This week, a picture popped into my inbox. It’s a frame from the manga graphic novel Cloud 109, the latest WIP by artist Peter Richardson and writer David Orme. Peter sent it because he’s put me and Dave into the background as a cameo.
This is something arty folk do regularly, of course; we’re forever using each other as cameos and walk-ons in our stories.
But this is only for cameos. Not main characters.
In fact, this topic has been hot all week. Mysteries writer Elizabeth Craig started it when she asked, should you write about people you know? Non-writers assume that everything we write is recycled from our own lives – but they don’t realise how much invention is added. The debate carried on on Twitter, where the consensus from writers was this: sometimes real people go into novels, but if they are to play major parts, they require a lot of tweaking. What comes out is not necessarily that similar to the raw materials that went in.
No character from real life, however remarkable, is going to be completely suitable just as they are.
And that’s just when they start off in the story. If characters are to be explored in any great depth they will probably – and should – evolve as the story goes. They may surprise you, develop a will of their own – that oft-repeated phrase ‘the characters took over’. Not only do they do what they want, they go through their own changes which you can’t necessarily predict when you start.
To use real life well in a novel, you have to allow everything to go its own way.
This doesn’t just apply to characters, but also to events.
I used to go to a critique group, and one week a lady read from her novel about a couple divorcing. There were many scenes featuring bitter arguments. Everyone agreed the characters’ distress was plain to see but following it all was difficult. We started to make suggestions that would help us find a way in – so that we could engage with the characters and why they were so upset with each other. There were suggestions to amalgamate two characters, show some of the other person’s point of view, tone down the villainous behaviour. Every comment was answered with ‘but I can’t change that, it’s what really happened’.
Really, she was writing the novel as therapy, so telling it exactly as she saw it was the point. Inviting the reader to become involved was not her purpose.
But if inviting the reader in is your purpose, you have to be prepared to change things.
You have to know the difference between real truth and dramatic truth. Dramatic truth is universal, in some ways it is about us all. Real truth is messy, overblown, particular to one situation. For instance, coincidences – in real life they happen all the time. In novels coincidences usually look like lazy storytelling. In real life, people behave in ways we will probably never understand. Real life is a terrible template for a story – it only gets away with it because we can’t turn it off.
Truth is stranger than fiction – or, if you’re a storyteller, fiction cannot be as messy and strange as truth. In a novel, the reader knows you have made up the events – therefore the events themselves are not as important as what they signify, or their part in a coherent whole. This is an absolute rule, no matter what kind of material you are basing your novel on – and I’ve helped clients make novels out of truly horrific childhoods, which you might think gave the writer a free pass for the reader’s indulgence.
If you’re basing a story or characters on real life, don’t get hung up on what really happened. You are not giving evidence for the police. When you write fiction, no matter what you are making it out of, you cross a line. Telling the real truth isn’t your job. Telling the dramatic truth is.
If you’re going to write about real life, be prepared to let it change to make a better story.
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.