Updated: Oct 13, 2018
Have you ever been reading a story and thought, "Hey! That character is just like me." Well, if you are a close, personal friend of the author, I suppose there's a good chance that character is you; or at least a version of you.
I'm not sure how much it actually happens like that in real life. I think it's a bit of a cliché. You see it in movies and television. When one of the characters is a writer, they often use their family and friends and just change the names. And usually they don't even change the names very much, making it pretty obvious who is who.
Do I do that when I write? Not really. I do draw from real life experiences, of course, but I think I always stop short of using characters from my real life as characters in my stories.
There is, however, a compelling dynamic in fiction writing that can leave an author vulnerable. If you create characters that are similar to those in your life, the real-life inspirations may recognize it. And if you also give those characters some not-so-flattering characteristics, they might not draw the distinction between fiction and reality; they might think that's how you truly feel about them.
I was recently discussing a future project with someone; a story about a man who fantasizes about murdering his wife. The story is a darkly humorous thriller which has no basis in reality, of course. It's a story that has been in my head since before I met my wife (I'm sure a lot of you were wondering). I told her about the story when we were dating, and for some reason, she married me anyway.
With this storyline in mind, my friend asked me if I ever feel restrained when I'm writing; if I ever feel like I can't go a certain way with a particular character or storyline because of how it might be perceived. I promptly answered no. But it made me think. Do I ever feel restrained? I still think the answer is no, but it's a very intriguing question.
In an earlier blog post entitled "To Bare One's Soul" I discussed the challenge of allowing all of your emotions to be on display for the whole world to read and dissect; your hopes and dreams, your worst fears, your saddest moments, everything you used to keep private.
In that blog post, I wrote the following: "Many people assume writing fiction is all about revealing things about yourself that you want people to know, secretly divulging aspects of yourself in your characters. Quite the opposite, really. What actually happens is you end up exposing things about yourself that you don't want anybody to know about. It's true. That's the magic of fiction. That's the magic of sitting down to read a novel. You are getting the writer's innermost thoughts, feelings, fears.
It's not necessarily intentional, though. And that's why it can be magical. And as a writer, I can tell you that's it's an odd experience to learn something about yourself through one of your characters."
So back to the question: Do I ever feel restrained? Do I ever feel like I can't write something because I'm afraid of how it will be perceived? I still have to say no. It hasn't happened yet, anyway. And I hope it never does.
I know there will be times when someone may read too much into one of my characters. Actually, it has happened already. It's only natural. The first story I ever finished, as a matter of fact, was received rather oddly by my mother. It's a story about a man who sells his soul to the devil so he can see his favorite football team play. There's a scene in the story where the main character, Joe, is dreaming about being at a game with his father when he was a small boy. It was a touching moment, a memory of being at a game with his old man. The game was boring, but that didn't matter. He was sharing a moment with his dad, and that's what mattered.
The story itself is farcical; very tongue-in-cheek in parts, including the scene in question. But my mother, being very motherly, wondered if I was revealing some deep-seeded emotions, some moment I shared with my father when I was a boy; harboring these feelings, saving them up until the moment that I could finally reveal my secret to the world.
There was no such moment, of course. It's fiction. I was creating fiction. There are many real moments within the pages of any work of fiction, of course, but trying to figure out which moments are real and which ones are made-up ruins the illusion. The beauty of any good work of fiction is its ability to suck you into its reality.
I do think, though, that it can be difficult to make that separation when the author is someone you know. But you have to try, because if you read through the pages, all the while trying to dissect what your son or brother or husband is really trying to say, you'll lose that ability to disappear into the story.
My advice to anyone reading a story by someone they know: Don't read too much into it. Just read it.