The Ethics of Theft

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I’m a thief. I think all writers are to some degree but I feel like I’m a rather blatant one. I think of my characters as amalgamations of people I know: Amie’s personality with Jennifer’s looks and Angie’s family circumstances. Eventually my characters morph into themselves and take me down paths that have nothing to do with where I started but they always come from reality. 

House on Fire is very much my family’s story while at the same time not being anything like my family’s story. The main character is me, except I wasn’t a nurse when my dad had dementia and I didn’t live nearby so it isn’t me at all. Many of the scenes with the dad are things that really happened. My dad did saw a club off his truck! It’s like creating an alternate reality where variations of life play out.  

In Judy Bloom’s Master Class, she talks about keeping notes of conversations she’s overhead that she wants to use in a story. Faulkner famously said, “If  a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” I can honestly say I have no idea what ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is and I’m so not going to google it (if you do and read it, please let me know if you think that it is worth any number of old ladies). But clearly I’m not the only thief/writer out there. Even someone who writes pure fantasy uses their experiences as the basis for how their characters behave, even if their characters are creatures who don’t exist in reality. 

House on Fire is about my family and me. It’s a story that belongs to me to a certain degree. But what about stories that don’t belong to me? My next book (temporarily called Madhouse) has stories that are mine but also stories that aren’t mine. People (friends) will recognize themselves even though the characters are only partly them or only the circumstance was theirs. My daughter is in Madhouse and has already said that I’ve so poorly masked her that she’s going to sue me once she gets her law degree (this might only be partly a joke). But just like House on Fire is my story without being my story, Madhouse isn’t these people’s story. I haven’t taken someone’s life and written it down and called it fiction. It is fiction. 

I’ve taken a huge array of things that I’ve encountered and reworked them into a story with a plot and characters with all kinds of things that didn’t happen and aren’t even close to what happened. I take a seed from reality and build it into something entirely different. If in my day-to-day experience I know a doctor who was a narcissist and prescribed himself medications and I have a doctor in a story who does that, is that unethical? I don’t actually care if that doctor reads the book and recognizes himself. He was a jerk. But I do care if one of my friends recognizes themselves and is hurt. I don’t want to hurt my friends but I also want to write a great story. What’s the right way to handle it? Do I warn them? Do I let them know it isn’t really them or it isn’t how I see them? What if they don’t believe me? 

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