How Much is Too Much When it Comes to Writing About People in Your Life?

6 Nov

Which Way? A while back I read an essay about whether it is okay for a writer to write about their kids. The author mulled over the subject and admitted that she was experimenting and doing the balancing-act for the time-being. That got me thinking.

I don’t have any kids. But I do have other people in my life. There’s the mother, the father, the partner, the friends. You get the idea. In spite of being a writer, I don’t (can’t?) practise utmost seclusion. Anyway so, I got thinking what if I were to write about, say, my parents? Or my close friends? Somehow, I felt an unease. No, make it a malaise. I felt malaise. I didn’t know if I could ever do that, and immediately, I was exposed to a “weakness” which I was not supposed to have.

You see, as writers, we are meant to look at everything not-so-personally, and write about it. We are betraying our writerly side if we tend to become biased. How are we supposed to write our tales if we shun the intricate details that indeed attest them?

If you think about it, you’ll be in a quandary. I believe there’s to be a limit and that everyone is entitled to their privacy. If I come out and tell the world a secret habit my best-friend-from-fifth-grade has, I am doing her wrong. If I decide to write an article that accumulates comments by means of how the father laughs with a pipe in his mouth, I am doing a damage to his privacy. Until, I ask them, that is. And even if I do, how much of literary license on my part is okay? Can I pick pieces that I like and modify/dispose off other bits about these living personalities? Would you?

How do you ask young ones? Is there even a law? A deciding factor? A benchmark that when a toddler babbles in a certain way, he means a “yes, please go and write how I poop because I am going to love it and find it cool once I grow up“? (By the way, who ever writes about that?) And what if the grown-ups, who fully understand the repercussions, are fine in the beginning but not-so-fine with your writing after a few years down the line? What if a subconscious, malicious feeling triggers and works under wraps, and one day they start to hate us because we have been feeding off our writing of them? That’s a LOT to think about.

Some may argue that fiction works differently but I disagree. It seems that fiction doesn’t portray the real inspiration as clearly as non-fiction does. But if your side character has those juicy, quirky details matching that of your next-door neighbour’s, I am sure your neighbour will figure it out. Even if you try to be as discreet about the inspiration as possible. Especially if you try to be as discreet about the inspiration as possible. Yet, there’s a strong reason to use up that inspiration, at least when you’re a new novel-writer. It is observed that début authors draw a sparkling detail or two from the closest people in their lives–at least for their first one or two books. Then, they begin to differentiate because no body wants to get stuck in a rut of sameness of characters forever.

So what are writers supposed to do? Are we supposed to choose the protective role of a mother, daughter, father, best friend, nice neighbour and stay true to our relationships or are we supposed to draw inspiration (keeping it discreet or not) and be true to our tale-telling authorship and our passion of writing?

What “job” would you choose over the other? Or have you figured out a middle-ground? You know what to do next!

21 Responses to “How Much is Too Much When it Comes to Writing About People in Your Life?”

  1. jannatwrites November 6, 2010 at 4:06 pm #

    Hmmm. I use people I know as inpsiration, but I don’t make it obvious. (Sometimes the inspriation is intentional and other times, it just happens.) For instance, I wouldn’t use my mom as the basis for a mother in a novel or story. I like to combine behaviors or mannerisms from several different people I’ve met to make one character.

    • Brown Eyed Mystic November 7, 2010 at 11:02 am #

      Wow. That’s a nice middle-way Janna. When you combine traits from two or more different characters, you sure have something saucy! I believe it is much better than taking the character’s bare-bones from one real-life personality. However, it sure is more effortful too.


  2. Ollin November 8, 2010 at 12:44 pm #

    Great point, BrownEyed! I have often thought about this very same issue, what blogger hasn’t, right? Well, I basically go by the rule that my personal life is open for use. I can refer to other people, but I have usually referred to them by a initial that actually doesn’t even correspond to their actual name, but is sort of a code that only I understand. Some people close to me might know who these people are, but I think it lends enough space so that they become more characters then real people that strangers can look up and find out who they were. Because I keep things pretty mysterious.

    I once asked a friend if I could share one of our conversations because I thought it was very vital to the blog. I rarely do that though. I don’t know I try to make it vague. I don’t know what the boundaries are though. I’m curious what other people say. I’ve been meaning to read Julie and Julia, that might give me some ideas. Because at least the movie was very personal.

    • Brown Eyed Mystic November 9, 2010 at 11:25 am #

      Yes, I’ve noticed the initials on your blog :) I think it’s a neat way to acknowledge the people who make a difference w/o giving too many details away.

      By the way, after you mentioned it, I looked for “Julie and Julia” trailers. Looks like a fab movie! And I love Meryl Streep, so double bonus. But before I see the movie, like a devoted reader, I will grab hold of the book ;)


  3. Ollin November 8, 2010 at 12:46 pm #

    Wow, okay, i’m tired. I just read that to mean blogging for some reason. You mean like in novel! In that case I agree with Janna. She summed up my points completely. But I think what I said above still is related right? lol.

