Sometimes we go through tremendous ordeals in our lives. Often it is because of a big change – a death in the family, relationship breakup, personal illness, or being the victim of a crime.
Writing about it is often a way to heal and tell our story to others. A journal, personal essay or even a non-fiction article encompassing the ordeal is more fact, more actual with a story (and viewpoint included).
But what if you want to fictionalize it? Do you present details and people as they happened? Do you change people’s names and some details? How can you go about it?
Authors do it several ways. You do have to be concerned with libel – especially if the fiction is more fact than fiction. An author colleague is very particular here because she ran into libel issues a couple of times in the past – no libel involved, but it can scare you and serve as a warning.
Other authors use the “based on…” line.
Some write what they want and use the “Any resemblance to living persons, etc.” disclaimer.
I am a bit liberal about my approach. For the most part I sometimes take something from my life as a basis for a story – but the characters aren’t me or whomever else appeared and the story definitely is different. For example, in my short story collection Beyond the Tripping Point, one story deals with two female friends who have problems with a car brake that won’t work as they drive up to the cottage. This happened to a friend and I about 30 years ago. All my friend had to contend with was the brakes failing. She used the parking brake and we were in and out of gas stations looking for a bay to get the problem fixed. That’s where truth ends. What happens in “No Breaks” is well, crime fiction.
But I do up the ante sometimes if someone has really messed up with my life. When I told this story at a recent Crime Writers of Canada reading, I could just feel the other author mentioned above cringe. (I was looking at the audience, not her, so didn’t actually see her face).
There is a way to do this. One of the characters in one of my short stories in Beyond the Tripping Point is loosely based on this real-life person – only the age is in the same decade and I saw her features, her way of dressing in my mind. But from the minimal description I gave of her, she could be any person in that age bracket fitting that description. I kept her in the same work industry but a different job. Yes, she was one of the suspects, but I won’t tell you if she was the guilty one.
A bit of background here – the person (yes a family member) objected to me writing and getting published family stories as memoir but she said I could fictionalize any of it. So, I did a variation of that.
In Beyond Blood, a couple of characters, Detective Sergean tDonald Fielding and Great Aunt Doris Bowman are loosely on people I have known – but none of them messed up my life. The first one I liked and the second one was an interesting person. Dana Bowman, my main character, is she based on me? Not exactly. For one thing she is 25 years younger than me. True, we are both short in stature, but I made her shorter, something she is a bit peeved about. Let’s just say Dana tends to boldly go where I just might not do so.
So, it is not all cut and dry about going from real to reel. Just consider that even when your fiction has nothing to do with real life, at least any you have experienced, read about or seen, there is always somebody who will insist that a character in your story is based on them.
Usually they are wrong. Perhaps they have a latent wish to be immortalized in some way.
Sharon A. Crawford
Click on the Beyond Blood cover at the top to find out where copies are available