They say you should write about what you know. And what are you more knowledgeable about than the events that you have experienced? Alas, you tread dangerous ground writing about things that friends and acquaintances may recognize.
After one of my performances of my play Cast Away, someone came up to me and asked, “Which character was X?” X being the real name of one of the people who were involved in the experience that inspired me to write the play. The problem is that no character was X. There was a character inspired by X, but the character was also modified to make the play more dramatic.
Much of what I wrote in the play simply didn’t happen in real life. Conversely, a lot of it did. So where did the boundaries of fact and fiction lie? For the regular audience member, I don’t think it matters. I was trying to tell a story about persevering against the odds, so obviously I increased the odds against the protagonist. Drama = conflict.
Y, another person involved in the original experience, came up to me and said such and such didn’t happen. You’re correct. I made it up. My play isn’t about what happened. It was inspired by what happened and in the process, it became something new.
“But people are going to think I did it,” Y continued. They are? The regular audience member doesn’t know who you are or that you were involved in the experience that served as the inspiration for the play. They’re not going to make that connection. And the people that do know you, know you wouldn’t do that. It’s pretty obvious to me (again) that the character and the real person are very different people. In fact someone else came up to me and asked who that character was based on because they know that Y didn’t do that. You’re correct. I made it up.
Now Z, another person involved in the original experience, has contacted me. They heard that I portrayed them in a negative light. The character isn’t Z! I feel especially bad about this because I like Z and I wouldn’t want them to think that I was dissing them. I guess this particular example gets a bit grey because I did take an experience that happened between me and Z and attribute it to another character and I changed what actually happened in real life. But this wasn’t to make anyone look bad, it was to service the story.
Should I be worrying more about how the story will make some people feel or try to make the story as effective as it can be? Ultimately, only a few people were directly involved in the experience that served as the inspiration and I’m hoping that many more people will see the play. Should I be concerned about the needs of the few?
I just can’t justify it to myself. Once I started writing the play, it became its own entity even though it was inspired by actual events. I remember writing a short story once about a mother who becomes possessed and when my father read it, he said, “But your mother is so gentle.” It wasn’t about my mother!
People are always going to look for patterns or people in your characters. And some people will find what they are looking for regardless of whether you put it in there or not. Ultimately, you are telling a story and that should be your first priority.
Finding out who your inspiration was is like finding out how to do a magic trick. There are always going to be people who want to know “how you did it”. Most people are content to enjoy the show. Just make sure that you put on a good show!