This week, Twitter’s been a-flutter about this Slate article, where a woman realized she’s in a not-very-flattering short story published by the New Yorker. Alexis Nowicki details the facts and feelings of when people she knew texted her to say, “Is this you? Is this your boyfriend?” Read the whole article; there are nuances in there that can’t be captured in a headline or a few tweets.
It’s a running joke in the writing community: “Don’t piss me off, or you’ll wind up in my next novel.” It’s also a truism. Pissed or not, bits and pieces of people we know (and even people we’ve only heard about, as in the Nowicki case) show up in our work.
And they have to! We can’t make nothing from nothing. We need to incorporate little pieces of real life into our stories to make them feel real, even if they are outlandish fiction.
I don’t know about other writers, but I have very little control over what my subconscious throws up. The Girls in the Basement can take a very nice woman with a few quirks, and twist her around to an evil villainess with plans to take over the world. “The quirks make her human and relatable, not pure evil,” my editing mind reasons.
It’s got to feel awkward for the person who is reading a work by a friend, and stumbles upon their own doppleganger. It may even cause lasting discomfort that crosses the border into harm.
“Am I really like that?”
“No, it’s just fiction.”
“But I twiddle my hair just like that, and sometimes eat a sundae instead of lunch. But not every day! Not like that!”
“Yeah, no, but . . . .”
“And I certainly don’t program robots to sabotage people’s mental health! I teach Roombas to clean more efficiently! That’s all I do!”
“It’s fiction . . . .” The writer has no excuses except that she’s a writer, and it seemed like a hilarious idea at the time.
It’s been part of the writing game forever. I read somewhere (I think in one of Jane Austen’s biographies) that Austen would take the details and motivations of a person, then flip their gender, and allow that to change the details radically enough that people didn’t recognize themselves (maybe). It also helped that she wrote anonymously in her lifetime, and she wrote characters that many people can recognize in their own lives (even in the 21st century! I know a Mr. Collins, even though he’s a boring English teacher, not a churchman).
So, there are three strategies that give plausible deniability: change genders of the characters you borrow, get a penname, and write archetypes.
My own ideas go this way:
First, everything goes in the first draft. Write about Jane Doe from Worms, Nebraska, who stole a man from the head cheerleader back in 1972.
However, if it’s at all within your process, start thinking about things you are going to need to change in the first draft. If you can, change the names: Jane Doe can become Jen Cookie from Snake Creek. This can improve a story, if the name changes reflect and reinforce the themes that are emerging in your story. And you can always change them again in the second draft.
If nothing else, put details that are problematic in parentheses, highlight them, or preface them with xz (to make them easily searchable in the next draft for replacement).
Or, just be very, very diligent in the second draft about changing the details.
Fiction has to be better than real life.
Second, try as much as you can to take solid details (and the airier thematic details) from many people. Jane Doe was an artist in high school; fill in the creative details from Jay-jay Bread who was the editor of the school newspaper of the high school in Friend, Nebraska and John Stag, the humor columnist of the Southwest Lincoln High newspaper.
Third, in later drafts, try to develop your characters beyond what you know or what you’ve heard. Some details are important thematically, but others are just details to create atmosphere or personality. Try to change those unimportant details into things that matter in more than one way to the story.
I think, though, that sometimes a story just demands to be an asshole. Does that make the writer an asshole? Well, yeah. But to be honest, being an asshole at least part-time is a common condition for the writer. Earnest Hemingway was an abrasive drunk. James Thurber was a noted grouch. People asked, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” about Virginia Woolf.
If the story feels like it was written by an asshole, you need to make the hard decisions. Does the world need this? Does this brilliantly reveal the human condition in some way? Is this so artistically good in my opinion (and maybe the opinion of others) that it’s worth being called an asshole, and I’m willing to take my lumps for it?
You may need to kill your darling.
Or you might decide to embrace your little asshole and set it free in the world.
But write it anyway, and get it out of your system. It’ll be a learning experience, whether you publish it or bury it.