It's late spring, 1996. I'm live on stage playing a role in a rubbish university stage play I have co-written with a friend of mine, who I won't name to avoid shaming him. My friend had approached me initially with the idea of helping him to produce a 'black comedy'. In typical fashion, the 'comedy' aspect got lost about a tenth of the way through drafting the work, and my own political obsessions and particular brand of post-adolescent misanthropy slopped over the lot like steaming hot tar. (I'd like to take this opportunity to apologise to everyone who knew me back then, but that would be a waste of time, as I highly doubt any of them will be reading this).
Feeling inappropriately pleased with our work which featured, among other things, projections displaying phrases like "You are having a laugh", I drifted off home to have a few contented drinks in front of the television. Then the phone rang. On the other end was a friend of mine, with a very concerned and particular question.
"Dave," he asked. "The caretaker in that play… is that supposed to be me?"
The caretaker in the production was in a really short scene we wrote to bring light relief to an appallingly bleak piece of work. He was an ex-army soldier who spouted surreal observations which didn't bare much relation to the rest of the plot. The caretaker was not based on this particular friend, and it's beyond me why he thought he was.
"It's just, you see, I trained as a plumber, and he's fiddling with a radiator or something in the background…"
The bizarre reasoning continued. I never did manage to convince him.
And of course, it's happened lots of times since. Even for a writer like me, without a book deal and with only the (increasingly) occasional live performance to my name, people will often approach me convinced they know "who" something is supposed to be about. All my friends who write suffer from the same problem.
It's an idle cliche that writers write about what we know, but unfortunately that's brought about the idea that we also take characters from real life and place them wholesale into our work too, often without giving a second's thought about how appropriate this might be or what purpose it serves. For what it's worth, these are my personal (until now) unwritten rules, for any kind of fiction:
a/ Leave your own family out of it.
There's a reason why, when you turn on Radio 4 to listen to poetry or biographical dramas, it's normally a non-English or quirky boho family you hear about - and that's because those are the only kinds of families who will usually tolerate their eccentricities being broadcast to a wider audience. Otherwise, it's frequently a very English trait to not want the illusion of familial normality to be shattered. If you're reading this at the moment and working on something that doesn't respect that, basing a character in your serious book entirely on your mad father or brother, I hope you're ready for carnage when it goes public. Don't say I didn't warn you.
b/ Never base characters on acquaintances you know and dislike.
Yes, Sarah from Accounts probably is a bitch, and I'm quite sure she's plotting against you to ensure that you lose your job, and that she deliberately failed to ask you to the pub after work but invited the rest of your team, and made a thinly veiled comment about your attire… but do you know what? While you're heavily emotionally invested in this stuff, it's truly tedious information to an audience. You probably know very little about Sarah's background, and what I want to hear about is why she behaves like this, what other relationships she has, what her disappointments and desires are. That's the information we'd have to flesh out to make her interesting, even make her funny, and you'd have to like her and know her - at least a bit - to communicate those details.
I once had a terrible job in a travel agents and worked with a "Sarah" type, who often said "I bet when you leave here you're going to write all about me, aren't you?" I never did, because there aren't many interesting things you can say about an acquaintance who is aggressive, humourless, difficult and moody seemingly for the sake of it, however cathartic spouting it all out may be. Except, of course, I've mentioned her just now. Whoops. (Blogs don't count).
c/ Similarly, unless there's a serious and genuine message to communicate, your relationship meltdown is of no interest to anyone.
Well, that may be a lie. I've watched a couple of young women win slams with what I consider to be awful "HE WAS A BASTARD BECAUSE HE DUMPED ME AND ANYWAY HE WAS TIGHT WITH MONEY AND PAID MORE ATTENTION TO HIS SISTER WHICH IS WELL WEIRD" poems, but that's usually because their friends are in the audience whooping away and getting busy with the ballots afterwards. Personally, I hear poems like that and my sympathies usually go out to the person the work was written about, whoever they are and whether they're male or female.
In general, though, poetry is a bit of a different area to fiction. We can afford to be a bit personal in poetry, although usually it will be sentimental love poetry we draft rather than bawling block caps hatred. But even in fiction, there's something truly, skin-crawlingly creepy about anyone who replicates their shouting bedroom dramas wholesale on to the page. It's beyond my imagining how much you'd have to hate someone to bring yourself to reproduce that stuff word for word for other people's entertainment.
d/ It's incredibly difficult to make a living from writing, so no piece of writing is ever worth losing the day job over.
Unless you want to be a whistleblower about some form of corruption, of course, in which case that's fine. But if you're just going to write a story about how grossly mismanaged your local pet shop is, and how it's run by a load of hamster-stinking oddballs who probably masturbate in the toilets at lunchtime while making the zebra finches watch, you shouldn't be that surprised if you no longer have a job in that pet shop in the morning. Though if the ideas I've put down there are anything to go by, you probably won't get the work published anyway.
So anyway, I think I've made my point in a very rambling fashion. Writers usually work with composites, and very, very rarely drop people they know from real life fully formed into their stories. I've even tried to actually drop a person (my wife) from real life into one of my stories, just for fun, and her character got completely changed in the redrafting process to fit the situation better, and I had to apologise and tell her she'd been more-or-less written out. Which didn't go down well either.
Hell, even poets writing about their latest love desire will change the place they first met from Wolverhampton to Ponders End if it suits the scansion and mood of the piece better, so you don't even get away with the facts and nothing but the facts there. Your dress was red when we met? Sorry darling, I've changed it to the colour green to avoid the inevitable Chris De Burgh comparisons. You're never going to get that flattering portrait exactly as you want it. It will always be a tiny bit fictional, a tiny bit not quite You.
And I suppose you're thinking "Well, he would say all this, wouldn't he?" And who knows, maybe you're right. Maybe you are indeed right. But you're not, you know.