HOW TO TURN YOURSELF–OR YOUR UNCLE PETE–INTO A CHARACTER WITHOUT DISGRACING THE FAMILY
Many fiction characters are created from historical information or by observing others and some exciting event that transpires in their lives. But what happens when the story you want to tell is your own? However, you don’t want others to know it’s you (or more likely you don’t want readers to know it’s YOUR relatives) you’re writing about. So you try morphing into a fiction character facing these situations.
One writing instructor told me that “fictionalized non-fiction” doesn’t fly. Editors can sense it and won’t buy. Not everyone accepts this premise, though; the book Half Broke Horses –in which author Jeannette Walls fictionalizes her grandmother’s life– appears to be doing well.
It does take skill to turn yourself into a fictional character and relate a story that’s interesting enough to sell. For us to convey the emotions we felt, to alter our own character enough to make a truly interesting story, takes an honesty —or dishonesty— some of us aren’t willing for.
One danger is the tendency to “polish” ourselves. A believable character must be a blend of good and bad, but our alter ego might come out sounding quite sensible and well-behaved. Positive responses upgraded; negative ones downplayed, etc. (Especially if you know your relatives are going to read this!) So our story ends up reading like a Sunday school lesson: someone hurt me a little and I dealt with it in a positive way so you can, too.
Passive voice can fudge this even more. “I was hurt because of a certain incident.” At times we need this. I was sexually abused by a relative, but it doesn’t matter to you who the culprit was, only how it has affected my life. However, I read one account that went something like: “A battle was being fought in my heart and prayers were being offered for deliverance from these feelings. At last the victory was won.” This is word fluff that that tells you nothing.
One writing instructor suggests to writers of children’s fiction that we take an incident not resolved in our childhood, remember the various emotions we felt at that time, then resolve the issue through our protagonist. In doing so, the writer can shed light on the other characters’ motives so a reader going through the same situation can see the bigger picture.
For example, my Dad was verbally abusive. I didn’t understand at the time that he really wanted me to turn out well and his criticisms were attempts at correction; I only knew he was never happy with me. I resolved it by running away (mentally) into daydreams. If I were to create a girl in a similar situation, I’d give her a glimpse of the verbal abuse her own dad suffered, the worries he has for her future because of her character flaws— those things I only realized as an adult. I’d help her find a better solution than withdrawal, something that would give readers in the same shoes a little light to reveal the end of their own tunnel. Something that could expose daydreaming as a dead-end street.
Yes, you can turn yourself into a fictional character, but once that person exists you must step back and let him live a life of his own and find the solutions you never found.