” is another example of real people being inserted directly into creative works. Novelist T.C. Boyle is known for taking historical figures, turning them into characters, and then inventing people he imagines associating with them. While the characters may be loosely based on the historical figures, writers have absolute license to fictionalize anything they want to fictionalize. Research anything you wonder about, because there is absolutely no guarantee that it is historically accurate.
Real people might also be inserted directly into a work of art as part of the setting or as a minor character. This does not in any way suggest that the other characters are real, or that anything that happened to them actually occurred. If someone writes a novel about a crowd of Deadheads following the Grateful Dead on tour, and a character talks about something Jerry Garcia did, this in no way suggests that Jerry Garcia actually did anything like that. Again, be sure to research these types of details. The novelist could have taken nothing more from reality than Garcia’s name and the fact that he was the front man for The Grateful Dead.
Most artists use details from all over the place when we create. A character may have a few traits of someone real without “being” that person.
My novels feature thick women. Both Brenda and Heather have red or reddish hair. This of course can also describe me, but the characters are not me. The characters are similar because they are all part of the arts scene in and around Utica, and most of the people I’ve observed in the modern day arts scene in and around Utica either favor 60’s and 70s retro, 90’s retro, or geek chic style. I’ve got a dark haired rockabilly woman too, and a blonde woman who changes her style a few times before arriving at “geek chic.”
For the rest of the details, some of what happened was taken from things I experienced, and other details were based on everything from case studies and research to gossip I overheard while sitting in a diner drinking coffee or walking around a mall. Most artists write this way. Using one detail of a person in a character does not mean the entire character is based on that person.
Much of what you see in any type of creative writing is completely made up.
Jen Cross is the founder, as well as a writer and workshop facilitator at “Writing Ourselves Whole,” an organization offering writing groups and individual writing sessions and coaching for survivors of sexual trauma. Services are offered in the Bay area and online.
Jen offered workshops of varying themes to her classmates while in graduate school at Goddard College. I learned a lot from taking a few of them. Although the participants in both current and past workshops draw on real experiences, the method she uses demands that all work produced be assumed to be fiction. If the exercise focuses on writing about your reaction to a picture, other participants are still asked to refer to the work with words like “Your narrator” or “your characters,” rather than “you,” or “your friends.”
This is a good rule to follow when reading, watching or listening to anything presented as fiction. Even if you know the artist and the situation well, and are completely sure a character or plotline is taken directly from reality, you still have no way of knowing if thoughts and feelings were real, or were just the artist’s imaginings of what someone else might be thinking or feeling in that situation.
Those who are adamant that a character is them, or a song is about your first boss, or a play is about your cousin, are not likely to be swayed, but hopefully this helps soothe friends and family members worried that your novel, play, or song is "about them."
This is not a sponsored post. All thoughts, observations, and recommendations are my own. Nobody mentioned in this article necessarily supports or endorses the content.