In a famous essay on writing entitled "Opting for Invention Over the Injury of Invasion," the late Carol Shields wrote about the dilemma every writer faces: whether or not to use true material in a fictional work. Shields came to the decision early on that she would not write about her family and friends "since I want them to remain my family and friends" (1).
She did admit, however, that it is tempting to use the material innocently provided by the eccentrics around us--those people who live in blissful ignorance of our spy-like tendencies, who don't realize that every word, every verbal nugget which leaves their mouths is being mined for significance, for irony, for humor.
Shields shares an anecdote about the writer Robertson Davies, who was asked why he waited until he was sixty years old before he wrote his much-acclaimed Deptford Trilogy. Davies responded, "Well, some people died, you see."
Like Shields, Davies had decided not to take advantage of familial or friendly ties despite the boon it would provide to his writing career.
Yet many writers don't wait--they use the things they see with regularity, without apology, because they feel they are disguising this use. Many writers are of the opinion, in fact, that their friends and relatives would not recognize themselves in a fictionalized form--especially, perhaps, if they were depicted negatively. The average person, the theory goes, isn't good acknowledging his own flaws.
Whenever I write a book and ask my husband to preview it, he tells me confidently that he is sure the male lead is him. This always surprises me, since my characters are never based on him, and in some cases have been quite idealized. My husband apparently has quite a high opinion of himself. :)
But I'm curious to know if other writers use the people in the present as inspirations for their works.
(Carol Shield's essay excerpt taken from WRITERS ON WRITING, Collected Essays. New York: Times Books, 2001).