Several years ago I happened to end up in the same writing workshop as a woman with whom I had gone to elementary school. For the workshop, she submitted a short story that was taken from her childhood. Because we had gone to school together, I knew almost all of the characters in her story. She hadn’t changed the names or any of the details that I was familiar with. While the actual events did not involve me, I knew the personalities of the people involved and could picture every character exactly as the had existed rather than as fictional participants in the story. This made it difficult for me to judge the merits of her short story, because I was bringing in so many elements from my own life — elements no average reader would pick up on.
In my writing, I often base moments in stories on situations in my life, but because I have never chosen to write about an actual person from my life, the events quickly become fictionalized and part of the fabric of the character’s life rather than my own. While there is a bit of me in every character I create, I don’t write about myself. I did attempt once to recreate a real life evening in fiction, but I quickly grew frustrated. It was too difficult for me to capture the essence what happened. I couldn’t recreate the situation accurately enough to satisfy me.
I don’t mean to discount the value of writing about real life people and events. I merely want to point out some of the frustrations involved. Some things to think about when writing about real life events are:
- Will the events make for a good story?
- How closely should you mirror real life?
- Who might end up reading your story?
- What perspective should you use?
- Would this work better with fictional characters?
- Should you change the names to protect the guilty (and yourself)?
I would love to hear about other people’s experiences with stories based on real life. Please leave your own perspectives in a comment.