You know that disclaimer that used to be on Law and Order and several other shows/music videos/movies/books/etc. that went approximately:
This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to real persons or events is purely coincidental.
Remember seeing that? I do. And before I began publishing my work, or even letting other humans see my work, I kind of thought it was a strange disclaimer to make. Now I get it. People see themselves in fictional characters. I do. I see myself in fictional characters created by people I’ve never met; some of the creators were dead before I was alive even. There’s no way they meant that character work to be about me. But as a writer, the knowledge that people see themselves in fictional characters means that if you tell people you know you’ve written some fiction, they’ll see themselves in the characters you write. And some of the time, some of them are going to be RIGHT. Sometimes that’s good…
I mean, J is now decidedly immortal. He shows up in some form in every romantic hero I’ve ever written. My son’s immortal too. He’s in every kid I’ve ever written. And a couple adults too, to be honest. My best friend from high school, D, is also immortal. He shows up in some form in every mixed gender friendship I’ve ever written. And I’ve written parts of other people in my life into characters I’ve written, because the reality is, fiction writers draw from people, places, things, and experiences they know. Even if they’re writing futuristic sci/fi or otherworldly fantasy, particularly in character development…I mean…that comes from somewhere. The evil overlord is an exaggerated version of that mean history teacher you had in ninth grade who treated the football players preferentially because he was the freshman team’s head coach. You wrote that shifty grifter into that crime drama to work out your residual pissed-offedness about that coworker who asked to borrow your copy of Janet Evanovich’s One For the Money and NEVER gave it back and kind of acted like she didn’t ever take anything from you. And the dreamy romantic hero in the love story is really your husband. So yeah, it can be good, if the person seeing themselves in your writing sees what you wrote as good…sees that character as good. But it can also be not so good…
She really will. I admit it.
I don’t write too many traditional ‘villains.’ But I do sometimes write people who behave badly and selfishly and thoughtlessly. People who are arrogant and presumptive and unkind. Like…not just once or occasionally (because everybody does something shitty once or occasionally), but as a major bedrock part of their character. And just like J and my son and my high school bestie are often made heroes and sympathetic characters my readers want to love and cheer on, all the little shits I’ve written came from somewhere and someone real too. Yeah, some guy really did sexually harass me…treated me like shit on a date…in a past relationship/friendship. Yeah, I really did get underestimated and/or neglected and dismissed by some past perceived authority figures. Yeah, I’ve watched people hurt other people in little, stinging, supposedly inconsequential ways, like so many paper cuts and knocks on the funny bone, but that stuff matters too, and it usually adds up. And I don’t write high concept, world building-level sci/fi or fantasy. I write realistic love stories. So that bad behavior written into my stories? That’s real. I’ve seen it; I’ve heard it; or I’ve experienced it really happening.
So I get the disclaimer now. I’m not doing it on purpose when I write a person or an event from my own experience into fiction. It really is ‘purely coincidental.’ Nothing ever happened exactly like I write it. No real person is exactly (or even really all that close to) the real person who inspired the character. But my own lived life and the things I see and hear and the people I know are where I draw from to write. That’s just…how it is.
And I don’t think it’s necessarily bad for people to see themselves in fiction. I mean, it’s why very few people in my ‘real life’ know I write it…because I don’t want the reactionary fallout from them reading it (as if they would actually read it…HA! They barely acknowledge my existence. They are super unlikely to put forth the kind of effort it takes to read a novel, much less 13 of them and counting). I can just imagine the, ‘Is this supposed to be ME?’ All the books I’ve loved reading in my life most though, were books where I saw myself in one of the characters, and/or books that made me take a hard look at my own behavior and assumptions. I love reading books where I see a person like me working through a problem similar to one I have and succeeding. Or a person like me finding friendship and acceptance and support and love. I like to read about a person like me getting a happy ending. And I also sometimes like, but always NEED to see myself in place of the ‘villain,’ to make as much effort as I can to ensure I’m not the bad guy in someone else’s story. Fiction is informed by reality and I think fiction informs reality too. That’s why I try to write diversity and inclusion and positive connection and problem solving into the stories I create. I can’t help but be inspired by the realness I see and experience around me. I want my characters and their lives to feel real, and as that one disclaimer says…any similarity to real people or events is purely coincidental. But I kind of DO want people to see themselves in the stories I write. (Now I’m going to be a pretentious literary nerd and add a Proust quote…but it’s real for me.)
I think the folks who like reading my work…I suspect this is why they like it. They see themselves, or see something in themselves they didn’t see before. At least I hope they do. Even if the similarity is purely coincidental.