Plagiarizing Reality: The Pros and Cons of Mining Life Experience for Fiction

Method writers write what they know while classical writers draw entirely from their imaginations. I’m not here to tell you which style is best, I’m here to tell you how to walk the line between the two without staggering.

Take too much inspiration from the real world and your notebook turns into a black hole
Take too much inspiration from the real world and your notebook turns into a black hole

Writers struggle to keep our memoirs out of our fiction, to keep our rage journals out of character narrations, to put some distance between our diaries and the worlds we’re building.

Our personal lives have a way of demanding roles in our stories. We’re lured into taking ideas from them with the promise of added realism. A smattering of truth can add authenticity to fantasy, but there’s a risk in mixing fiction and nonfiction. If a story is rooted too deeply in reality it resists changes it may ultimately need. The trick is to warp life events to serve your story, not to bend it to report those events more accurately.

I use a waiting period when it comes to drawing from trauma. Fresh wounds bleed into my imagination. When I have a falling out I have to fight the urge to pick up my pen. When I get dumped I have to resist the compulsion to bring the break up into my story. When I get downsized I have to resist setting the same pink slip on my hero’s desk.

When something bad happens, I usually have another story going. I don’t want to shoehorn my journal into events I already have in motion. I might feel a need to share a personal revelation, but if I put it into the wrong forum it will seem jarring.

That’s why I wait until my statute of limitations has passed. My immediate reactions are inarticulate. They come out too soon for me to settle on an allegory. My metaphors refuse to mix, like a sloppy cocktail, they leave a bad aftertaste in the readers’ mouths. If I feel something too intensely I overuse hyperbole. My poetic exaggerations color my prose in the deepest shade of purple. I get so abstract that when it comes time to edit, I fail to see what I meant.

Why Emotions Suck at Plotting Stories

If I invite emotional reactions into what I’m working on, they make themselves at home. They move things around. They demand that I convert my third person story into a first person one. My emotions don’t have time to show evidence to the audience, they want to talk directly to them. They insert monologues into scenes that would benefit from quiet tension. They’re too negative to let my characters go through positive changes.

When there’s a death in the family, sometimes it’s better to hold onto that grief before putting it on paper. Writers naturally develop fresh phrases to describe their emotions. It takes time for the right language to come. Wade into your stream of consciousness too soon and it will flood out onto page.

It’s only when I’m numb to tragedy that I can examine it with clarity. Time allows me to see which details add credibility to my story and which ones weigh it down. I want the audience to relate to my characters, but I don’t want to share too much information. Not because I run the risk of exposing myself, but because I run the risk of slowing my pacing.

My notebook swallowed the sun, enshrouding the world in eternal darkness
My notebook swallowed the sun, enshrouding the world in eternal darkness

The Dangers of Casting Characters with Real Life Players

Real world personalities can add spice to your story, but don’t just cast your evil ex because you’re jilted. Do it because the story needed a character who was at once disloyal and prided themselves on their honesty. The “You’re so vain, I bet you think this book is about you defense” won’t hold up with your family and friends.

When drawing character traits from real life focus on behaviors more than physical features. Borrow tells, looks, strange habits and peculiar mannerisms.

Get the expression on your subject’s face right. Don’t bother giving us a composite. If you draw from subtleties, your coworkers might not recognize themselves. They’ll continue to give passive aggressive criticism of your performance, without realizing their smile is in stark contrast with their eyes.

If your boss sees themselves on the page, what are you going to say? If a friend sees themselves in your character lineup, do you want to deal with the fallout? Will you look forward to Christmas dinner after demonizing your mother?

If all your characters need to come from a real place, mix and match the parts. Make a Frankenstein monster, an unrecognizable amalgamation. If the character is complex enough, you won’t get sued for likeness rights.

Why You Shouldn’t Tell Anyone a Character is Based on Them

When you tell friends they have a part in your story, you’re less likely to take creative liberties. When they know a character is based on them you’re less inclined to make them do something embarrassing. Humiliation humanizes characters, but now you feel compelled to give them a cool composure. Their stand-in becomes a flawless forgery that’s no fun to read.

For characters to be relatable they need to be vulnerable. Dignity is a luxury. Before anyone can rise above a challenge, we need to see them at their lowest. Stories shouldn’t respect their character’s privacy. We need to talk about their unmentionables, sort through their dirty laundry, and autopsy the skeletons in their closets.

If you use a real person’s name throughout your first draft, only to ‘Find and Replace’ it later, you’re playing with fire. Even if you’ve burned all your bridges, your story is better off without them. If you base a character too closely on a real person, they might refuse to take your commands. The plot needs them to go one way, but you know their real life counterpart wouldn’t.

Being real and feeling real are not the same. Use some artistic license.

Another life swallowed up by my fiction.
Another life swallowed up by my fiction.

Keep Your Imagination from Leaking

Just as writers don’t want their memoirs to invade their fiction, we want to keep our imagination from leaking into the rest of our brains.

