Remember when Michael Jordan got into trouble for referring to his teammates on the Chicago Bulls as “my supporting cast?”

He was, of course, only telling the truth. (Though Scotty Pippen, we must admit, has a right to be a little miffed.)

But back to you and me and our novels based on our real lives. What about our spouses and kids and bosses and friends and the other crazy characters we’re going to write about? They may not like to think of themselves this way, but ..

They are supporting characters in our story.

Putting their egos aside, the question…

In the Comments to an earlier post in this series, “Using Your Real Life in Fiction,” Shawn wrote:

My question, which I think a lot of writers will have is this …

Great question, pard. Lemme answer with a confession of exactly how dumb I am.

A few years ago I wrote a novel called Killing Rommel. (No, it was NOT one of the Bill O’Reilly series with “Killing” in the title.) Killing Rommel was a WWII story about a British commando expedition during the North African campaign of ’42-’43. Kinda like The Guns of Navarone, only set in the desert, with “Rat Patrol”-type jeeps. …

(You guys, as of this post we’ll revert to the every-Wednesday mode for the remainder of the “Use Your Real Life in Fiction” series. I hope this recent barrage of Mon-Wed-Fri posts hasn’t clogged up too many friendly inboxes. I just got excited about this subject and couldn’t help myself.)

We were talking in the previous post about killing off characters. We observed that this can be hard when the characters are based on people in our real lives.

Can we kill off our best friend?

Our neighborhood priest?

Our mother?

Answer Number One:

We have to, if the drama demands it.

(Tune in to Writing Wednesdays on the next few Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for the continuation of the series “Using Your Real Life in Fiction” — and for more of The Knowledges backstory.)

We were talking in the previous post about making the stakes of our real-life story life and death.

Sometimes that’s hard to do.

As writers working with our real lives as material, we can be naturally reluctant, say, to kill off a character we actually know.

Our ex-husband?

Our boss?

Our mom?

I’m sure you’re ahead of me on this. I’m about to say, “Kill ’em dead.”

Whack ’em. …

Our Most Dreaded Outcome in crafting fiction based on our real lives is that the story will be too internal, too ordinary, too boring.

Life is internal.

Life is ordinary.

Life is boring.

And don’t forget our first axiom of the Lit Biz:

Nobody Wants To Read Your Sh*t.

How can we make our real-life story dramatic, involving, and exciting? I’ll answer by quoting my old mentor Ernie Pintoff:

“Have a body hit the floor.”

I don’t mean we have to kill off a character (though that always works,)

I mean raise the stakes.

Did you see the movie Joy, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Bradley Cooper, written and directed by David O. Russell? The entire first half hour is about nothing but establishing the stakes for the protagonist, the real-life Joy Mancuso, as life and death. Not literally, but emotionally. …


Steven Pressfield

Bestselling author of fiction and nonfiction, including GATES OF FIRE, THE WAR OF ART, THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE, and the blog series “Writing Wednesdays.”

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