How to write about your life (without upsetting friends and family)

Whether you’re a poet or problogger, you will, at times, have an instinct to write autobiographically.
As writers, we regularly follow the common piece of writing advice, to ‘write about what you know’. It’s in our nature to draw on personal experience and, in one way or another, write about our lives.

But of course, it’s almost impossible to write about our lives on a regular basis or in any depth without referring to the people around us – our friends and family.

And this can sometimes lead to problems.

Decisions, decisions

You novelists and scriptwriters will understand the difficult decisions you have to make when a character starts to resemble someone you know.

Do you plough on regardless or do you stop and think about whether what you’re writing will have any repercussions in real life?

And what about you bloggers and journalists? What you write is effectively a permanent archive of material that can be accessed at any time by pretty much anyone. That’s a lot of responsibility.

Do you stick with a good story or article no matter what, or do you run it past the people it might affect to make sure that your work won’t bring heartache later on?

Writing about your life can be a tricky business, but there are a few things you can do to make sure you don’t get yourself in an emotional tangle.

They can handle the truth

Once you’ve made the decision to write about your life in a way that might affect someone you know, be open and honest about it. More importantly, ask permission.

There’s no harm in telling that person that you’re writing about them, or that you’ve been inspired by something they’ve said or done. Most people will take it as a compliment and maybe even help you out with any research that you might need to do.

But it’s vital that you’re up front with them from the get-go. Otherwise, what you write may just cause upset later on. And by that time, it’ll be too late to do anything about it.

Be inspired don’t imitate

Another alternative is to simply use a snapshot of a person or event.

You don’t always need to go the whole hog and base an entire character on one person, or relay exact events that reflect their life and actions.

When I began writing my novel, I had no intention of using any part of my life as inspiration. But inevitably, it happened.

My lead character’s father shares many similarities with my own father, including his job, dialect and some of the phrases he uses. But he’s also a borderline alcoholic who may or may not have had an affair with his daughter-in-law’s mother.*

My character, that is. Not my Dad.

The point is, I’m never going to write a story, poem or blog article based entirely on someone I know personally. But they can still inspire me, and I can use that inspiration in a way that won’t compromise the relationship.

Write anonymously

Here are some practical examples for when you really have to write about a friend or family member, but need to protect their anonymity:

  • If you’re writing fiction, give someone a different name. Make one up. It’s obvious, I know, but worth saying.
  • If you’re writing fiction, give someone a different name that doesn’t sound very similar to their real name or have the same initial. Don’t laugh. It happens all the time.
  • If you’re writing non-fiction, reduce the name to an initial, so Sally becomes ‘S’ and Bob becomes ‘B’.
  • If you’re writing non-fiction, use a different name and include a disclaimer that indicates what you’ve done.

Put yourself in their shoes

Another way of looking at it is to try and put yourself in their shoes.

Read your work again. Would you like to have the article or story that you’re writing written about you? Would it hurt your feelings or jeopardise a relationship?

The old saying, ‘treat others how you would want to be treated yourself,’ is a pertinent message for writers.

With the power of words comes responsibility. Think about how your words might affect you if the shoe was on the other foot. I know that’s way too many shoe/foot analogies, but the point is a good one.

Do the write thing (sorry)

Finally, what I think is probably my most important piece of advice. If you think there might be any chance that what you’re writing will affect someone you care about, don’t do it.

It’s just not worth it.

The written word is our passion. For many of us, it’s our occupation too. But it will never be more important than the people we love.

When your work starts to have a negative impact on the people around you – your friends and family – it’s time to find a new subject and move on to the next idea.

* It’s less complicated than it sounds, I promise.

  1. Good post! Writing a book about relationships meant that this was a major issue for me – believe it or not I consider myself a reasonably private person, especially when it comes to writing about anyone I’m romantically involved with.
    My solution? A combination of several things that you suggest – changed names, changed scenarios, changed details. And though I do make a fair few mentions of men I’ve dated, I don’t actually make any reference to the ones with whom I’ve had really serious relationships or with whom I am still close friends. It’s one thing to tell a funny story about someone who I had dinner with twice; it’s quite another with a proper ex-boyfriend, both for his sake and for mine.

