Begin by writing the complete story—beginning to end—the way you truly imagine it. Write with precision honesty without the fear of hurting anyone.
When done writing, evaluate what you have created. It is in the editing stage where you will objectively be able to decide how to share the story publicly without hurting anyone. If the finished story is meant to be fiction, you can go back and make sure physical identifiers that link to nonfiction people (like a skull tattoo on the left arm above a knife scar) are changed to protect the innocent or the not-so-innocent.
If someone has inspired you to recreate their character in a fictional world, rest assured your depiction of their internal thoughts, feelings, and motivations won’t be the tipoff that the character is loosely based on this real person; it will be the physical attributes that you choose.
Most people don’t recognize themselves in someone else’s writing unless they are told the character is modeled after them or the physical facts are eerily the same: age, body build, hair color, scars, name, physical location, profession, relationships with others, or facts from exact encounters are replayed in the work.
If the story you are telling is meant to be nonfiction, you have a different issue. In a biography or a memoir, you need to tell the truth as you know it, but you must also share your truth in a way that can be formally substantiated by the research of others. If you are afraid you might hurt someone by telling the truth in your work and you are naming names across your work, you need to consult an attorney before publication because hurting feelings may result in a lawsuit.
Cue dramatic music:
Deep Voice Over: The names in this story have been changed to protect the innocent.
That’s a start. Every writer works from what they know — even if they’re writing about elves and spaceships and unicorns. Our own experiences are what we draw on to launch our imagination. And it’s the real-life situations that often give a writer the rich soil for a gripping tale.
Just write the story. When you’ve laid it all out, step away for some distance then read it with fresh eyes to spot what might be so obvious as to be hurtful. If you find the narrative is obvious, even though it is based loosely on family and friends, then consider what the compelling idea is in this tale. What was the single most gripping element that made you want to write about it in the first place? Take that compelling idea and re-write from that prospective.
Or just start with that single compelling idea rather than with the cast of friends and family. Stories have a way of charting their own course and it’s very likely, that with that shift in perspective your story will be unique enough to withstand the scrutiny of sensitive family and friends.
I have used family and friends for inspiration in many of our books. For the most part if I didn’t tell the individual who inspired me, they did not recognize themselves. If I did tell them I was going to do it, most of them were thrilled.
Then there came a time when I happily told my sister I had used our age differences as the foundational inspiration for my story. (she is fourteen years younger than I am and we were born on the same day). She was thrilled–until she read the book. She asked, “Is this really what you think of me?” To be fair she was the bitchy, beautiful sister accused of murder, and I was the smart but downtrodden attorney who saves her.
It had nothing to do with real life other than the span in our ages. Still, when she asked that question, I understood that there was a difference between inspiration and hitting close to home including the perception of hitting close to home.
The answer was, no, the character in no way was my sister. Their physical characteristics were the same, not their character.
What you’re talking about is even more delicate. You are going to be exploring actual things that happened to you and your family. If this is an honest memoir you need to be ready for the fallout. If this is fiction, you’ll need to be very skillful when you write to navigate the hurt feelings—or worse— that might arise. Ask yourself a) is this book is necessary to your well-being and b) if you are strong enough to face any and all consequences that will come with writing it. You are the only one who knows the answers.
Ooooh *eyes widen* “awaits gossip*
I think the only way to do that is to write under a pseudonym and don’t tell them about it. People aren’t always as stupid as we hope they are. They’ll figure out it’s them in no time!
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