The Immoral Line

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I’ve just finished rereading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Near the end Shakespeare says:

I watched my life as if it were happening to someone else. My son died. And I was hurt; but I watched my hurt, and even relished it, a little, for now I could write a real death, a true loss.

It’s a thought I’ve read in other books, and sort of comes back to the whole ‘write what you know’ theory. You can write far more convincingly about things you’ve experienced. But where is the line? At what point does it stop being applied experience and start being exploitative? If, for example, I were to write about the death of a character’s sibling or friend, I could do that from personal experience and make it a bit more real. But what would it be fair to those who had also suffered that same loss? Am I exploiting his death for my own ends, and making them grieve again? Or is it far enough removed?

The same goes with characters. Many of my characters are based on real people, to give them an added depth and humanity. It’s the tiny little quirks that make someone believable, and those are most easily found in real life. Leaving the question of permission aside (which, for the main characters, I have), how true to life do you make that portrait? A character must be flawed to be believable – do you keep the flaws of the real person? There’s some agonising over whether, even if the flaws are different, the person will be hurt by your portrayal of a character based on them. It’s a tricky line to walk sometimes.

Hopefully it will always just be an internal problem. Hopefully my characters and my events will be different enough from reality that no one gets hurt. But I’ll know what I’m basing things on, and I’ll always worry that it might hurt someone. That’s probably a good thing. It means I’ll work harder to make sure it doesn’t.

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