What do you think about using real people as characters in a book?

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After reading the interview with Beth Eggers, I can see why she would be angry with her brother. I also wonder how Toph is going to feel about the book as he gets older.

Is it fair to use living people as characters in your book? Is it worse than using them in an online journal? Would you want one of your loved ones to write a book and include you?

-- Beth (beth@xeney.com), April 26, 2000


When people write memoirs, they're telling their version of what happened. Naturally other people will figure in it. The writer may include them using their real names, depict them with different names and other details, or leave them out totally. It's their book, their story. Other people are probably going to be annoyed whether they were included in the book or left out. Whether or not it's "fair" doesn't seem germane. I fall back on the old tired cliche that it's art and the artist has to tell his/her story their own way.

The other people get to write your own book to tell their version of what happened.

Obviously this is a problem all memoir writers have, and they deal with it different ways. Waiting a long time to write about stuff usually works. I read a lot of memoirs and sometimes wonder what the people in them think. Like Nora Ephron's book Heartburn where she totally disses her husband for his infidelity. They had kids together - what do they think of the book?

If I showed up in a loved one or friend's online journal or memoir, I don't know if I'd be happy about it. But I don't think I'd question their right to use me as a supporting character. I might prefer that they not use my real name.

-- Lizzie (crow@well.com), April 26, 2000.

Seeing as I'm in a creative nonfiction class right now, this comes up pretty damn often...my teacher is all "Use real names, use every real detail, it makes it more interesting." I, however, am much more cautious about the whole thing and feel very uncomfortable about using people's names. I'd probably be quite wigged out if I ever turn up in a book. And likewise, I'm sure people'd come after me if I used them and they found out about it (especially my family). I believe in disguises when possible, for the most part...but it's a stumper.

-- Jennifer (jennifer@elgonquin.com), April 27, 2000.

I'd be terrified at the prospect of being a character in a book!

This issue is the main reason I don't yet have an online journal. It's not in my nature to tell half the truth - I'm usually far too open for my own good - and I'd want to tell all. This would invariably include Tristan and my family and friends, and I already know Tristan would not like it. I could do a journal without him knowing, but he knows most of what I get up to, so I can't imagine I'd keep it secret for long.

I think an author has to be responsible in their use of 'real' people.

-- Jackie (jackie_collins@flextech.co.uk), May 03, 2000.

Fact and truth are two very separate things, and life is an emotional experience... if I were included in someone's writing, I'd like to know beforehand, especially if it was that they were upset with me about something -- even if it doesn't change what they publish, if we can talk about it before the rest of the world gets to read all about it, we might be able to resolve things between us. I'm not going to let the public get to me, but I need to know how things are between me and the people in my life. But I include people from my life in most of the things I write, and while my writing doesn't reach a wide audience like a published book or an online journal with a strong following might, I don't go to my father and say to him, "I wrote about the things that happened between us, the things you don't remember or don't want to remember but really did happen and still affect me, and a lot of people will read this. I wrote these things how I remember them and how they make me feel and how they still give me nightmares and make me cry and make me question the ways of the universe." But I don't say this because my father and I don't have an open dialogue. I need to get these things off my chest and the way it comes is in writing. My zine is catharsis and my way of saying to other women out there, "You are not alone in depression or violence or self-injury or self-doubt." I think the difference, for me, is malicious intent -- if the writer is just getting things off their chest, that's one thing, but if they use me because they want to tear me to shreds and/or portray me as a monster, that's quite another.

-- Amy Guthrie (stonebender@netzero.net), May 15, 2000.

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