In the various critique groups and workshops I’ve taken this past decade or so, one of the biggest pitfalls for writers seemed to be basing a story on an actual event. Oftentimes, translating the event into fiction fell flat, for whatever reason: perhaps the author saw it too clearly in her head and didn’t convey enough detail. Perhaps being too close to an event doesn’t give a writer enough perspective on it to fully describe it for a reader. Despite arguments of, “but it really happened!,” many times the story just didn’t work.
Gotham Writers’ Workshop instructor Susan Breen’s article, Turning Real Life Into Fiction, provides some helpful advice for altering fact into believable fiction.
Still, using actual events – and real people – can jeopardize relationships if those people are not particularly keen on exposing either the event or themselves. First, using a real person can muddy the waters when you compile a list of personality traits, as described in my earlier post. If that person can identify himself or herself in your story, and you’ve added some other qualities s/he doesn’t care for, then it can backfire in your personal life.
I avoid using anyone I know in my writing, whether a relative or close friend or even an acquaintance. What is helpful is noting particular personality quirks or traits that cannot be traced to one person alone, but will work in your story.
Using real life elements can also reflect poorly on you as a writer, if not done well. In one workshop I attended, another woman’s story centered on a critique group in which that woman’s writing was not well received. In this “fiction,” the woman left a bag full of dog poop on the critiquer’s home doorstep. Well! You can be sure I was especially careful with my wording of her story critiques!
And that’s a shame, to close yourself off to honest opinions intended to help you better your story. Critiques can be tough to listen to, but if you can’t be open to the opinions of your writing partners, how will you be able to take it from an editor? Check your emotion at the door and take the advice as it’s offered. Or not – that’s the beauty of critiques. Sometimes others give you good advice, sometimes it’s not in line with what you had in mind for your story. But the fact that another person didn’t understand something in your story should throw up a red flag.
If you don’t want to hear – or give – critiques face-to-face, try an online group, such as Zoetrope, or Critique Circle or The Internet Writing Workshop. Google critiques, writing and you’ll find plenty.
So keep writing. But never make it personal. And keeping it unreal will help your fictional characters to come alive on the page.