Having experienced so many narratives, from Saturday morning cartoons to novels, our memories have adapted their story-telling mechanics. Remembering things in three act structures, we assign life events an artificial beginning, middle, and end, when in reality that’s not how they happened. Blending our recollections with our imaginations, can have consequences.

The brain uses the same process to evoke a memory as it does to visualize an idea. The mind’s eye plays its documentaries and found footage movies on the same screen. It’s only natural that we mistake one for the other, but just because we see signs of fate, doesn’t mean our lives follow story logic.

If we corrupt our memories to fit into narrative beats, we’ll see ourselves as heroes and ignore the things we need to change. If we spend our memories in our stories, we’ll run out of material quickly. We need to perfect our skills for fabrication, while keeping them isolated to our imagination.

Writer’s block isn’t always the result of a lack of inspiration. Sometimes it comes from a conflict in the mind. A little self examination can save a whole lot of time. Wordsmiths need to be aware of their own thinking, before finding the right balance between classical and method writing.

4 thoughts on “Plagiarizing Reality: The Pros and Cons of Mining Life Experience for Fiction”

  1. “The trick is to warp life events to serve your story, not to bend it to report those events more accurately.” I like this idea.

    I do see your point about waiting to write until your mind is clear…especially regarding the writing being too abstract. When I read my poems from years ago, sometimes I have no idea what the hell I’m talking about, lol! However, now I actually do like to write when I’m full of emotions, after things happens. It helps to inject energy into my writing. For me, it seems my emotions power the boat that sails into the river of the subconscious where I find words.

    I agree that time allows us to properly observe, analyze, etc. situations that arise (which is why I always try to hold off on making decisions or responding to others until my emotions have settled). But I also think the boiling point is when I am in touch with my subconscious and am able to pull words and image I could never be able to do otherwise. And these are all just my musings. I like what you say and agree with many of the points you made. It just seems my brains and creativity thrive on emotional energy.

    I have this notion our emotions are energy exerted from our soul which is filtered through the subconscious and when that gateway is open, there are so many possibilities and opportunists to connect with greater ideas…but I will say the gateway as a filter only allows certain things to pass through, the things that reflect what I’m feeling. Like when I’m fishing while angry, all the angry cheep cheep bastard fishes are like magnets to my pen and come flowing out. Later when I’m not so angry, I can always skin em and filet em to make them taste right. Okay, it’s late, I’m rambling, nonsense taking over.

    I agree with you and see how if we try to inject too much of ourselves into the prose especially regarding emotionally charged situations and we try to make the events turn out how we had wanted in real life, we are killing the story that should’ve been and writing a story that reflects our own wishes for reality. Makes so much sense.

    “My notebook swallowed the sun, enshrouding the world in eternal darkness.” I like that 🙂

    Agreed on making Frankensteins 🙂 Well-said. In a novella I was working on a year ago, my boyfriend at the time read a few pages and said, “This guy sounds like an asshole!” And then he read a few more pages and said, “This guy sounds like me!” And he was all pissed and kept asking me as I continued to deny that the man in my story (that’s a self-centered asshole) was based on him. Really their physical characteristics were completely different, and yet my ex saw his assholeness in the character…and that’s because I’m guilty, the asshole had many of my boyfriends jealous tendencies and assholeness. (So I understand and agree with you there!)

    I’m glad you wrote about this and it is expressed well. In one of my WIPs I based one of the characters off a real life person because I wanted to cast him in my story…but you are write, by doing that I’ve limited the character’s expressions, decisions, and so forth to mirror what the real world person would do.

    “If we corrupt our memories to fit into narrative beats, we’ll see ourselves as heroes and ignore the things we need to change.” Love that.

    Enjoyed reading this, you’ve brought up so many things to consider and think about and you provided great advice. I always love the thought and time you put into your posts.

  2. A couple of years back I was writing a horror story called The Book of Mirrors. There was a sequence at the end where I realized I needed to introduce and kill off a number of characters in quick succession. I could have just used a random name generator, but I never felt a connection with the names I got out of a hat. I decided to take to Facebook and ask my friends if they wanted to die in a story I was writing. I told them I only needed 8 names. I got somewhere around 25. I decided to add a few more quick deaths to the montage sequence to include the first 15.

    Now when I wrote the quick victim intros, I wrote them as high schoolers, stripping the characters of any connection to their real world namesakes. I thought this would be understood by everyone who’d participated. Then people started messaging me to ask how they were written, what I had them say and how they died. I had to specify that I only used their first names and nothing else about them. Still, people kept telling me I ought to give them some one liners. I realized pretty early on that the story in that form, wasn’t going to work and changed the names.

    I’ve encountered even more extreme examples when I’ve told people a character was based off them. They always came out watered down. Friends felt flattered at first until they realized I was still going, then they started to care what happened. There are plenty of good reasons to give up creative control but that wasn’t one of them.

    I know just what you’re talking about when you say an ex saw himself in one of your stories. I’ve gotten caught in exactly the same situation, trying to convince an ex a character was an amalgamation of several people I knew. She rightfully called bullshit on that.

    I can’t thank you enough for your insightful comments. They let me know I’m actually reaching someone. You’re too kind.

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