Uhm… Did I Just Go Too Far?

In creative writing there is this invisible line that so many of us are afraid to cross: how much reality should we use in our fiction without telling the oftentimes unfortunate inspiration? Is changing the name enough to keep someone from recognizing themselves in your story? Should you have to get someone’s permission before telling their story? Or does your fictionalizing of it, your telling of it by writing it down, in effect make their story yours?

As writers, we get our inspirations from everywhere: from other things we read, things we see, things we hear. This doesn’t mean that we retell the story verbatim, it just means that that idea leads us to our idea, which leads us to our story. But what about when your best friend sits down and tells you a piece of dramatic gossip in her life, tells you this in confidence, and you think…this would make a great story. What do you do? Do you write her story, change the names, add a bit more of a plot, character development, getting inside the heads of the characters, and publish it? Or do you ignore it, leave it alone, and miss out on writing something you want to write?

This is an invisible ethical line that some dare not cross, and others don’t believe is even there. There is something to both sides of the argument, valid points that shouldn’t be ignored. Something told in confidence, between two friends, is protected. They told you a story with the intention that it wouldn’t be repeated. This stops some from writing the story completely, others ask permission first, others change the character names and tweak details, and others reveal it all: events, names, everything.

On the one hand, writers will argue that they value their family relationships and friendships over their own writing, and would never publish anything that would damage this under any circumstances. This can manifest itself in multiple forms. Some don’t write the story, resigning themselves to writing something else that they come up with through other forms of inspiration. Others will ask the original story teller their permission first, promising to change names and certain events and get their approval before submitting to publication. Not completely destroying your relationships with people through your writing is important, and spilling someone else’s incredibly personal story for the whole world to read can be traumatizing and upsetting. However, the lines between reality and fiction can become so easily blurred when both reading and writing a story that these rules cannot always be exclusively followed, if you even wished to do so in the first place.

There is always another story to be told, and how can you tell someone that they aren’t allowed to do so? Yes, it can be said that it isn’t their story to tell, but who truly can be the judge of that? It is rare that even when writers take stories from their family’s or friends’s lives that they write it word for word the same way it is told to them. Details are added, the plot is embellished, conversations are modified, the end result of the story is changed. Yes, if names aren’t changed who the story is really about can be identified, but in the end, it is still fiction. By the time it is finished it isn’t really the truth anymore. And, it is truly hard to argue that an author doesn’t deserve or have the right to tell a story that they really want tot tell.

This is a mindset that many go into writing a story with, but when push comes to shove and they are submitting it for publication they start to panic. They want to change names, they want to make sure the original subject is okay with everything. The sudden worry is normal, a side effect of having a conscience, and it is up to you if it will stop you from publishing a story. Do keep in mind, though, that often times by the time a story is published, even if your character has the same name as the original inspiration for the story, they don’t see themselves reflected in what you’ve written, and if there is a story you really want to write, you shouldn’t let anything stop you.