I believe there is truth in the statement that art imitates life and some of the most compelling stories ever brought to light in film and novels have been of real people going through real life tragedies.
I have been a freelance journalist for a bigger portion of my life. I have been assigned, thought of and written firsthand accounts of people from all walks of life .Cat’s out of the bag so to speak. I won’t claim that I have *never found at least *one idea from real life that didn’t appeal to me to write as a work of fiction but there were a lot of things I would have taken into consideration *if I had moved forward with writing from real life experiences.
I would also argue that the truth can be a powerful thing in the hands of an experienced writer. Like all things though, the truth can have dark sides that sometimes no one should be privy to and the question becomes, how far would you go to keep a secret if you were asked? When is drawing stories from real life events beneficial or is it possible that long term it could be harmful? What would you do when faced with possibly the biggest story of your career and the subject was someone you knew? The real question is: How ethical are you as a writer in drawing your writing ideas from real life and writing them into existence?
Have you ever had deep conversation with someone about their life and then wanted to tell their story on the page? Is it ever okay to use someone else’s pain for profit? Would you have the guts to ask someone for their permission to write their life story? How would you answer if someone asked if you, ‘wrote them’, into a story without their knowledge?
Writing people we know and turning them into characters in a story is something that hypothetically, could be done. In memoirs, the subject is fact and the people (most of the time) are from real life. As a fiction writer, if you were writing from an idea drawn from a person IRL you could make a few changes to the sex of the character, the dialogue and gender you could absolutely spin a tale about someone you didn’t like or who had wronged you using a storyline you overheard or a conversation you had until that character or someone else you created was in h*ll in a handbasket so to speak and possibly feel no remorse (okay, maybe you might feel remorse) or maybe you want to write someone out of a bad real life ending and conclude the story with some happily-ever-after idea. That’s the great thing about writing. Anything is possible. The power stays with the author during the writing process.
Let’s say Bob tells Jane that Sally left Tom because he’s an alcoholic. Would you go write a story about Tom? Probably not. But, if you know Tom really well then we can safely say you know his mannerisms, his hobbies, that he picks his nose too much and that his hair colour is really blond. Let’s also say for arguments sake, that you’ve decided to write an essay about alcoholism and how it destroys families but you don’t want to call out Tom so as not to embarrass him or Sally should anyone read your work who knows you, here’s how you write about Tom without causing a fuss:
Choose from these: change his age, location, height, weight, gender, social etiquette (so no nose picking throughout the story) hobbies, hair colour, gait, and make his ex-girlfriend the opposite of what your friend Sally is, or also like Sally but a different ethnicity, from a different religion thereby changing the type of activities she’d be involved in or lifestyle she’d leave.
To take storytelling skills a step further I suggest you research more and speak to people who have experienced what you want to know about or who are experts in their field. For instance, I once wanted to speak to people whom had experienced homelessness. I didn’t have to look far on Ottawa’s downtown streets to meet someone who had been displaced. I sat down with this person over coffee (my treat) and asked them what life was really like. It would not have been ethical to write their life story and pitch their head shot for the cover of People Magazine or some other glossy periodical with mass subscribers but it was logical to take general facts about the lifestyle that was described to me and apply it to the character I created from thin air.
Anytime there is a question of what to leave in and what to take out where questioning if it is ethically acceptable to write or print stories with personal material from sources I ask myself two things: Is what I have written defamatory? Is it libelous? (If you do not know what these terms mean I suggest looking them up). When in doubt, take it out, is a popular rule of thumb used by many authors I have met whose writing I admire.
Then there’s what I have described as the question, “Mother may I?” In fact, it is nothing more than my fancy way of saying, would you be comfortable writing this information about your mother or would you be asking “Mother may I include this or that in my story about you?” (Or swap the word mother with another person you respect or admire). If the answer is no, you might be best to not tell it directly if you include it at all and certainly in no way make any reference to the person whose dialogue inspired you but you could perhaps show it in a third-person narrative with a newly developed character, this would make things a lot less personal between the reader and your work.
Writing in the first person is intensely more personal and direct than describing the same information happening to someone else.
So the next time you find yourself listening in on someone else’s conversation whether accidentally, because you are a captive audience or otherwise consider whether there is a story there you want to tell or that is deserving of telling, and sweep up the breadcrumbs you leave behind as you write deeper into your story, unless you are writing a memoir. Even then you may find yourself asking, “Mother may I?”