Why do you need to do it?
So you’ve happened upon an old family story which you know will make fantastic fiction. You’ve done what research you could, and now you’re ready to begin. I always start by listing my characters and a few facts about each one and also sketching out the setting. Okay, the paternal family scandal was great-grandpa’s shooting of his stepfather way back in 1876. Obviously, he’s the main character--the hero as it were--while the other man is undoubtedly the villain.
It happened a long time ago. All the players in the family drama are long gone to their reward--or otherwise. Why can’t you--or shouldn’t you--use their names and set the story where it really happened.
Well, you can, but I don’t advise it. Their descendants are still around, and you never know who knows what and would be upset if you spilled the beans on what they still consider a family secret. Why risk their wrath? Also--it’s the nice thing to do to skew the facts a little so they’re more fiction than fact.
How do you do it?
You just do it. Different name, different family details while still keeping the players who had a major role, totally made-up place names. As your plot unfolds, you’ll add new characters, drop some, and develop all of them into real people you either love or hate. It’s the writerly thing, and it’s not hard. I kept the state but not the location within the state. I subtracted one family member but left the others in place. I changed the family’s circumstances after the stepfather’s death from somewhat tragic to more triumphant.
What if someone figures it out?
Well, it just happens, but it’s not likely to unless you use real names and places. Not really. Besides, you’ve changed enough to make the story purely fictional. I doubt anyone is going to sue you over maligning a long-dead ancestor they might possibly think they recognize in a fictional character.
So what about the disclaimer in the front which says the persons and places depicted in the book are products of your imagination and have no relation to anyone living or dead? You can leave it out if you want to split hairs and be 150% honest. But your characters aren’t real people. You created them in your mind. Just because you got the idea from the tale of someone “real” doesn’t matter. In fact, all writers get their ideas from somewhere, unless, of course, one writes fantasy or sci-fi.
So what’s the point of this blog entry?
Most of the characters I’ve created have spun off from people I’ve known, good and bad. Sometimes they’re even a composite. But I’m not writing about real people, quoting their exact words, plotting their real moves. You want your characters to be believable, to be people your readers can identify with. Unless you’re into zombies and pre-historic beings, your writing is real because your readers are real. I always feel let down when characters have no flaws and when they speak like their dialogue has been coached and rehearsed.
The point of this blog is simply: Be kind. Do unto others. Are you writing a tell-all for revenge or a good story people will read and enjoy? Don’t make your uncle into a monster or your great-grandfather into a serial killer. People make mistakes. Redeem them if you can. If you can’t, don’t magnify them past belief.
And market your book on itself--not the misfortunes of your ancestors.
Photographs: Morgue File 140018418jrTix / 1442368780brexf