Writing about friends and family

I have long written about friends and family. What writer hasn’t? The description doesn’t need to be perfectly specific to anyone but how could we possibly write about people in general without including those we have met over the course of our exemplary or misspent lives? People are not a homogeneous mass, to be written about in one lump while we consider those things that make us all human. They are a glorious mish-mash of quirks, eccentricities and downright oddities. As a species we certainly want pretty much the same things, something I have learned very clearly during the years I have moved around the world and lived in different cultures, but by gosh we go about getting them in very different ways.

If Aunty Mabel makes sure she gets her nightly sherry by playing up her palpitations and the medicinal benefit of a small glass, whereas Uncle Matthias simply grabs the bottle and takes a slug at will, they both have a similar objective in mind, which is pure self-interest. But they both demonstrate characteristics on which any writer would leap gleefully and quickly parcel out to various characters in their newest novel.

Even when I have not intentionally put a friend or family member into a novel, resisting at times the very strongest of temptations, I am wasting mental energy in deciding not to. They will see themselves there anyway. ‘But why did I have blonde hair in your book?’ a friend will ask, having decided that the overdrawn caricature of a shrieking, hysterical woman is based entirely on their introvert, retiring self. I have learned not to respond in detail. Denial only gives offence. People would rather be immortalised in print than not, however unflattering the portrait. Everyone is convinced that any writer they know will naturally have included them in their work . They see themselves everywhere and are rarely insulted, however awful the portrait. As long as you get their hair and weight right, of course. Woe betide the character I write as a size twelve who faintly resembles a friend who wears a size ten. No amount of, ‘But you aren’t a Spanish portrait painter,’ will ever convince your German PE teacher friend that you haven’t grossly misrepresented them. Friendships have been shattered for less.

I wanted to use a particular acquaintance for a character as she had informed every line I wrote, and not that flatteringly, I must admit. I hesitated for a while and then changed her hair and gave her glasses. She loved the book and never once saw herself in it. My latest book is about a family of three children. I have based it physically on myself and my siblings, used our childhood home and written about some of the things we used to do. But these are simply the skeletons of people, the structure of a family. My three characters are not us. Not that anyone will ever believe that, least of all my siblings. They have even had me change the names of their fictional partners because they don’t like them. As far as possible I have obliged but am resigned to giving offence, even though I have to my mind been quite flattering and the characters I have created are pleasant enough.

The only time I have ever had a trouble-free experience in writing about loved ones is when I have mentioned my cats. They remained just as loving and unruffled as ever when I wrote about them as fat, duplicitous, greedy and self-centred. In point of fact they were all these things and I loved them to distraction. My life without them has never been the same. But I appreciated their pragmatic approach. Did my writing about their defining characteristics meant they received one less bowl of food or cuddle? No. Then what did they care? If only people were as simple to deal with.

Perhaps Dick King Smith was onto something when he decided to write about animals. My next plot line will perhaps be about a cat, with a dog for a best friend, who opens a pet food store. 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 will accept it as an entirely accurate portrait of me. Though I must say I’m very flattered that she has cared about me enough 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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