    • Brown Eyed Mystic November 9, 2010 at 11:22 am #

      LOL I understand! But your point is true as well. In fact, I caould have blogged this post from the blogging-angle myself. :)

  4. thesongofsolomon November 8, 2010 at 2:24 pm #

    I’m tremendously biased when I write, a bias is inescapable. You have lost your humanity if you have lost your bias, your bias is part of who you are. Perhaps this video by the legendary Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen will help you see the futility of attempted neutrality:

    Take good care,

    • Brown Eyed Mystic November 12, 2010 at 4:29 pm #

      Hmm… Interesting point Jason. Bias is natural. And many times it’s even unnoticed, perhaps?

      Thanks for the viewpoint. I hope to see you more often :)


  5. Miss Rosemary November 9, 2010 at 10:54 am #

    GREAT post! It is a quandary to decide how you want people and characters to be portrayed who are technically real people … I just try to put little bits and pieces here and there without making anything to obvious so as to not run into copyrights and angry real people.

    • Brown Eyed Mystic November 9, 2010 at 11:27 am #

      Thank You Rose! LOL I know–talk about that! Angry real people would be tougher to deal with than even copyright issues!


  6. Cities of the Mind November 14, 2010 at 5:01 pm #

    I have a few friends who know I occasionally write about them and don’t mind, but I don’t think I could ever write about my parents. It’s always a judgment call, but when in doubt, I don’t write about anyone in any way that might be traced back to them.

    • Brown Eyed Mystic November 15, 2010 at 10:52 am #

      Hmm…As long as they’re cool with it, I’d write about them too. LOL I know. writing about the parents is a funny issue. Like you said, it is a judgement call, and we better be good at it.


  7. nrhatch November 15, 2010 at 1:03 am #

    A novelist recently lost a lawsuit to a friend who claimed that a character in the novel was based on her.

    She sued for defamation of character because the novel portrayed “her” as a chain smoking, heavy drinker, promiscuous woman.

    The novelist defended the suit by saying that it was just fiction . . . and that she should have creative license to create whatever characters she wanted.

    The novelist lost . . . to the tune of $100,000.

    Watch your words. ;)

    • Brown Eyed Mystic November 15, 2010 at 10:54 am #

      I never heard of that one! That’s devastating…must have been so for the novelist. Good Lord!

      Thanks for that bit of update, and hey, thank you for dropping by!


  8. Addy November 15, 2010 at 4:27 pm #

    Interesting thought! Stumbled upon your blog posting in Ollin’s blog! Wonderful post there and here as well!

    In my opinion I would rather leave my “stinking laundry” indoors rather than “washing them in public”!

    Best Wishes,

    • Brown Eyed Mystic November 15, 2010 at 4:35 pm #

      Thank You Addy, and Wow I like your outlook ;)

      I am glad that you took time to drop by!


  9. Grace Chung November 17, 2010 at 3:11 am #

    Hi, I stumbled across your blog through your freshly pressed article on Ollin’s site (well done btw!)

    I think with writing being such a personal thing, esp fiction writing (nevermind memoirs, which is an entire other sea), you’re almost always going to be putting yourself out there. And the experiences you have been through – which, almost always, involve other people. This pulls into question the idea of ‘biograph-ising’ others, even if it is just a bit and you tweak things here and there. I find writing to be a very personal thing and close to my heart. Even if we’re discussing non-fiction work such as reviews, a part of you and those who may have influenced your views may make itself to the writing. I say this because we may see through our lens which have been affected by others. I was having tea with a friend last week who was discussing her frustration with playwriting. She mentioned that someone else said (it might have been Carroll): ‘Writing is like sitting down at a typewriter and opening a bloodvein.’ That deviated a little from your post of involving others, but hopefully you found it interesting as food for thought!

    All the best as you keep writing!

    • Brown Eyed Mystic November 17, 2010 at 11:49 am #


      Welcome to my place :)

      And surely, I did find that last encounter a food for thought. Thank you for sharing.

      Writing is indeed personal. And that’s what makes it tough to avoid writing about people and incidences in your personal lives. All we can hope is we don’t cross the lines with our loves ones! :)


  10. invisiblemonster2010 November 17, 2010 at 9:55 am #

    I actually was thinking of this on my way to work this morning. When I was in high school, everybody had a LiveJournal account, and there was always somebody saying something cryptic about somebody else in their posts. It got to the point where my friend made her journal private and deleted me from her list, presumably so she could talk about me behind my back without my knowing, but the implications were easy to arrive upon. I remember being hurt, but now I see it more objectively: we are all free to use our words to tell our worlds as we see them. An unfortunate side effect can be hurting people we love who don’t understand or aren’t necessarily prepared to hear our truths. Have you seen the movie Biloxi Blues? That film illustrates how easy it can be to cross that line. Writing hasn’t always been so historically ethical I suppose. :)

    • Brown Eyed Mystic November 17, 2010 at 11:52 am #

      Wow. Talk about synchs!

      That must have hurt. And you’re right when you say writing is never been all-too-ethical. ;) Especially after reading nrhatch’s comment above, I can testify that.

      Thanks for dropping by!



  1. When all you’ve got is a hammer… « Cities of the Mind - November 14, 2010

    […] more about other people than they would wish bared to the Internet. It’s an issue that Brown Eyed Mystic discussed recently  on her blog (Also, she’s got an excellent guest post over […]

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