By Elana Marcus
In the 2015 Noah Baumbach film, Mistress America, college freshman Tracy meets her stepsister, Brooke, for the first time. Inspired by Brooke’s eccentric personality, Tracy writes a short story about her to submit to the school literary journal. After Brooke discovers the story, she is enraged. A whole interrogation scene follows where essentially every character in the movie yells at Tracy for what she’s done. Tracy breaks down in tears. Brooke threatens to sue. After watching this film, I found myself thinking deeply about this issue of writing people we know and the risks we take in doing so.
Anyone who writes fiction has probably found herself in Tracy’s position at some point. There have been many times where I’ve met someone and thought about fictionalizing them. But then the questions arise: is it okay for me to do this? Would it be considered stealing if I write about this person without permission? Will the person be mad at me if they find out that I’ve written about them? Is this immoral? It’s not like we can just walk around town with a disclaimer taped to our foreheads that reads: anything you say or do in my vicinity may be used in a story.
I think it’s safe to say that most (if not all) writers draw inspiration from their lives. It would be nearly impossible to create every single element of a story solely from the imagination, and a story should have some element of emotional truth. It isn’t so much a question of whether it’s okay to write about actual people, but when it is acceptable .
This past February, I was part of a small group of students who met at Purchase with novelist Elif Batuman, whose 2017 novel The Idiot sees the author drawing heavily from her own personal experiences in college. At the meeting, I asked her about the experience of writing characters based on people she knew. She answered that she started writing these characters long after she knew them, and she felt that waiting to write them was helpful. I’ve received similar advice from former teachers, who have said that waiting a while to write about people you know can better help you write them as characters and better analyze the circumstances under which you knew them.
Writing about people who are currently a part of our lives can certainly be a challenge. It could be easy for a writer to hold back when writing these characters because they don’t want to hurt the person’s feelings or risk potential conflict. But the details that are being held back may be the most compelling traits of this character. I once made a short film that was inspired by a friend of mine who had a habit of being late and unreliable, and a mutual friend approached me about it, saying that it might hurt her feelings. My friend ended up being completely okay with it, but it did force me to think more about whether the projects I work on could hurt the people I care about. In certain cases, waiting to write about someone could be beneficial. If you end up losing contact with this person or don’t see them as often, you most likely won’t have to worry about causing conflict and can feel less restrained in how you portray this character. Writing people we know may also feel uncomfortable, much like running into someone you dreamt about the night before. It can feel awkward, and this could also cause you to hold back when writing the character. I have written stories inspired by people I knew in my past and people I am close to now, and thankfully it’s worked out well for me in both cases. But I have also felt uncomfortable doing so and had trouble seeing the person as a fictional character.
Here’s my advice: if you’re inspired by a person and you want to write them as a character, give it a shot. See what works best for you. If writing about a person you know is working well for you, go with it! If you’re finding it difficult, let some time pass and try again in the future. You’ll have a different perspective on this person by that point and that could make the process of writing them clearer. Also, change enough about them so that the character on the page becomes distinct. I once heard that if you’re writing real-life people as characters, change at least one detail about the person’s physical appearance. This will allow you to see this person as the character you have created, rather than just a total imitation of the person who inspired you. Seek to use this person to create rather than imitate; they are just a jumping off point for the character you are creating.