Putting real people in stories

imagesIn writing workshops, the question often comes up: “What about putting people I know in stories? Is that ok?” It’s an interesting question, touching on issues of decency, law, human psychology, and the nature of narratives.

I don’t consciously import people from my life into stories. A character may be inspired by some quality of someone I know, but the push and pull of narrative structure, plot, and theme will start shaping the character far away from its model. I think that’s good. It’s how narratives work. Most successful fictive characters are amalgamations of characteristics you’ve seen and invented. If you want to be faithful to how Uncle Max “really was,” memoir is probably a better vehicle than fiction.

Which is not to say that people you know won’t see themselves in a character, especially a reasonably sympathetic one. I had an ex-pat female protagonist in a story set in Italy and lost count of the number of female ex-pat friends who assured me that I’d actually modeled my “Helen” character after them. Hum, news to me, but it made them happy. I’m sure every writer has had this experience.

But I do think it’s a problem if a writer starts playing the “I’m a writer” card to even a score with family members, ex-partners, or friends. As in “Robert did me wrong. I’ll write a story that shows everyone what a disgusting scumbag he is with a character called . . . hum . . . Rupert. After all, I’m a writer and I’m sharing my experience. So there.”

Without getting too far into the legal issue of libel, I think a fair moral test would be whether you’d give a free pass on public ridicule to someone on the grounds that s/he was a plumber or physician. Probably not. Being a writer doesn’t give you the right to be a creep.

Naturally, we are shaped by our experience, and the characters we create come from the world we’ve seen and imagined, but I do think that story telling is its own thing. It’s not about using your talent and craft to even a score.  That’s what diaries and journals are for. You can always dis your ex over drinks with a friend—in private. Anyway, a story that exists merely to show that a scumbag gets what’s coming to him/her is usually pretty lame anyway.


Pamela Schoenewaldt, historical novels of immigration and the search for self in new worlds: WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS, SWIMMING IN THE MOON, and UNDER THE SAME BLUE SKY (all HarperCollins).

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Sunday, May 6, 2pm reading from latest work at Hexagon Brewing Company, Knoxville, TN.

Thursday, May 10, 6-8 pm presentation on research on the historical novel, Blount County Library, Maryville, TN.

When We Were Strangers, Italian translation, to be presented in Pescasseroli, Italy, August 2018.

Recent Review
“Absorbing and layered with rich historical details, in Under the Same Blue Sky, Schoenewaldt weaves a tender and at times, heartbreaking story about German-Americans during World War I. With remarkable compassion, the author skillfully portrays conflicted loyalties, the search for belonging, the cruelty of war, and the resilience of the human spirit.”—Ann Weisgarber, author of The Promise and The Personal History of Rachel Dupree

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