One of my favourite quotes related to writing comes from Chaucer in the film A Knight’s Tale. The famous writer, played here by Paul Bettany, tells a man who has wronged him that “I will eviscerate you in fiction. Every pimple, every character flaw. I was naked for a day; you will be naked for eternity.” Now I’m sure I’m not the only person who has been treated badly by someone else, but as a writer, the temptation can be to use the experience as the basis for a story. I’ve certainly written real life events into my stories before, but is it ever a good idea to base a character on someone in order to punish them the way we cannot punish them in reality?
On one hand, I would say yes. Writing is incredibly therapeutic and the catharsis afforded by writing through your issues makes it worthwhile. It can feel very liberating to take something negative and turn it into something positive, especially if your piece is the kind of writing that will also have a positive impact on others. Maybe it will encourage victims to speak out about their experiences, or to seek help.
However, there are other issues to consider before you put pen to paper. First of all, will the person in question be able to recognise themselves? If so, you need to consider the ramifications of this. If they recognise themselves, then other people may also recognise them, and this can cause legal issues if they decide to charge you with defamation. Remember they may not agree with your version of events and they may not take too kindly to being exposed in such a fashion. Beyond that, consider how you’d feel if someone did the same thing to you!
Maybe you’re going to change the details so the person won’t realise you’ve written about them. But consider this…how many details will you need to change, and once you’ve changed enough of them, will you still be writing about the same person? If you have to change too much then perhaps it’s not worth doing to begin with.
Even if you change enough details that the person in question won’t recognise themselves, do you really want to invest that much time in thinking about something negative? You may feel the long term gains outweigh the short term effects but writing often requires a lot of emotion and you may end up upsetting yourself, or stirring up feelings best left alone.
What do you think? Have you ever written about a person who treated you badly, or a bad experience? Did it help, or make things worse?