Working with Relationships in Fiction by Brad Windhauser
One of the things I admire about non-fiction writers—let’s say David Sedaris—is how openly they write about their lives; specifically, their close relationships. In the case of Sedaris, outside of the death of his mother, it appears that nothing is off limits, and his books have contained more than a few mentions of certain siblings bristling at the notion that whatever moment was happening would end up in a story. I always wondered if they really minded. I went to a reading of Amy Sedaris (his sister) and someone asked her what she and the family thought about his work. Did they know what he was writing about them? She said everything that saw print first was cleared with them.
But although she expressed approval, that doesn’t mean that everyone whose friends or family write about them is happy about what is said about them, about the picture being committed to the page about who they are. Even if they give the okay.
This is one of the reasons why I have drawn a line that designates a few close relationships off limits. Life is full of story and character opportunities, so why risk offending someone you like/love by being “honest”? If you’re writing non-fiction, this presents a problem, for in theory, you should be able to go anywhere you need to, in terms of story.
In fiction, however, this problem can be avoided all together.
Relationships rest at the heart of most (perhaps all) stories: person versus person, person versus himself, person versus nature… you get the idea. Given this, you can’t avoid writing about relationships altogether. So how do you handle them and not draw from your own relationships? Easy: you know what issues lie within your relationships, so you know what you can avoid. This doesn’t mean you must avoid them. Just know what you’re getting into if the issue between characters in your story is clearly or darn close to the issue(s) in your personal life. You invite potential problems—and I’m not talking about lawsuits (though this is a point worth considering, just not in this post) if the people you depict feel you are providing a biased impression.
But what if you feel you must confront an issue that hits close to home? As I’ve discussed in previous posts, constraints can force you to be more creative than you might otherwise be. So how do you turn a constraint into creative freedom?
First, approach whatever issue you want to explore—say, a person did you wrong—from the other person’s point of view. Attempt to explore what contributed to their behavior and/or decisions. This won’t necessarily demonstrate that they were in the right; however, it might illuminate something interesting for you, and in the process you may become more understanding of the situation—even if your opinion about it doesn’t change. The key is to allow the characters to guide the work and not force your judgment on the story. Allow the scenario to teach you, and as it does it teaches the audience (which may include the person you’re writing about).
Second, change so many identifying details—character descriptions, setting—that a person might have a difficult time identifying themselves in your story. You should also change at least a few key details so it can’t be matched with your life. So if you got into a fight one morning in the kitchen of your home, have the characters get into a confrontation while smoking cigarettes outside a bar one winter night. This allows you to use your relationships as a starting place for your work; you’re not merely transcribing something that happened to you.
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott states that your memories belong to you: use them, you have a right to them. Although I agree with her, I would say that you should be careful about handling your truth as the truth. Use your work to explore, not preach, and if you do, you’ll be surprised at what you discover.