Writing about friends and family

I have long written about friends and family. What writer has not? The description need not be perfectly specific to anyone, but how could we possibly write about people in general without including those we have met with over the course of our exemplary or misspent lives?

People are not a homogeneous mass, to be written about in one lump as we consider those things which make us all human. People are a glorious mish-mash of quirks, eccentricities and downright oddities. As a species, we want pretty much the same things. I have learned this very clearly during my years of moving around the world and living in different cultures. It is undeniable but we definitely go about getting those things in very different ways.

Even when I do resist the temptation to put friends or family members into my novels, I am wasting mental energy. They will see themselves in there anyway. ‘But why did I have blonde hair in your book?’ a friend will ask me, puzzled, having decided that the overdrawn caricature of a shriekig socialite is based entirely on their introvert, retiring self. I never respond in detail on these occasions because denial only gives offence. I have come to understand that people would rather be immortalised in print than not, however unflattering the portrait.

Everyone is convinced that any writer they know will naturally include them in their work. They see themselves in every line and are rarely insulted, however awful the portrait, just as long as you get their hair and weight right. Woe betide the character I write as a size twelve who faintly resembles a friend who wears a size ten. No amount of, ‘But, Hilde, you aren’t a Spanish portrait painter!’ will ever convince your German gym teacher friend that you have not grossly misrepresented them. Friendships have been shattered for less.

I did once model a character on a particular acquaintance because she really had informed every line I wrote, not too flatteringly, I must admit. I hesitated for a while, before changing her hair and giving her glasses. She loved the book and never once saw herself in it. It may be that we all only identify with those we see as positive characters, and the likeness was indeed speaking …

My latest book is about a family of three children. I have loosely based it on myself and my siblings, used our childhood home and written about some of the things we used to do. However, these are simply the skeletons of people, the structure of a family. My three characters are definitely not us, not that anyone will ever believe that, least of all my siblings. They have even had me change the names and descriptions of their fictional partners because they would never date someone like that. I have obliged as far as possible but am still resigned to giving offence, although to my mind, the descriptions have been quite flattering and the characters I have created are pleasant enough.

I have only ever had a trouble-free experience  with loved ones when I have written about my cats. They remained just as loving and unruffled as ever even when I wrote about them as fat, duplicitous, greedy and self-centred. In point of fact, they were all these things but I still loved them to distraction and my life has never been quite the same without them. I definitely appreciated their pragmatic approach. Did my writing about their defining characteristics mean that they received one less bowl of food or cuddle? If not, then what did they care? If only people were as simple to deal with.

Dick King Smith may have been onto something when he decided to write about animals. Maybe my next plot line should be about a cat whose best friend is a dog as and they open a pet food store together. No feelings will be hurt, no sensibilities ruffled. No delegation of local felines will turn up on my doorstep with a petition for me to rewrite them as slimmer and less fluffy – and you know the Man Booker people are going to want to talk to me when it’s finished.

In the meantime, I will continue with my career of giving offence to those to whom it was never intended and insulting others with impunity. I should also finish this post quickly. I have a phone call I need to make to a writer friend, whose one-eyed, nearly bald South American mass murderer needs a little work before I am prepared to accept it as an entirely accurate portrait of me. I must say, though, I’m very flattered that she cares enough about me to put me into print.

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4 Responses to Writing about friends and family

  1. Desi Valentine says:

    Atwood wrote about the trouble with writing what (and who) we know in ‘Negotiating With the Dead’, and I love how you’ve written it, here. I expect some… palpitations may occur when my current work is ready to be read because I know my family will look for themselves. Best to have that sherry on hand, I think. And possibly a fair amount of rye whiskey, too. Thanks for this. 🙂


  2. rjwhittaker says:

    Hi, Desi. Thanks for commenting. My solution to family comeback is simple. Live in another country! Do post a link when your current work is ready.


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