Writing Tips Season 3 Episode 9: Considering Real People

On things to think about when drawing from real life people and events in your work, be it memoir or fiction.

Writer friend,

Sorry this is late! Welcome to my free creative writing newsletter. This season we’re talking about memoir. This week, I thought I’d spend a little bit of time talking about how to write about real people and events, and what to consider about the ethics of it all.

If you’ve enjoyed these free writing tips, there are ways you can support me that I will list really quickly for you:

1) Buy my memoir, Brown Baby: A Memoir Of Race, Family And Home. Here are links to places you can get it if you don’t have a preferred retailer

2) Subscribe to the Brown Baby podcast, which is my weekly parenting podcast. Recent guests include Nadiya Hussain, Meera Syal, Jay Sean, Himesh Patel, Courttia Newland, Kit de Waal and more.

3) If you’ve already done 1 + 2, please consider plugging both of them on your social media, Twitter or Instagram, and leaving a review on your retailer/podcast hub of choice.

4) Alternatively, I do have a tip jar here at Ko-Fi. You can buy me a coffee (I drink a lot of coffee). Or one of my previous books.

5) Please share this newsletter on social media and encourage subscriptions!

Thank you for any and all support. I appreciate it so much. It allows me to keep this creative writing newsletter and the podcast free. This is the penultimate week for this season. Next week is the last one for a bit!

WRITING TIP: CONSIDERING REAL PEOPLE

You’re writing a memoir, which means you’re writing about real people and real events. This means there are things you must consider and be careful of. It’s different to writing fiction: in fiction, real events and personality traits and pieces of dialogue and other people’s story bleed into the composite characters we put on the page. We blur the lines between those around and us and those in our chapters. As writers in the world, we are interested in people and things, events and stories, and so these make their way into our work all time.

A memoir is an intentional recording of real people and events, so here are some things to consider. Firstly, if you are in a position to get those involved to read your manuscript early on, please do so. I know this isn’t hugely easy for some of us. I know this might be painful and traumatic. So only do this if you can. Secondly, we might be writing about people no longer with us. And those readers who know and remember the dead too will have different perspectives, recollections and truths about the person. All we can write is our truth and our perspective. Much as we may try to widen the lens and see different angles, consider different ways of considering the person no longer with us, the most truthful version is the one we see for ourselves.

Perspective matters. As we’ve said recently: how we see events in the past now and how we saw them in the moment, in the aftermath and in the trickle of time since, it changes. Pain dulls. Clarity fades. Memory falters. Feelings change. A memoir should own the truth of this. When we choose a narrative lense, be it in the moment or years later, we should own the truth of that perspective and delve into what this gives us. How we felt then is different to how we feel now. Even this, the temperature of how we look back, is an interesting thing to interrogate.

Ultimately, a memoir isn’t about settling scores. Bad writing is about making proclamations about people, about pushing them into binary absolutes. To call your characters evil, deviant, perverse, toxic or any other label is to undermine the work the prose is doing. There’s that age-old adage show don’t tell. And it really applies here. Don’t tell me the character is evil. Show me through their actions. If you’re writing non-fiction, be clear that it is your perspective. If you’re writing fiction, be clear that it’s not authorial voice passing judgment, but a character trait. Stick to the emotional truth of characters. Sure it’s a great shorthand to use elements of someone in your real life, but that can sometimes lead to a surface presentation of someone.

Think about it like this: the people in our lives, the ones who are positive and negative, exist in real life. In occupied space. Their actions, be they positive of negative, whether they affect people positively or negatively are actual things. The moment they arrive on the page is the moment you need to present them as human. I’m not saying you need to understand the reasons for their negative influence. Like, if you’re writing about a Nazi, make them a Nazi, we don’t need their Nazi origin story. But what you want to do is present them as complex. No one wants a simplistic character, good or bad. In short, use the prose to give us a portrayal of a character with no easy answers, leave those to the reader to define. Trust them to get what you’re conveying by trusting your prose.

If you’re taking a story you’ve heard in real life, maybe one that made you laugh or even one that shocked you, I’d think about whether it warrants inclusion. It’s not your story. Does this carry less weight if it belongs to someone else’s? Also, if you ever tried to retell an anecdote someone else told you, and found yourself struggling to convey it in the same way? If all else fails, get permission. If you can’t get permission, ask yourself what this story will add.

If you are telling someone else’s story, ask them. Fictionalise it as much as you can. Strip it down to what is the truth about it. See what details can be changed. See what things can protect that person. Mainly, a great story we hear doesn’t always make for good prose. Stress-test this. Do you need it?

Where you don’t know the facts, the ins and outs, the truth, be transparent about any speculation. Be clear, in non-fiction that you’re making assumptions or guesses, be honest. And if all else fails, and you can afford one, get a legal read done.

WRITING PROMPT:

Take a moment from your childhood. A pivotal one where a big thing happened, either causing you happiness or pain. A turning point. Write it in the third person. Narrate yourself from the outside. The trick of this exercise is to try and see it from another perspective, to externalise it from yourself a little more. See if that gives you a deeper, richer understanding of what to include to make this work as a piece of prose.

Right, that’s enough for this week.

Thank you for sticking with me this far. If you enjoyed today’s writing tip, please do pick up a copy of my memoir, ‘Brown Baby’, which is one of the most hopeful memoirs you’ll read that came out in 2021. Again, I’d really love it if you picked this book up. Sorry to harp on but putting a book out in lockdown is hard and stressful. You don’t have as many opportunities to promote the work you put everything into. If each of you subscribing to this newsletter clicked on one of the below links and bought the book between now and Saturday, I would top the bestseller charts. Which would have a huge impact on so many hidden parts of the book industry. So please do add to cart.

1) Buy my memoir, Brown Baby: A Memoir Of Race, Family And Home. Here are links to places you can get it if you don’t have a preferred retailer

2) Subscribe to the Brown Baby podcast, which is my weekly parenting podcast. Recent guests include Nadiya Hussain, Meera Syal, Jay Sean, Himesh Patel, Courttia Newland, Kit de Waal and more.

3) If you’ve already done 1 + 2, please consider plugging both of them on your social media, Twitter or Instagram, and leaving a review on your retailer/podcast hub of choice.

4) Alternatively, I do have a tip jar here at Ko-Fi. You can buy me a coffee (I drink a lot of coffee). Or one of my previous books.

5) Please share this newsletter on social media and encourage subscriptions!

Love

Nikesh