His first reaction was to say that it was fine—but he hadn’t read the book yet. He started reading it during that trip, when he was still in New York, and by the time he was back in Los Angeles a few days later, I knew that it wasn’t fine—not really. He told me that he’d gotten to page 90 and stopped because it was too painful. He hated me, in that on-and-off way that siblings can, meaning that he told me that I had hurt him, but also was still likely to put me in an affectionate headlock and talk to me in silly voices, even still.
It’s now a year later, and he continues to bring it up in about a quarter of our conversations, which means maybe once a month. No matter how many times I tell him that writing the character was a way for me to try to understand and sympathize both with his behavior and with his former girlfriend, he is wounded by my portrait of them—even though it isn’t really a portrait of them. No matter how many times I tell him that the characters in the book are just that—characters in a book—his feelings are still hurt.
That’s the third thing I know for sure about fictionalizing real people: You can’t force them to get over it. I firmly believe that it is every writer’s choice to write about whatever they like, that there is no claim over material and that nothing is off limits—if you want to write about your relationship with your mother, you can, no matter what she says. If you want to write about a relationship like the one you have with your mother, you can. But. You can’t force your loved ones to like it, or even to forgive you. Memoir writers and personal essayists are forced to confront this issue right off the bat, because their pieces have real names and get fact-checked, but we fiction writers get to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. I’m a non-confrontational person, from a non-confrontational family, and it does occur to me that if I’d never said anything at all to my brother, the whole thing might have slipped by, unnoticed. Would that have been better? Not really—if I hadn’t said anything, I’m pretty sure I would have been riddled with ulcers, too nervous to speak to him at all. I think it’s better to own the truth, even when it’s unpleasant. I’m proud of the characters in my book—they surprised me, and in creating them, I got to a place (as a writer, as a sister, as a person) that I’d never been before, especially with my brother’s ex, a woman I knew for more than a decade and never really understood. The character in the book isn’t her, of course—I have no way of knowing how she felt about my family, or my brother, or herself, and I certainly don’t claim that my character shares her DNA. The fictional character is just that: a person on the page. But sometimes fictional characters help you understand real people better. That’s what I’ve always loved about reading, too—that books widen my understanding of humanity.
My father is a fiction writer. Something I gained from reading my dad’s writing was a very clear sense that books were books. They were receptacles for thoughts and fears and hopes and dreams. Nothing that happened inside their pages was real life, but within the pages, the characters’ lives were vitally important. I always knew that my father’s characters were made up of pieces of him—there were always shards of his childhood, his inner gunk all over the place. Maybe not on every page, but certainly in every book. His first novel is about a family very much like my mother’s, which he drew without much love. When I asked my father what his in-laws thought of the book, and of seeing characters like themselves, he said that they never mentioned it. Maybe they understood that his work had far more to do with him than it ever had to do with them? Or maybe they didn’t read anything he’d written.
The fourth thing I know about fictionalizing real people is that it’s an imprecise art. The very fact that it’s made up means that the whole thing is a funhouse mirror. For every character that has a tiny bit in common with someone I know, the same character is bound to share more with me. That’s what I think of telling people when they ask if the characters in my work are based on real people—Yes! I want to say, They’re all me! The major characters and the minor ones, the witty ones and the goofy ones, the quick ones and the lazy ones. All of their thoughts and feelings have come through me, and they all bear my mark in one way or another. They all start out a little bit mushy, like they’re made of raw cookie dough, with some of this borrowed attribute or that one identifiable in the mix. As I write, and as they take on personalities of their own that I get to know better, they begin to solidify and to cook, until I can’t identify their traits as belonging to anyone else but them.
There’s a reason that at least one person always asks about a writer’s process at every reading. Unlike painting, where brushstrokes can’t be undone, or acting in a play, which exists only in the moment, writing a book happens slowly, and can be revised over and over again, for months and years on end. That’s my favorite part—learning about the characters as you write, knowing that things are going to evolve and change. A book is never exactly the one you set out to write. And this is part of the process, too—seeing the reaction that your work has on the people around you. I was just in Florida visiting my in-laws, and my husband made a joke about how I should write a Florida book next, and my mother-in-law said instantly, without missing a beat, “Be careful there.” And, because I want to keep my extended family happy, I will be.
Here is the last and biggest piece of advice I have: If you have a story that you want to tell, but you’re afraid that someone in your life is going to feel wounded, whether that feeling is justified or not, fair or not, tell it anyway. You can’t worry about every possible reaction when you’re writing, because then you’re censoring yourself. There is a time to be sensitive to other people’s feelings, but that’s not when you’re writing. The goal of writing fiction is to be as honest as possible, and you can’t be honest if you’re constantly looking over your shoulder at your potential audience. It takes guts to tell the truth, even when you’re making things up. ♦