Monday, May 02, 2016

The Ethics of Real Life and Fiction

Supposing you had a friend or a family member who found themselves in a difficult position, one that was unpleasant or perhaps even dangerous, but viewed with a writer’s eye it was very, very intriguing.

It presented to you the idea for a book on a plate. The plot would have a wrinkle that you could never have thought of yourself, but that would give the book absolutely the sort of USP that publishers are always looking for.

But whatever you did in the way of changes to setting, names, personnel, the story is so unique that when he or she read it, they would know it was about them. Could you use it?

I’d never really thought about this, until a situation like that did come my way. Tempting though it was, I couldn’t bring myself to do it: I wouldn’t have had the courage to face them afterwards. It was eating me up totally, but it would feel a betrayal, like reducing their experience to being nothing more than a useful theme and I’d be capitalising on their problems for my own success.

Sounds very nice and moral, doesn’t it? But now, thinking about it, I have used real life stories to inspire some of mine. Someone has talked about someone they knew in an interesting situation, something has been reported in the newspaper: I have used those without considering that if they happened to read the book, they would know it was based on them.

The central figure in my book, Bad Blood, is the daughter of a woman who killed a child when she was only a child herself and who after serving her sentence was given a new identity. There was a celebrated case in Britain many years ago – the conviction of Mary Bell, who did just that.

I can’t deny that this situation was in my mind when I wrote the book. Mary’s adult identity was never disclosed but it was known that she had had a child. The action in my book doesn’t in any way mirror the case, but it was what prompted me to wonder what it would feel like to be the daughter of someone like that and the story followed. I rather hope now that Mary’s daughter, whoever she is, never reads it.

So, not so moral after all. Graham Greene talked about the chip of ice in the heart of every writer; we probably all have it. It’s just a question of degree.


Dragonquillca said...

Interesting you should mention this dilemma. There was a small story in the newspaper up here a couple of years ago of a woman and her dog being stranded on a bush train for hours in the dark and cold. And while you might find the exact details boring, what's relevant here is that I always remembered that story, the woman and her dog. I cut the newspaper clipping out, not because I wanted to capitalize on her outrage and discomfort, but to inspire some future fiction I plan on writing one day. Cold perhaps, pun intended, but I don't feel guilty about what she experienced because I know the experience had a happy ending.
The inspiration for fiction is all around us. We just have to be open when it presents itself, right?

Aline Templeton said...

I guess we do it subconsciously much of the time, Carolyn and certainly the happy ending makes it all right. The story I balked at didn't have that.