    The result, of course, is that the men who I’ve so painstakingly excepted from the book will probably read it and feel slightly miffed that they’ve been left out.

  2. I am an open book in many ways in blogger land. When you say write about what you know..that’s exactly what I do. I have 3 blogs and on one of them I am following the The Love Dare from the Fireproof movie. I am putting out there my truths about myself and my marriage.. Sometimes in order to make an impact you have to bare your soul….as for stories inspired my certain family members…let just say… you gotta be really careful. The names have been changed to protect the innocent….

  3. I like writing in my journal about myself, my inner feelings and people who are close to me, but in characters I believe they should be characters, that is the excitement in writing you get to choose and pick your characters, puts you in a different world during the writing.

  4. Hi Iain, another very interesting blog and as usual I’d add that all advice on writing blogs and forums is only the poster’s opinion, one’s own may be different.
    There’s one part of your (nevertheless perennially fabulous!) blog with which I strongly disagree. In fact the advice you’ve given is the exact opposite of what I’ve now learnt from experience.

    “Once you’ve made the decision to write about your life in a way that might affect someone you know, be open and honest about it. More importantly, ask permission.”

    The Sundance award-winning documentary filmmaker, Sean McAllister, whose brilliant doc Japan: A Story of Love and Hate was screened on BBC Four on Monday as the finale to the Beeb’s Hidden Japan season, said during a Q and A at Sheffield Doc Fest in November 08 “I find the best way to get permission is not to ask for it.” And this is a filmmaker who has filmed Japanese post office workers doing exercises en masse in an office. You can see Sean saying that quote on the Doc Fest video clip on the home page of his web site here:

    ttp://www.seanmcallister.com

    And you can watch Japan: A Story of Love and Hate on BBCi player until 6th April here:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00jkry6/Japan_A_Story_of_Love_and_Hate/

    Sean’s advice is one of the best pieces of advice I have ever heard. Don’t ask permission unless you’re forced to. Art and compromise curdle.

    Back to your point. I made the huge mistake after writing my novel Mother-in-Law, Son-in-Law of going to the trouble to tell someone (“X”) that I had used a fairly patronising line she was in the habit of saying to people, for a character in the book. The character, Tilly, is a patronising control freak harbouring barely concealed aggression due to family problems only hinted at in the final edited version of the novel – an obsession with her grown up children and a meek, foolish, pistol-whipped husband who has a secret life of gay lovers and fetish clubs as a way of escaping his wife’s dominance.

    Now, X had asked for a complimentary copy of the novel, which I had already given her, but had admitted that she had hardly taken any notice of it as she had so far been reading it in bed at night after she was pissed. You get this, as an author, many people can’t be arsed to take your work seriously. Whatever. Water off a duck’s back by now. However I still went to the trouble to explain that Tilly wasn’t based on her and that I’d only used one line of X’s.

    The result was that, behind closed doors, she’d obviously gone into a dervish-like whirl of hysterical paranoia about my book, thinking Tilly was her, and a week later, at a big convention in the middle of town, in front of hundreds of people, one of her daughters drunkenly chased me through the Millennium Galleries bawling at me that I’d misrepresented her mother putting her in my book and how they would never forgive me and how awful I was blah blah blah. In front of dozens on onlookers…and she wouldn’t let me walk away, kept grabbing me. It was quite honestly one of the most horrible moments of my life.

    And X, although not appearing as a character in MILIL, has promptly written herself straight into a future book with her hysterical paranoia and trouble-making.

    So my lesson is, NEVER tell people you have based anything on them because some people get very angry about your having the power to put them in your book, especially paranoid control-freaks! They hate it and will resent you for the rest of your life.

    Naturally, names, locations, visual appearance etc have to be changed, but many characters in books are based on real people, including most of mine.

    Only I will never, ever, make the mistake of telling anyone again.

  5. Iain,
    I get jazzed every time I come here, mate. This really is a great post that addresses what can be a sticky wicket for certain.

    I agree that you should pay attention to your gut. If you feel like this may cause any heartache, then don’t do it. Go another route.

