No, this isn’t an admission of guilt. Quite the opposite in fact. This is a part of the writing process that I feel often gets overlooked, to the point where the general populace (and even some writers) don’t really acknowledge its legitimacy. It’s stealing from real life.
Now, that’s a bit of a misnomer. Stealing from real life (ie: your life) isn’t stealing at all. It’s already your life. You own it, and you can use it as a tool for your art when need be. Nobody would question a painter painting the view of the Eiffel Tower from his hotel while on vacation in Paris. Why would writing about it be different? It isn’t.
So we add a new layer to your writing. Not only is it an accumulation of your knowledge an creativity, but it’s an extension of your life from your point of view. The people and events from your life will find their way into your pages whether you like it or not, so we might as well be up front about it.
So the question becomes, how much is too much? Well, I’d never pinch a main character. Even if they wanted me to. I’ve got this friend named Adam Bruce that’s been reading my stuff since the first word, and I’m sure he’d love it if I wrote a novel that revolved around him. But that would just be too much. Also, I think it’d be hard writing from another real person’s persona like that. Every main character has a little of the author in them.
I’d also steer clear of tertiary or “stock” characters. We’ll get to stock characters later, but basically these are the characters that fill your world but not the spotlight, not even for an instant. A good example from my work is Sud from the Black Womb novels. The reason not to use people from real life here is there simply isn’t enough with the fictional characters to work with. It’d almost amount to a weird, cryptic code that only you and the referenced party could understand.
So, as you can imagine, that leaves secondary characters. Secondary characters were made for depiction by real life people. Because when you think of it, they’re already playing that role. Everyone sees themselves as the star of their own life’s story (as well you should) so therefore all the other important people in your life become secondary characters by consequence. So letting them transition into fiction should be fairly painless.
The joy in this is when it makes the writing more enjoyable to you. In Infinity the character of Koy was based on a real child in my life, and many of the side-plots or scenes with her evolved from real memories and experiences with her. I also think my love for her translated onto the page, and maybe even rubs off onto the reader a little (from the feedback I’ve gotten). It also paints a picture of the man looking after her, Chad. “Stealing” in this way can be an extremely rewarding process.
Another great thing to steal is experiences. Again, everyone does this. Why do you think so many Stephen King novels are set in Maine? Settings and moods are things colored by the lens’s of your eyes, and are entirely subjective. When we write we share that subjective point of view with the world. Whether they agree or not isn’t relevant to the story narrative. There’s no right or wrong, merely accurate. That seems like a contradictory statement. Sometimes that happens, too.
Most importantly, don’t let any non-writers tell you this type of writing is wrong. Because everyone does it, even if they don’t realize they do it. Referencing King again, he says in On Writing that it took him some time to realize he was writing about himself when he was writing about drug addicts and alcoholics. It’s like his subconscious was trying to warn him. So don’t fight this, it’ll come out anyway.
Never Look Back