Monday, 15 August 2016


One of the hoariest old writing chestnuts out there is 'write what you know.'

This is good advice, especially when you know that it doesn't prohibit you from writing about alien invasions or shape-shifting demons or even how to commit the perfect murder, because of a wonderful thing called extrapolation. You may not have direct experience of any of the aforementioned scenarios (in fact I hope you don't) but you can combine research with feelings and motivations you've experienced in your own life that would likely parallel what's going on in your characters' lives. Or you could actually be writing biographies - either your own or those of friends, relatives or clients who've hired you for the purpose. But either way, most, if not all, fiction writers find little bits of their own lives and selves creeping into their stories. It's certainly true for me, and in the many years I've been writing made-up stories, here's what I've discovered about the little sand grains of truth that end up in the oyster of fictional stories.

1 - You already do it more often than you think.

I would never describe my current w-i-p Redemption as an autobiography. For a start, it's a sci-fi story set some thirty years in the future in a completely different country, so how could it be? And while there always was one particular incident, even in my first draft, that I was fully aware contained elements of things I'd actually experienced, the rest were purely made-up scenarios from my imagination. Or so I believed back then.

But of course a first draft is just the initial brain-emptying stage, where you vomit everything onto the page without editing or analysing it too much. Now I've got the whole thing planned out into a coherent plot, I can see there's much more of my life in there than I ever realised; certain characters that are eerily similar to people I've known, futuristic environments that operate similar regimes to some from my past. They're not straight-up depictions of those things, obviously - more like the view you might get from one of those carnival mirrors - but they're in there all the same. I'll probably be the only one who ever sees them all clearly, although some of the people who are close to me might hazard the odd guess at a few of them. 

This of course is what happens when you go deep into a character's feelings and emotions. For the writer, the only way to connect is to empathise - and to do that, you have to use those moments in your own life where you've felt the same way you imagine your character feels right now. The good news is, unless those moments in your real life were particularly unusual, the average reader's not going to connect it to anything specific from your real life. Well, unless you decide to go on Barbara Walter's show and do a tearful confessional, I suppose.

2 - It can be therapeutic.

In my real life, I have been through Some Stuff. Stuff that resulted in a diagnosis of PTSD and an 11-month stay in a psychiatric unit as an outpatient following a mental breakdown back in my mid-twenties. I'm better now, thanks (and thankfully) but there are still things that, to this day, I cannot bring myself to talk about. To anyone, ever. But that doesn't matter, because I have been able to write about them instead. 

Kind of. 

Again, it's like the carnival mirror analogy. By twisting it into a different shape and making it look like something else entirely, I've talked about it in Redemption and in some of my other works without directly talking about it. This means I can express my pent-up feelings about those things , but through the mouth and mind of a fictional character instead. And since I would never judge another human being - even a fictional one, as it turns out - as harshly as I judge myself, I'm essentially giving myself a free pass to have all those feelings 'for the good of the story.' Have them, explore them and then... well, maybe not completely exorcise them, but at least render them harmless in my day-to-day life.

It's not all warm hugs and self-acceptance, mind. Writing out your demons can burn emotionally and mentally, leaving you feeling like the loser in a boxing match. All too often you can find yourself thinking "Should I be writing this at all? Am I just being self-indulgent - is it fair of me to inflict this awful dark stuff on readers?" 

Well clearly George R.R. Martin was never troubled by such doubts, and he's done alright as a result. It's natural to feel all kinds of guilt and embarrassment about 'bleeding onto the page' in this way because, for you at least, it's personal. But it isn't for the average reader. And no matter how dark you might think your story could be, there's next to no chance some other author somewhere hasn't gone way darker. Seriously, it's been done already.

3 - Sweet sweet karma, baby!

Linking into the previous one here, but in everyone's past there are people from the past who did and said stuff that... just didn't make sense. That playground bully, the teacher who inexplicably hated you, and don't even get you started on that asshole boss you had, right? Why you? What in the holy heck did you do to make them single you out for their douchebaggery? Or maybe there was a relationship that crashed and burned and you never figured out why. That's the beauty of writing fiction; you get a chance to recreate the people and the situations and re-enact them - only this time you get to choose the outcome!

