As a writer, I steal stuff from real life all the time and put it in my stories. Parts of conversations, situations, character traits, events...all of it goes into my mental blender and comes out onto the page in such a way that, if you knew me, you might be able to pick up. "Hey," you might say, "the name of that character in that story in remarkably similar to your full name, Jay."* Or, "hey, that character's relationship is a lot like your friend M's relationship with her mother." Or "wow, that kid is a lot like the guy you dated when you were a junior in high school."

I think all authors do this to some extent.** The beauty of it is, if you're doing it right, the reader who doesn't know you won't get the feeling that he's peering into your secret personal life. Why? Because it's fictionalized. That's the difference between writing a journal entry and writing a story.

But sometimes people, especially people who are new to writing, don't understand that fictionalizing details from their own lives takes more than changing the names to protect the innocent. More than once, I have seen a student in workshop defend a piece of writing because "this is how it really happened!"

Yeah, um. We don't care how it really happened. If you want to write about something that really happened, then you should write a memoir or a piece of journalism. A story is a selfish thing, and once you create one, you have an obligation to feed it not with real life but with what it actually needs.

So, how to fictionalize something? These are some things that work for me:***

1. Keep a journal. This isn't so that you can go back and mine it for details later, although it's good for that, too. It's because, in my experience, keeping a journal makes you keep your eyes open to things that are going on around you, and those things are the details that can filter in to your writing. For example, while I was proctoring an exam, I noticed that when a girl walked past the boy she liked on her way to sharpen her pencil or get a drink of water, she found a way to touch him each time. I don't know if I would have made that up on my own, but I saw it, adn now it will be in something.

2. Once you've decided to use something, take out all the boring crap. The truth is that real life is often full of weird coincidences and random occurrences and pointless details, and if you don't take those out of the writing, it's just plain boring.**** What you're trying to convey is the essence of the event, so keep only the details that make it comprehensible to someone who wasn't there.

3. CHANGE THE NAMES. I mean, really, this is the least you can do. So do it.

4. Raise the stakes. Often, in real life, something happens and it's important and awesome and so you want to use it in a story, but in real life, no one lost their life or their job or their marriage. They dealt with what happened and moved on.***** Again, not a very exciting story. So make it more important to the character. Of course, you want to avoid the Nuke War Scenario, but that doesn't mean that the event can't have a huge impact on a character's life.

5. Change the character. If the event happened to you, in the story it should happen to someone who's totally unlike you. If it happened to your friend, then make the character someone unlike your friend. Once you change the character from someone you know to someone you don't know, you have the chance to get to know the character. The question becomes "how would this character react?" as opposed to "how would I react?" and that, as Robert Frost would say, makes all the difference.

Taking things out of real life is essential to writing, for me. Most of my stuff wouldn't even exist if I didn't take things I saw or heard or read or watched and turned them into stories. But stories aren't diaries, and every character you write shouldn't be yourself.


* It's true -- I picked the character's name because it was a lot like mine, and therefore easy for me to type. I am nothing if not lazy...I mean, efficient.

** Some, like David Sedaris, more than others, obviously.

***Note: this is NOT a process. These are just a bunch of random tricks that I use when I want to put something in a book and have people not recognize that I stole it from their lives. It isn't a step-by-step thing, is what I'm saying.

**** This is the "Bathroom Tip." You know how in books characters almost never go to the bathroom? Why? Because very little happens in the bathroom. Unless an important plot element happens in the bathroom, like the character falls and breaks his neck or something, there's no need to describe every time he pees or takes a shower. BORING.

***** I have a theory that this is why when the really big moments do happen in real life, we often feel like we're in a movie watching ourselves from the outside. It's because we normally only see those things in movies, because in real life, people usually change more gradually.


It is fun (and hard) to create a character that doesn't contain some element of yourself. That's why I enjoy writing from the point of view of the opposite sex, it really takes some doing to think differently.

I agree that not every single boring detail of one's life needs to be included in a story or book. Yet I find myself a bit put off by many books written today that focus so much on the plot or action that they don't contain the little details or observations that make reading so much fun. Sure, part of it is due to the nature of genre fiction but too many thrillers have their characters experiencing more action in a few days than most people experience in a lifetime. It gets to be a bit much when the stakes are constantly raised and the characters just rush from one scene to the next. If there isn't a hint of reality or the passage of time, it gets to the point where an intelligent reader says "this is ridiculous."

Note: not a problem in your book. I thought you gave the characters sufficient downtime to deal with the latest developments and get ready for the next round.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 10:05:00 AM EDT  

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