I recall many years ago, when I was in my late teens, watching some Friday night movie on television with my mother. The name and plot escape me, but I remember it involved a young woman finding the man of her dreams, only to learn he was a manipulative writer who used her as a character in his book.
I don’t remember my feelings at the time, though judging by the horror and disgust on the actresses' face I knew I was supposed to empathize with her. At that time I was barely beginning my discovery as a writer, let alone an adult, and I recall being a little torn. Obviously it was a horrific act to use another person solely for the purposes of researching a character, but don’t writer’s do a tame and more socially acceptable version of that all the time?
Every writer has a specialty they are particularly proud of. For some it is plot or character development, for others it’s believable dialogue or concise narration. To perfect this they observe and learn, constantly. Most writer’s are admitted people watchers, turning boring wait time in line into research for potential protagonists or antagonists. There have been more than a few parties I’ve endured in the name of research. I listened to the boasts of guests, watched the body language of couples, and surmised what interaction or conflict was going to occur next.
To the non-writer it’s creepy to learn that someone is probably watching your every move from across the coffee shop and making note of how you twirl your hair or tap your foot. They are brainstorming how to describe the ubiquitous white earbuds dangling from your head like leftover steamers from a birthday celebration in a fresh way.
That’s why some people don’t trust writers, because they are always plotting. Before Facebook and Twitter it used to be more threatening, but now people put themselves out there for examination much more freely.
Sometimes, when deep into a project the writer will immerse themselves into the world they’ve created. This can be great for the reader down the line, but maddening for roommates or spouses, particularly if the writer is working on a murder mystery or suspense thriller and wanting to capture the look of surprise or pain.
It’s equally dangerous when they are writing of love, or lust, or both. I recently wrote about the dangers of a writer falling in love with their character, this can be particularly problematic if the character is based on someone real. That someone could be a paramour from your past, or an innocent bystander trying to enjoy a latte. That’s the chance you take. The danger for the writer is that the character they have created is a perfected version of someone else and will never love them back.
As a writer myself, I don’t advocate making friends with someone with the intent of writing about them. I also know it’s nearly impossible to not put a little of everyone you meet into a little of everything you write. I’m convinced this is what makes some writers irresistible to the social set who are hoping to be written about. I’ve learned that truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s frequently not as exciting.
If you have writer friends you should assume some trait of yours, however obscure, has the potential to be repurposed in a far different manner. My advice would be to relax, don’t go looking for it, or worse, asking for it, and if you see it in print, feel proud that you were able to contribute something of yourself to an author.
For fellow writers, you’re expected to make magic out of the mundane, to make illiterate dialogue read like poetry and to give voice to things that speak too softly. I believe it’s okay to use what you come across in life in your writing, but it's never okay to use people for the sole purpose of your writing.