Wednesday, January 30, 2013

When is it not okay?

By Jenny Hilborne
Author of Mysteries and Thrillers

I love to eavesdrop. While some people might find it creepy to listen in on the conversations of others, I don't. It's not like I position myself to engineer it and secretly listen in to private conversations. People talk in loud voices and air their personal business in public places. It's true, the juicy snippets make me prick up my ears, and I always have a notebook and pen handy to jot useful tidbits down. It's also true I sometimes ride the bus and sit in busy cafe's for research, to watch people and listen to what's going on. Public transport is a fantastic way to pick up ideas for great plot lines and interesting scenes.

On a recent twenty minute trip into town, I learned about one male passenger's whole life including where he grew up, his failed marriages and the causes behind them, job losses and divorce. Everyone on the bus heard his story. Fair game to use any interesting bits, as far as I'm concerned. He doesn't know me. If I used anything he said, and if he ever reads any of my books, he will never know he contributed. And he clearly didn't care who heard him.

What I struggle with is using elements from the stories I'm told by people I know, people who've shared parts of their lives with me. If I have their prior permission, or if they've unloaded for this purpose - for me to tell their story - no problem. But sometimes I don't want to ask for their permission. I don't even want to suggest I might like to use what they've told me in a plot line because it feels unkind and tacky, as though I've lost my compassion as a friend and think about them only in terms of how I can use them in my work. The thought that a situation so troubling for them might make compelling reading for someone else seems insensitive, and I wonder if by asking permission to use it, I'm somehow making light of their struggle. To use it without their permission seems wrong, yet I hate to let an opportunity for a great story slip by. I'm not looking to benefit from anyone's personal tragedy, more I'm looking to write a good story I believe readers will find believable, compelling and be drawn to. As journalists always look for good stories to report, writers always look for good plot lines and most of our (best) fiction is ground in the truth.

My upcoming release, Stone Cold, is a psychological thriller. Part of the idea for one of the plot lines is born out of a real-life tragedy. I can't ask the person's permission to use it because they are dead, but I wonder if I should have discussed it with their family. It happened a long time ago and it never occurred to me back then that I'd ever want to use it in a novel. Over the years, the tragedy and the facts surrounding it nagged me. I believe my friend would have encouraged me to write it. I don't have direct contact with the family members, and they don't know me, so maybe it doesn't matter, yet something about it still tugs at my conscience. In real life, it didn't turn out okay, and that's the source of my dilemma. In fiction, I can give it a fitting ending and give the bad guys what they deserve. Fictional justice. I hope my friend would approve.

Some people argue that it isn't necessary to use real life tragedy to create good fiction, but I find movies made out of real life tragedies stir the strongest emotions within the audience. I'm sure there are many examples, but the two I want to use are the Titanic and The Impossible; the latter being a new release based on a true story of a family's survival of the 2004 tsunami that struck Thailand. I enjoyed both these movies and never felt the fictionalized aspects detracted from the real life tragedy or demeaned those who lost their lives. The devastation of the real life events were immense, yet pleasure was gained from the story itself - from the survival, the triumphs, humanity and the way people pulled together to survive - not from the real life tragedy. I came away from both movies with empathy for the real life victims, people I don't know. If using real life tragedy, whether on a large scale or from a personal event, in a movie or a novel can move us and make us care about what happened, I don't see it as wrong or unnecessary. To me, it's even more compelling because aspects of the story are based on real life events. Real life events create believable fiction, and it makes me care more.

Whenever we fictionalize the truth in our novels, writers twist the facts and alter the identities of anyone upon whom we base a character to protect their privacy. Wherever necessary, we also modify the circumstances to make them unrecognizable to any particular person. Ethically speaking, even with a disclaimer, is this enough? If a writer wants to use the real life tragedy of someone they know, even if indirectly, and they have protected the identity and privacy of the real life characters, should they obtain permission first? Is there a time when it is not okay to use real life tragedy in fiction? When is that time?


  1. Sometimes I watch TV shows that base some episodes on real crimes (Law & Order did this a lot), but their case turns out so differently, it turns out to be barely related to what actually happened.

    It's hard to be a writer and not pick and choose from the people and events around you. In The Hot Mess, I based one of the storylines around people I know, then kept having to go back in and change it and massage it and change it again so they would not recognize themselves. Asking their permission would have been embarrassing, I think - for them. But their story is a common (and sad) one, which made it easy to use as a universal theme.

    Unless we actually lived through the event ourselves, I think we can take the particulars of something that happened, change the people around (e.g. the young girl who went missing is now a young boy), and make it truly fiction, without apology.

    1. I like to think of it as making meaning out of the real-life event, especially if it's tragic. I agree that it does not always feel appropriate to ask permission and if we've done our job correctly, the real-life victims won't recognize themselves. Thanks for your thoughts, Gayle.

  2. Great topic, Jenny! I think as long as you change the circumstances and protect the identity of the people involved by changing their names, physical description, town or city, etc., then it's fine.

  3. As authors, we create our make believe words based on the real one we observe. I think as long as it's out there in the public eye, it's fair game. In our personal relationships, a bit more discretion would probably be necessary.

    I'm more of a people watcher than a people listener. I love observing mannerisms, peculiar clothing choices, facial name it. If it's interesting, it'll likely end up in one of my books.

  4. Your post has left me thinking about it off and on all day. Well done!

    You raise a lot of good questions, none of which I'm sure I have an answer for. (And any answer I come up with will be one for me to live by anyway—not necessarily anyone else.)

    However, for me, this works. At least for now. I write fiction. I write for entertainment. But underneath all of that, I hope to make people think a little bit, maybe make them examine their own belief systems. In order to do that, I grab events where I can find them. Big events. Mind-bending, heart-breaking events. Events or circumstances or issues that tie people up. Everything is fictionalized, but everything begins with at least one little piece of reality.

    What a great post, Jenny. I'm sure I'll be thinking about this for days and weeks to come.

    1. The movie 'The Impossible' really made me think about it, Peg. The real life tragedy happened, and the movie focused on the survival of one family, while showing the losses suffered by so many others. I'm sure fictional bits were added, but it was so moving. I thought about it for ages after. Thanks for your kind comments.

  5. I hope it's not too late to get in on the conversation. As I told Jodie on Facebook, sometimes the centrifugal force overwhelms the gravitational. (Well, that's not exactly what I told her, but it may be better than my pun.) Anyway, I remember reading quotes from some classic or "literary" writers (what are we, he said in a Yiddish accent, chopped liver?) that all is grist for the story - or words to that effect. I don't know which big names they were offhand, but to them, story was all and worth the sacrifice of a relationship or two.

    More than that, though, as Jenny replied to Gayle, one reason we write is to make meaning out of life's events and encounters. Life is narrative. George Lakoff argues we think in metaphors; it seems to me that we make meaning in a hierarchy: metaphor-analogy-narrative (plot).

    In other words, of course elements from what you've heard enter your stories. That's why they're there - both the elements stored in mental RAM and the stories themselves. The "take-away," though, is to "protect the innocent." (A crime writer's first job!) There's no need to tie the instigating incident or inspiration to a particular person. That's what non-fiction and memoir are for. Although, during the Bellow-Malamud-Wouk-and a couple others sniping, one of them wrote a novel where the rival were clearly identified - you knew who he was talking about.

    But for the not so famous, the trade-off is their anonymity and privacy for your getting one of the world's moral rubik cube thingies in place.

    (I find that friends and acquaintances will ask if they're in the book, or if a character is based on so-and-so. Their guesses are often amusing.)

    Thanks for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post.


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