The Problem With Writing About People You Know

A few weeks ago when I was having lunch with friends from my exercise class, someone suggested that I write a book about the class. One lovely woman even volunteered to be a murder victim, and the teacher offered to be the murderer (or rather, she offered a motive for the crime that indicated she was the one who did the dire deed).

I thought it would be fun — write a chapter now and again, print it out, and let everyone read it. If they had suggestions about what they wanted their character to do, I could incorporate their ideas in subsequent chapters.

The more I got to thinking about it, though, the more impossible it seemed. The idiosyncrasies that make people unique, interesting, lovable are not necessarily traits they are proud of. In fact, they might not know they have the traits or if they do know, they might not realize that others see those traits. We always hope people see us as better than we see ourselves, and we certainly don’t want to know that someone might see what we wish no one saw. And even when we do know our floozyshortcomings, such as being overweight, I’m not sure we would take kindly to being immortalized in such a way. (Not that my books are immortal, but you know what I mean.)

Although the characters would be written without judgment, just a simple swish of a literary brush, these women might feel hurt, and I am not interested in hurting anyone, especially not people I’ve grown fond of. Now, if one of them had done me wrong, I would gladly put her in a book and kill her off, but so far the worst offense was . . . hmmm. Can’t think of anything except for perhaps a brief touch of cattiness.

Yesterday one of the women asked me about the project, and when I told her my dilemma, she suggested writing the book but using a different setting for the group. A rowing crew, for example. That way I could write the people as I saw them, and no one would be the wiser. “Except me, of course,” she said, “but you wouldn’t say anything bad about me.” The problem with her scenario is that I know nothing about rowing, and anyway, what is a rowing crew of no-longer-young women doing in the middle of the desert? (Though that could be a story in itself!)

I suppose I could hand out a questionnaire, asking the women if they would like to be part of the project, if I could use their real name and if not what name they would like me to use, and most importantly, how they would like to be described. I’d end up with a cast of wonderfully graceful, talented, brilliant, and beautiful characters of course, but there is truth in that. Despite their idiosyncrasies (or maybe because of them), despite their aging bodies and physical limitations, they are all in their own way, wonderfully graceful, talented, brilliant, and beautiful.

One problem is that each of these wonderfully graceful, talented, brilliant, and beautiful women would have to have larceny in her heart since each would be a suspect with a dark secret she is trying to hide, and that could lead to confusion about how I actually perceived each of them.

The main problem, of course, is that if I figure a way around all the other problems, I might actually have to write the dang thing.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

7 Responses to “The Problem With Writing About People You Know”

  1. rami ungar the writer Says:

    Maybe you could make them a group of women writers.

  2. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    I have written about people I do know but I tend to change the name and some of the physical characteristics such as a blond becomes a redhead. Or I amalgamate two people into one. A while back I was working on a novel about a killer or potential killer. I decided to write in the first person as the killer or potential killer. This I discovered was a brave step because we all have a dark side and this was my chance to explore my own. It did, however, put me, myself and I into the firing line. Dexter and also a novel named The Collector were my inspirations for this. The writing group I was with at the time thought I was onto something. And some day I’ll see the project through. The idea was an ordinary guy pushed too far. Since I am close enough to ordinary it was and still is worth a shot. Unfortunately it is the quirks that make characters workable as you have said and everyone has as least one quirk. Whether they know it or not, or which to have it driven home like a stake to a vampire is another question.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      It’s different, I think, if the people know you are writing about them. You have to be careful since there is no way of disguising them.

      An ordinary guy pushed too far is always a good story line. Maybe someday you’ll finish it.

  3. Andrea Rose Says:

    The woman who suggested a rowing club paddled right in with her uniqueness when one gauges the setting. After all, training for these sports can occur in any geographic location. It does have potential for metaphorical richness too. In reading about rowing clubs this morning, I discovered that they strive for the “truth of the coxswain” and complete adherence to a measure of equality in the rowers. If something goes awry, they all lose. Imagine a group of seniors in various stages of fitness, each with a plan for recognition, failing because of one slacker. Murder . . .murderous thoughts!

    Pleasing everyone never works. Its like that underlying feeling college writing group gives off; tread on me (or my writing), and I will smile and say little, but notably pout the remainder of the semester.

  4. Carol Wuenschell Says:

    I wouldn’t dare to touch it. Id be too afraid of ruining friendships. If you made your group a bunch of amateur sleuths, all working together, you could at least depict them all positively, but you’d still have to worry about their reactions to how you saw them.

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