Writing About Real People? Consider this: They Don’t Always Love It

Recently a friend asked my husband if he thought we’d ever reconcile with one of our estranged siblings because, “She is a nice person. You’re nice people.” He wanted to know why I was still angry. This is a bit like saying to someone, “So I know Harry beat you mercilessly for 30 years but he’s a nice guy so can’t you just get over it?”

This man is a nice person. He meant well but he knows the sister, they are neighbors but not really close friends. Apparently he likes her and that’s his prerogative BUT, he had read my book, “Tales From the Family Crypt,” in which I detail the lifelong abuse and destruction this woman heaped on me, my husband, children and everyone in her family. No one reading this book who didn’t know her could conclude she was a nice person. But, he read the book with a preconceived notion of her. And, that is one of the problems in writing about real people.

Yes, I protected everyone’s identity and I also included a note at the beginning stating this was my story based on my memories and I was pretty sure the “characters” could perhaps present the story differently. Except I am truthful and they are not. 🙂  If you write about real people either in a nonfiction genre or even base a fictional character on someone you know, you may run into a situation where you ruffle feathers. Or worse, you could get sued. I researched my legal rights and knew I was protected legally but I did take the chance of pissing some people off by telling my story. However, you have a right to tell your story. I told mine for good reasons and, despite this man’s theory that I wrote the book out of anger and am still angry, that is not the case. I wrote the book because the story is fascinating and because way too many people suffer at the hands of their despicable, dysfunctional family members. Some folks allow those people and those heartbreaking situations to ruin their lives.

My husband and I did not. We worked hard to overcome and move past the heartbreak we suffered at these people’s hands. We had to forgive them in order to get past the anger and live happy lives. It can be done and we are living proof. I wrote the book to help other people who are similarly challenged.

But writing about real people isn’t easy. I don’t recommend it unless you feel strong enough to stand tall afterwards (not easy for me, I’m only 5 feet tall!) knowing you wrote for the right reasons and you told the truth. Do you write about real people? Any advice for others?

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20 Responses to “Writing About Real People? Consider this: They Don’t Always Love It

  • Drafting my memoir, I know writing about real people, my relatives, is a risk. I guess I have to consider it collateral damage, unless I can navigate the challenges skillfully. Very skillfully.

    No advice, except one piece: Portray each character three dimensionally showing both negative and positive.

    • Three dimensionally. Very interesting. I tried to do that, not sure I succeeded but it was my intention. I didn’t think of it as three dimensional but that is a great description. Thanks!

  • Brava Deb, well said. You know I’m with you on this. Our books have different situations, yet parallel in many ways. It takes guts to write such a personal book that exposes ourselves and many of the people in our lives that create the dysfunction. I too carry no anger or write for revenge, other than to write for a sense of understanding, and hopes to touch others who endure toxic relationships.

    • People who live these stories totally get this. Others can be compassionately understanding. Those who have been fortunate enough to only know love and acceptance from family sometimes find the stories harder to accept. And I love that LaMott quote. Own your stories, indeed. Also, in reading your book I was touched by your compassion for the very people with whom you could have just deserted and held onto the anger. It was very impressive how you handled it all.

  • Bobbie
    1 year ago

    Recently a friend posted a Pablo Neruda quote on my Facebook page that I am finding very helpful.
    “Let us forget with generosity those who cannot love us”.

    • You know I think I saw that on your FB page and thought it was brilliant. “Forget with generosity,” so perfectly worded. Happy New Year, my friend!

  • Thanks for this Debby. I have just written a story for NaNoWriMo, I have asked a few people to read it for me but have not told them it is all completely true.
    I have changed the names and places to protect the guilty, but have told the story warts and all. I am sure it would upset my ex-husband should he ever read it! My sisters have both read it and not even they knew the extent of it, but like yourself, I felt the story needed to be told.
    Whatever your sister is like now, is not relevant to you. You suffered at her hands so should not have to ‘get over it’ and be friends. People don’t seem to understand the damage otehrs do.

    • You are completely right. This is not something one “gets over” to be friends again. We do move on, just not together. Thanks, Judy!

  • Yes, I wrote about real people in my books… Most have not been an issue, especially as those that know also know they are under different names… but of course the few that I had negative things to relate aren’t actually aware of the books – as far as I can tell.

    Even so, the handful of people that knew them at the time and can recognise who I am referring to at least believe my side of the stories so that is helpful.

    I have discovered in writing a blog that even using different names, you should be conscious of the fact that just because they don’t care that you wrote about past stuff on the blog/book, some people get touching about you writing about current situations or conversations. Luckily most of my friends I write about are cool with it, but a couple aren’t so I attempt to make sure to ask if I think I might want to write about something in particular.

    • Absolutely right. I generally don’t write about my current friends as I’d like to keep them as current friends. If I do refer to someone I make sure there is no way for anyone to identify that person. But I think your suggestion of asking them first is a good one. Thanks so much for stopping by and for commenting. I was just on Amazon checking out your book. Looks cool.

    • I think asking is very astute of you!

  • Wishing you all the best in 2016, Debby.

  • There was a lot of tension between my older sister and myself growing up, and today we are estranged…thankfully. But I remember my mother saying many times, “just because you are sisters doesn’t mean you have to be best friends.” And so we never were and never will be.

    • Your mother was wise but I am still surprised she said that. So many parents insist siblings have to be best friends. She was wise to see that’s not always possible.

      • She may have followed that statement with ‘but we will live in peace in this house’. She may have been wise and pragmatic!

  • You don’t have to kill a snake, but you don’t cuddle it either

    • That’s not a sentiment I’ve heard before but it’s really compelling. Thanks for taking the time to post it.

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