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How To Write About Real People In Nonfiction

KWE Publishing Newsletter - 10/12/23

Nonfiction stories offer us so much insight into other people's lives; they help us feel a sense of connection with people we've never met. But as writers, it can be difficult to know how to write about certain people who have hurt us or with whom we've had negative experiences.

You don't want to upset other people or cause problems (legal or otherwise), and you might be considering leaving out some pieces of your story altogether to avoid conflict.

However, it's often important to write about our struggles, especially if we're writing a personal piece, such as a memoir. Sometimes, it's the most raw, genuine stories that stick with us and teach us a lesson or help us feel less alone.

So, how do you write about these parts of your life and the people who were in it while being authentic, ethical, and in a manner that avoids causing problems?

Remember that it's still your story to tell.

As we said, you might be tempted to just avoid writing about the people who've hurt you. It's hard to relive bad experiences or strained relationships.

Some writers struggle to feel a sense of ownership over their story, but you are allowed to tell your story. If someone else told it for you, it wouldn't be yours. That means you're allowed to share your perspective...even if it doesn't align with someone else's.

When writing about touchy subjects or terrible relationships, though, try to focus on the story you're telling. Ask yourself how each scene will move the narrative forward, what lessons you learned, and how all of these elements have affected you. When you focus on yourself and the story rather than bashing a person, you're being honest rather than unnecessarily rude.

You don't have to share every detail.

A great thing about writing in any genre is that you get to share what details are important to you. This is something that's especially important to remember when writing nonfiction.

Sharing selective details can change the way readers view the people you introduce in your story. For example, if I have a friend who is an amazing person but is always late, if I only discuss their lateness, readers are going to feel like I don't like this person, even though they're a great friend.

This means you don't have to share every negative thing a person has done if it doesn't add to your story. You do want to characterize people in a way that feels true to you, but sharing a person's good qualities and bad qualities offers a more nuanced view. No one is perfect, and there are a lot of gray areas in life.

There will be select situations or people that can't or shouldn't be written positively about. That's okay, too. Just make sure you consider your angle and how readers may perceive your words to ensure your story has the intended impact.

Make adjustments to avoid identifying information, and don't create or invent negative characteristics about people who played a big role in your life.

Defamation is an issue some authors worry about when writing nonfiction, but in some instances, you can avoid this problem entirely by making changes that prevent a person from being identified and by ensuring you're clearly sharing an opinion, not a fact, when discussing others.

You might be wondering how you can change something in a nonfiction story. Doesn't everything have to be true? Well, yes, mostly. But if you're talking about someone named Joe, who has black hair and a distinctive mole, for example, you can write about your experiences with him but change his appearance and give him a new name. This protects his privacy while still getting across the important pieces of your story. Essentially, your story is still true, but every detail doesn't have to be totally literal.

You'll also want to avoid fabricating negative characteristics about people who you already dislike. There's a difference between changing small details and inventing a new person. You don't need to give a person an evil grin or a terrible backstory.

Finally, it helps to make it clear that your feelings and experiences are personal. Defamation is generally about saying something that isn't true, so while no one can say you're right or wrong to feel something, stating something as fact that isn't true (especially if a person is easy to identify) can cause issues.

So, while it may be a little tricky to write about challenging moments and people in your life, remember that you can do so in a way that is genuine without bashing someone or taking shots at others.

Have you ever written about difficult experiences or people in your life? What tricks or tips do you have for authors who are struggling to do the same? Please reach out and let us know!

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