Delicate Dance: Blending Real-Life Details into Your Fictional Narrative

When I finished reading Dan Simmons’ The Terror, a fictionalized retelling of the disastrous Franklin Expedition of 1845 (and the inspiration for the very expensive-looking AMC series starring Jared Harris and a bunch of British actors with fantastic cheekbones), I thought two things:

First, whatever happened on that ill-fated journey through the Arctic wastes, most of the real-life crew wasn’t systematically torn apart by a Yeti-like creature impervious to bullets. Simmons definitely made that part up.

Second, if anyone among the crew had descendants who knew their lineage… did those descendants take issue with their forefathers’ fictional portrayal? I’m not just talking about the crew’s dissolution into madness, mutiny, and cannibalism — the book also features some seriously weird stuff involving shamans, Inuit Gods, severed tongues, and the aforementioned Beast from Hell. It’s not out of the question that an heir might end up feeling a bit, well, uncomfortable about a fictionalized version of their great-great-great-granddaddy chowing down on a colleague like a 12-piece meal from KFC.

That slim possibility aside, when you’re writing a novel about folks who died more than a hundred and fifty years ago, in a place relatively few people have ever lived or visited, you have an enormous degree of latitude to portray events as you see fit (provided you can sell the audience on the narrative). But when you’re tackling a more contemporary story, with locations and situations that your audience might be more familiar with, things get a little thornier. I learned this while working on my novel Boise Longpig Hunting Club, which is set in contemporary Idaho (and, like The Terror, involves a lot of chaos and doom in isolated places).

In order to achieve a certain degree of verisimilitude, I set scenes in places around Boise that I know well: restaurants, bars, my sister-in-law’s old street, my father-in-law’s cul-de-sac, and so on. Using real-world locations as “sets” for your characters is a standard tool in the writer’s box. I also built out my characters with some details from my friends’ and relatives’ lives — a tour in Iraq here, a dangerous night of bounty hunting there. Also pretty standard-issue; who hasn’t mined the lives of their nearest and dearest for material, especially when they have the specialized knowledge that your characters need?

Midway through her reading of the manuscript, my wife, who doubles as a key beta reader, began to make gentle sounds of consternation. She liked the book, but she was concerned that I had mixed my characters’ clay with a bit too much real-life detail. “I don’t want anyone to get offended,” she said.

(A quote from Czeslaw Milosz drifted to mind: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” You could probably extend that idea to friend groups, as well.)

Another beta reader brought up a similar issue. “You probably shouldn’t shoot up a real-life place,” they said. “I know it’s fiction, but that’s where real people live and work. You don’t want to give it a weird rep.”

If you’re writing a memoir, changing any detail is a controversial practice; while some memoirists will deem it necessary in order to give the narrative more literary “heft,” others view virtually any alteration as fabrication, and unconscionable. For an example of the potential consequences of such “adjustment,” look no further than James Frey, who was shredded by Oprah when it became clear that he had embellished (to put it mildly) A Million Little Pieces and My Friend Leonard, a pair of books originally marketed as memoirs. (The exception seems to be changing elements of characters’ lives in order to protect people who are hiding, or somehow in danger, or simply don’t want to be identified.)

Fortunately, fiction often gives you the leeway to change details derived from real life while keeping the overall thrust of the narrative (and character motive) intact. You can edit, add, and delete as necessary — so long as you keep your ultimate destination in mind. So I ended up tweaking some characters during my second round of editing, and “fictionalizing” a hotel (i.e., changing its name, street location, and some architectural details) where some spectacularly bad things happen. I was happy to do it; I wouldn’t want to risk a surprise left hook to the jaw during the next family cookout.

Nonetheless, the experience raises some interesting questions. Is there an ethical line when it comes to incorporating real-life details into fiction? And if so, where does that line exist?

This essay originally appeared in LitReactor.