    Gonna stumble and tweet this one, my friend. Worth it.

    Cheers

    George

  6. @Jean Ah yes, there’s always those people who you’ll upset if you write about them, but get angry if you don’t. We can’t win, eh?
    @Kelly You’re right, I think. Sometimes, you do need to reveal yourself in your writing to make a real impact. I guess the skill is in deciding when and where that happens. Good luck with the multiblogging!

    @Jude As with all these things, we all have our own ways of doing things and your experience does sound rather troubling. I guess I’d argue that the problem there lies with your friend’s outlook rather than your decision to ask her permission.

    Personally, I think that my copywriting has encouraged me to always pursue permission for things, because professionally, I have to. It’s perhaps one of those points where my two writing lives cross over.

    Hmm, interesting. Thanks for the comment Jude, as always.

    @Tumblemoose Many thanks for your kind words, your support is hugely appreciated!

  7. I have a personal blog, but I rarely write about anyone in my life that would raise eyebrows. I am pretty vague when writing about someone else. Besides, no one I mention would ever see my blog or even know what blog is!

  8. I’ve been meaning to read this post for ages – some good advice, especially in the comments! Often when I’ve been writing things I’ve been asked by people “am I in it?” and I’ve always said no – I usually use situations people have been in and things they’ve done and spread them out between a number of different characters. Exciting things happen in real life, after all, and documenting them and turning them into fiction is an exciting process.
    I don’t think you can help but be influenced by things that happen around you – the people around you and their lives.

    But what do you do if you’ve been writing something and then discover it has an uncanny resemblance to another book, or TV show, or film? I know Barthes said everything is influenced by something and whatever we write is just layers … but what do you do?

  9. I’ve had the opposite happen to me. A friend told me he adored my first novel – which was a bit puzzling as it was teen gothic romance and he was a 25-year-old English graduate! Still, I basked proudly in what I thought was confirmation that my writing prowess could transcend genres and reader types. Turned out he only enjoyed the book because he thought the central, evil character was someone we knew at college. It wasn’t, but there was no way he was believing my explanation. fortunately he wasn’t on speaking terms with her so he wasn’t able to give her the good news in person.
    So your friends who want to believe you write about them will believe that no matter what you say. If people who you have shared part of your life with read your book they’ll almost expect it! So you might as well publish and be damned.

  10. Nice post. It’s a topic I struggle with often. There are a number of writers/artists for whom the art is the thing and therefore the rest of the world can go to hell. I think that sounds like a lonely existence. Also a callous and egocentric one.
    But taken to a less extreme place, there are the topics that we’re drawn to write about in which not everyone is always at their best. And while it’s one thing to reveal your own self as ugly or hateful or negative, it’s quite another to show someone else that way. Yet some non-fiction stories — even those in which the writer is the protagonist –can’t be told without all characters — and character flaws — involved.

    I dunno. I was just yesterday posting a rant about lying in nonfiction (my opinion: don’t), but the difficulty of telling the truth is that the truth can be sharp and cutting. Finding a way to tell the truth from an angle that accurately represents a subject without stabbing someone else along the way — it can be tough. I’m still searching for a way to do it.

    Thanks for the post.

    1. @Kellie Hello and welcome!
      You’re absolutely right, it can be a real fine line to tread. I know for a fact that if/when my novel is published I’m going to have to have a quiet word with someone I know. Not because they’re in the book, but because they won’t be expecting any swearing or appreciate the vicar in the football socks. But I couldn’t leave those things out.

      I think the issue comes primarily when the story reflects real life or is clearly based on a friend or family member. It’s when it gets personal that potential problems really need pre-empting!

  11. I probably have to wait until my husband’s parents are dead to publish my book. (Yeah, that’s what’s keeping me from doing it!) My husband wants me to publish now so it will be a bestseller and he can quit working. I tell him I am perfectly happy to have his parents disown him and never talk to us again, which is what would happen if they ever read a word of what I write about them.
    They threatened not to come to our wedding based on something I wrote in the blog they knew about – my new one is secret. I am perfectly willing to alienate them for all eternity. But it’s not my decision.

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