It's tempting to do it as a kind of revenge-fest - and that may be how it starts out - but more often than not something else happens. Because writing a well-rounded and believable character requires getting inside their head, understanding their motivations and realising that they at least believe they're doing the 'right' thing, so you often end up seeing their point of view, even empathising with their reasons for doing what they do. Suddenly you see the desperate insecurity behind that crazy ex's jealous tantrums, or how that smarmy boss who kept taking credit for other people's ideas spent every working day terrified his own bosses might find out he's not as dynamic and smart as he seems. The lust for revenge cools into something more like pity, as you realises their behaviour toward you wasn't about you at all - they had their own problems and demons to deal with. And even if you still can't forgive the real people your pretend ones represent... well, you've called them out now, haven't you? Doesn't even matter if no-one else ever knows it but you - the karma is still warm and fuzzy.

4 - ...But maybe don't serve it raw, yeah?

I wrote a post a while back about writing your Screw You Piece. As I said in that, every writer does it at some point in their life, I sure as hell did it and I still believe every writer should write those pieces. Write all that pain, rage and resentment out! Buuut.... don't go rushing out to publish it while it's still hot from all that burning passion. If at all.

Most of the fear and rage from my own life that made it into Redemption comes from events that happened to me years, even decades back. But I included them not because I still felt the pain of those emotions about them - but because I didn't, not anymore. I still understood why I'd felt that way back then, but the rawness has dulled over time. I'm detached from those memories now - which means I can write about them rationally, with the puzzle-compiling mindset of a writer, rather than the bitter incoherence of a wounded soul.

If you take injustices done to you and put them in fiction when you're still angry and hurting from them, it will show - and not in a good way.  The character you've chosen to act out your pain on your behalf (most often the main character but not always) will come across as immature, ranty and whiny - a thoroughly unlikeable person. For the reader, it feels like being forced to listen to only one side of an argument from a very angry person, who rips the attention back to them and shouts even louder if anyone tries to see any other point of view instead. We've all met at least one of those people in real life and we all try to stay the heck away from them, because they're not fun to hang out with. Readers won't stick around to read about characters like that either - and hell to the no if they're a main character.

So write that venty piece while the vitriol's still hot... and then file it away somewhere. Sit on it for a while - weeks, months, maybe years. Wait until you can look back on the events that inspired it with a sigh and a shake of the head rather than the urge to sob uncontrollably or punch a wall. Then get it out and maybe take another look at it. There may be stuff you can use - but not necessarily the stuff you think.

The basic plot events might seem trivial - even redundant - as story material now. The emotions will almost certainly seem one-sided and over-the-top. But there will most likely be... something underneath that could work in another story, where things happen that aren't the same as the things in this old story but share similar motivations and moods. You're no longer the patient - you're the therapist, and unravelling the pieces of your plot is an intriguing and rewarding task rather than a pain-wracked ordeal.

5 - Real life in fiction isn't REAL LIFE.

Even the most faithful of autobiographies don't tell everything that happened exactly as it was. This is partly because even the average human memory works like a Salvador Dali painting when it comes to recording the facts of any given situation, but it's also because a completely accurate autobiography would be the dullest reading to shamble out of Dullsville. Even when we tell anecdotes to others we tend to embellish them a bit, wringing out every ounce of comedy and drama for our audience.

But sometimes when writers use events from their own lives to paint over their fictional stories, they feel some sort of duty to 'stick to the facts' to make it 'authentic.' Even in a fantasy world full of mythical creatures, magical items and crazy spells, the beautiful mage can't dump her lover for the distinctly average peasant rather than the dashing knight because 'that's not how it would happen in real life.' (When what they really mean is 'that ex-girlfriend of mine dumped me for the college jock, not the janitor's son.')

It's not always about not wanting to look stupid. Sometimes we do it because there's a worry that, by changing the facts a bit, we're somehow being unfair about the real-life persons involved in the events that inspired the fictional ones - even wilfully lying about them to make ourselves look better. But that why we don't ever use people and places directly from our own lives - at least, not unless we're actually looking to get slapped with a libel suit. We change things; give our characters and settings different names, tweak their backgrounds a bit - do whatever we can to make sure no-one could follow the breadcrumb trail back to the actual source. (Unless of  course you're saying nothing but lovely things about them...)

And if you've done a good job of that, you're not beholden to telling the absolute 'truth' about them and every shenanigan you get them involved in. When you turn your characters into blundering toolmuffins you're not really mocking the real-life people who inspired them - even when it feels like you kind of are. In fiction, the story comes first, and the only 'reality' that counts is the one that works in your story-world.

As long as you never tell anyone, your secret's safe with you.


So how do you feel about using your own life in fiction? Has it benefited you - has it help you deal with stuff you couldn't deal with any other way? Feel free to drop a line in the Comments.