The greatest fear I’ve had as a writer, was a fear I first experienced in third grade, when I was doing a book report on something by Joseph Conrad.
No, it wasn’t whether people were going to like my stuff. I’ve long known that we all have our own taste, and there is nothing everyone likes. (And as I recently learned, there’s nothing everyone hates either.) As you get to know people, you can guess which kind of person will like which story. (If that person doesn’t like it, then it may just need a rewrite.)
No, the fear had nothing to do with my teacher’s potential reaction. It materialized when I read the introduction, which basically said that Conrad’s characters were based on people from Conrad’s life. Even though I knew very little about Conrad, and I didn’t read the book yet, I objected to the introduction. How do they know it wasn’t just a coincidence? How dare they slander the poor author that way?
Well, as time went on, we learnt more about the lives of writers in school. It ruined the stories. I didn’t want to know, I just wanted the story. A good story, I thought, can stand on its own feet. (And a great writer is too busy working to lead an interesting life anyway.)
When I wrote my first low budget feature film scripts, I wrote it around the places I lived. The idea was it would be cheaper if we didn’t have to build sets or move anywhere. The first screenplay I completed was meant to be shot in Brussels. The characters looked like people I knew, and had similar mannerisms. But they weren’t the same people, and the events never happened in Brussels. The similarities existed, at first, only because of cost constraints.
It had the appearance of being real, but it was not based on reality. Fiction is based on imagination. Fiction needs to take shape around people, things and actions we recognize so that it makes sense. So fiction looks like events that happen all the time and people that live all over the world, but it’s about events that never happened and people that never existed.
I think the best way to explain how it works is to look at the art of painting. If you’re a Renaissance artist painting a Greek myth, you know the story before you start. Some of the elements have to be imagined, as there aren’t many mythical creatures who’ll pose in mid flight, or waves that will stop in mid flow for your benefit. But, you hire models to play out the different parts, so that they look real, until you know the human form well enough to make up your own composite person.
The creatures you paint will have the facial features, expressions, and maybe even some of the dress of your time and place, perhaps renaissance Antwerp or late medieval Italy, but they will have the kind of supernatural powers and raging conflicts of stories from long ago and far away. The painting is not about the lives of your models, you don’t know your models, and the story existed before you saw your models.
As you use more models, and paint more subjects, you develop new characters. These characters may have a nose twitch from one person you once painted, a scowl from an actor who was in a painting a hundred years before you were born, a laugh from the master who taught you to mix color, and a slouch from a thief who you saw across the road. Eventually, they are a mix of a hundred scowls, a thousand slouches, a million laughs and countless other elements. Archetypical personalities develop. These characters incorporate so many elements of different people, that they seem to be real themselves.
Now, you might ask, wouldn’t it be simpler just to paint the person in front of you as they are, or to write a story about the person you know?
My first fiction script was about a serial killer, my second about a homeless man who started a riot, then I wrote a few sci-fis about people who create artificial life, or hide intergalactic fugitives, a couple who…(suffice to say, I’ve written a few scripts.)
People who read it thought these stories were somehow autobiographical, because they were about places I knew well. Well, it can be pretty disturbing when your main character kills ten people and anoints himself as some kind of savior that the reader thinks its based on your own life.
Yet, at the same time, having your characters mistaken for real people can be flattering.
Well, when I write scripts, I do get inspired by a person I see, sometimes. But I won’t write about that person. I don’t know that person well enough, and if I did, I wouldn’t have enough distance to complete the story. Instead, I let my imagination run wild, and I end up with someone completely different from the stranger in front of me.
Here are a few reasons why you can’t write about your own life.
1. Your life has no real character arc. A true character arc is about change, and the best change is based on a hidden character flaw. This should be a flaw that is obvious to the writer, but which the character is completely unaware of (and perhaps the other characters don’t quite recognize either). If you know your own character flaw, and how to fix it, then why not fix it instead of writing a script about it?
2. Real life isn’t a great story. In a great story, the characters solve their own problems, and perhaps even make their own luck. Everything happens logically, and one event influences another.
In real life, one person randomly wins the lottery, another is run over by a car, a third is transferred to a new town. And, these things may not have as great an impact on the lives of real people as you might think. These things can happen in a film, but they’ll usually have more meaning to them.
Elements from a real life can make great stories, eventually. (and I am writing a historical drama based on events from over 200 years ago.) But we are too close to our own problems to notice when one is resolved, or to even see when one starts. Perhaps after at least a decade, we could piece together a story from real life. But even then, some thing will need to be invented to fill the gaps in logic that the randomness of reality left behind. (Even the most knowledgeable historians use conjecture to fill in the gaps.)
3. Real life is not as realistic as the movies. No, I haven’t met any dinosaurs or wizards recently, but I’ve passed by a lot of irrational people who are too weird to be in a movie. Perhaps, with enough distance, I could see the reasons behind the actions of everyone. There are possibly isolated events that I missed that would make their attitudes and actions flow smoothly. But, from what I see, there aren’t. Most people don’t even know why they act how they do.
4. Real life is too limited. If you can write about anything you want, why limit yourself to a docudrama? Why even bother writing, why not just edit together some cctv video? (Okay, so writing might make it easier to edit later, you can’t storyboard what hasn’t been filmed yet. But really, docusoaps and docudramas are boring.) See more on imagination below.
5. Fiction is Fun. It’s much more fun to play a made up person than one who you know, and it’s more fun to watch too. Although mimicry can be amusing for about five minutes, it soon grows old.
6. Imagination. With a little imagination, that disused attic can house a vampire, or a treasure map, or a will, or an old forgotten love letter. With a little imagination, that squash ball can knock someone out, or it could become a living creature, or it could become an heirloom from a championship. With a little more, the attic and the squash ball could spark a story.
And, with a little imagination, a person, an actor that you know, could be a completely different person than the person life and experience has type cast her as. The camera can capture what’s there, but paint it differently.
In short, fiction isn’t about real life. It’s about imagination. If it was about real life, it would be non-fiction.
That said, I once heard that fiction was a “lie that tells the truth.” It starts with what the writer knows, but the writer can never know everything. By being distanced from real individuals in the creator’s life, a fictional character can become more personal to the audience.
A great work of fiction doesn’t just tell one story, it tells many stories. It leaves open enough for the audience to see her own boss, his own high school teacher, their own cousin, or our own monarch or president, even when that wasn’t the creator’s inspiration for the original character. And the story’s prison warden can represent a domineering husband, the story’s gossiping dock worker can represent the kid with the school locker next to you, the story’s ruthless king can represent your first boss. Because, all fiction is a collaborative medium. It is not based on the author’s life, it’s based on the life or the reader and the audience.
A strong story keeps writing itself long after the author is dead.