getting even

You remember when I wrote the other day that I don’t base characters on my novels on a specific person in any kind of direct way? In particular I avoid anything of that kind when it comes to unlikeable characters.

Some writers are not so concerned about this. I was just looking through my collection of quotes on writing and storytelling, and two jumped out at me:

The best revenge is to write about it. – Meg Cabot

Getting even is one reason for writing. – William Gass

And of course, it does happen that writers work through painful episodes in their own lives by putting them down on paper. I should have said so more clearly. Note: There’s a distinction between putting a character in a story exclusively to get back at somebody you have cause to dislike in an ad-hoc kind of way, and telling a bigger story involving a variety of characters and a series of complications based on personal experiences.

When I taught creative writing at the university level, I found that many students new to fiction had a hard time stepping back from their own experiences. That’s perfectly understandable, especially for younger people, but it is something that has to be modified. If you’re too close to a story it’s less likely you’ll tell it well. Especially if a lot of emotion is involved.

A standard suggestion in this situation is this: if you are compelled to write a story based on your own experiences with something big and difficult (divorce, betrayal, loss), one way to get the necessary distance is to switch genders. For example:

You have been wanting to write a novel based on your experiences with a college professor. You are male. The professor was female. You admired the professor and learned a lot from her, but then one day you saw her shoplifting. You became obsessed with this new knowledge, and so you started following her and documenting her life of petty crime. In her theology class (that just came to me) you found yourself getting angry in a discussion about moral relativism, and before you could stop yourself, you made a comment to the professor about her extra curricular activities. You find yourself suddenly in a unique situation: you are being cited for sexual harrassment by your teacher, and she’s about to sue you for defamation.

So how do you approach a novel like this? My strong suggestions: 1. do not write it in first person. 2. switch the genders. The professor is now male, and the student who sees him shoplifting, female.

If this were a real scenario — you lived through this experience ten years ago and find it won’t let you go unless you write about it — you need to skew your approach not only for the sake of the story, but also because in this situation, there are legal considerations. I think that must be obvious. The question is how much you have to change things to avoid a letter from a lawyer. You might have to change the setting. An insurance office instead of a college campus, for example.

You might be thinking that these changes will take away from the ‘getting even’ experience but consider one thing: if you really want to tell the story for yourself alone, you can write it exactly as it happened with no worries. If you want other people to know exactly what happened and you want them to know the how and where and why, write it as non-fiction, taking care not to slander or defame anybody (note: you can’t be sued for stating the truth, no matter how distasteful the truth might be; so, in this scenario you might write that Dr. X was seen shoplifting on a store security camera –if such a thing exists — without fear of legal action).

If you want to really explore the potential in the story, you’ll need some distance, a lot of time, and patience. And possibly the characters will need to be tweaked to give you the perspective you’ll need to pull the whole thing off.