"Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?"--Queen, "Bohemian Rhapsody"
We’ve all read the disclaimers at the front of novels confirming that all names, characters, places, etc. are the product of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner.
But do we really believe that? More importantly, does it matter?
Let’s face it: some things can only happen in real life, and they are the perfect fodder for fiction.
I completely understand concerns about pulling inspiration from real life events and relationships. You probably shouldn’t write a story detailing every aspect of your failed relationship, academic frustrations, or workplace mishaps, keep the names the same, and call it fiction. If you do, you might have a few angry people after you, regardless of your success.
Now, if you detail every aspect of a failed relationship but change the names, shift the location, and add an interesting twist, you can rely on that second part of the disclaimer—you’ve used your real life in a fictitious manner.
These are extreme examples. Pulling inspiration from your own relationships and profound life events can be great, but these aren’t the only sources of wonderful inspiration for your fiction. Whether you are writing a contemporary YA or an Adult fantasy, you have a variety of content surrounding you on a daily basis, from the smallest of details to the strangest of situations.
I have never directly created a fictional character based off of someone I know in real life (so far). But that doesn’t mean I haven’t stolen bits and pieces from the people in my life: names, hobbies, quirks, preferred flavors of ice cream. Most of these go unnoticed—some of them don’t. Regardless, I don’t see it as a weakness or a crutch. It’s like seasoning my fiction with a sprinkle of reality; it can’t all come from thin air.
Beyond gathering traits from the people around you, the prime source of inspiration arises from the crazy and unexpected events of life—because there are seriously some things that you can’t make up, but that doesn’t mean they can’t spice up a work of fiction.
Have you ever read a book that made you laugh out loud because of the sheer hilarity of an event depicted? Obviously I contribute that to the skill of the writer, but sometimes I also have to wonder if the event had an origin in reality.
Years ago, I read the book Fame, Glory, and Other Things on My To Do List by Janette Rallison, and to this day I remember the opening scene in which Jessica, the main character, accidentally gets into the wrong car and then thinks the owner of the car—Jordan—is trying to mug her. I find this scene so funny not only because Rallison does a great job with the set-up and dialogue but because I have personally climbed into the wrong car before and spent a long moment realizing my mistake. My real life incident wasn’t quite as dramatic as Jessica’s, but it certainly allows me to relate to her predicament.
The other day, my roommate’s pet snake got herself stuck through the handle of a mug and we had to spray her with olive oil in order to wrestle her free. Never in my wildest imagination would I think up that particular scenario, but that’s exactly what greeted me on a normal Thursday night. Will I ever include that strange detail of my life in a story? I have no clue, but I certainly hope so.
Don’t be afraid to mix a bit of reality into your fiction. That’s what makes it relatable. Sure, you should probably protect yourself, especially if you choose to write some sort of exposé. (Next time your friend or significant other jokes about you using your shared experiences as inspiration, consider having them put it in writing). But if you’re trying to name a minor character and coming up short, think about who sat next to you in your senior English class and move on from there.
What are your thoughts? Does reality have its place in fiction or should we leave the work to our imaginations?
Also, we freed the snake, and she’s perfectly okay.
I write YA fantasy and contemporary fiction. This blog is dedicated to thoughts and advice on writing and publishing, as well as various interests related to the world of Young Adult.