Writing About Someone You Know

Often we are fearful about writing the stories of real people. We’re terrified that if we tell the truth, they will sue us/hate us/avoid us/never speak to us again.

It is correct that we should be concerned. Libel is a crime that could cost you real dollars and possibly damage your reputation as a writer.

So what do you do when Aunt Tilly’s story is too good to be silent? You create a persona who is like your aunt, but different. Your character doesn’t look like Tilly, doesn’t talk like her or walk like her. Her life experiences have not been the same. She hasn’t lived in the same house or attended the same schools.

Even the story is changed somewhat, just enough to protect the identity or your aunt.

Instead of walking on the beach in New Jersey when she found a seashell that reminded her of her late husband, she’s walking through the forests of northern California when she discovers an old journal half-buried under a pile of leaves.

Whereas the shell reminded her of a lovely vacation she shared with family and a few close friends, the journal speaks of love and loss.

Your task is to pull from your memory a person that you knew well. This person had an interesting life in which he traveled the country/world, visited unusual places, saw amazing sights, and experienced an event that changed his perspective/brought joy/introduced new hobbies.

Alter the person so that he is not recognizable, then write. Tell this new character’s story in an interesting way. Make him funny or crass. Place him in the midst of turmoil, either emotional or physical. Give him people to talk to and write the dialogue that ensues.

When you are finished, go back and reread. Find the places where you can add detail that enriches the story. Search for places where telling slows pace, and where the pace can be increased in order to build tension.

Make sure that your character wants something and that there are impediments in his way.

There are the things that make for an interesting story.

Have fun with this one.

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