By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 21, 2016
(You guys, as of this post we’ll revert to the every-Wednesday mode for the remainder of the “Use Your Real Life in Fiction” series. I hope this recent barrage of Mon-Wed-Fri posts hasn’t clogged up too many friendly inboxes. I just got excited about this subject and couldn’t help myself.)
We were talking in the previous post about killing off characters. We observed that this can be hard when the characters are based on people in our real lives.
Can we kill off our best friend?
Our neighborhood priest?
Answer Number One:
We have to, if the drama demands it.
Answer Number Two:
We must detach ourselves emotionally from all our real-life characters.
We made the point in the last post that an old self must die before a new self can be born.
That’s why deaths (including emotional ones) are important, even mandatory, in drama.
Tom Cruise’s slick, self-centered Charlie Babbitt must give way before he can become a loving brother to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.
Michael Corleone’s clean-cut Marine officer must step aside before Michael-the-next-Godfather can be born.
Four of the Magnificent Seven must die before the village can be saved.
But how do you and I, as writers, kill off our own mom?
How do we destroy our own career?
The answer is the most critical element in this whole series on Using Our Real Lives in Fiction.
We have to treat our real-life characters as if they were fictional.
- We have to detach ourselves emotionally from the real-life version of our characters, including (especially) the character that is ourselves.
- We have to free ourselves in imagination and give ourselves permission to fictionalize.
- We have to see our real-life-based characters as aspects of our theme and act toward them accordingly.
If the character based on our ex-husband represents immature self-indulgence, maybe somebody has to give him a wedgie at the office Christmas party.
On the other hand, if he represents selfless integrity, maybe something really good has to happen to him. (Or bad, if it’s that kind of story.)
This is why it’s so hard to write something good based on our real life.
We’re inhibited by the material.
We’re loath to heighten its drama, to have fun with it.
We don’t want to hurt the real people we’re writing about.
All these inhibitions must be dismissed. We have to get over them.
Our loyalty must be transferred from the real-life characters (including ourselves) to the reader and to the story itself.
In a way, this is good.
It forces us to grow up.
It demands that we step back from our real-life self (and from all the real-life characters in our story) and ask, “What is this story about? What’s the deep, honest truth here?”
Can we do that?
That’s the artist’s charge when using material from her own life in fiction.
We, the readers, won’t sit still for a sob story or a self-justifying rant. We don’t want to read your diary or your journal. We want The Great Santini. We want Riding in Cars With Boys. We want To Kill A Mockingbird.
The book or movie you write will be judged as pure fiction, willy-nilly.
You’ll get no points because “this is my real story.” You will be cut no slack because “the characters are all true.”
You must make them truer than true.
You must handle your characters and scenes, no matter how real they were and are, exactly as you would if they were pure fiction.