Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Real People, Fictional Writing

notes (questions) on craft

I've been considering something lately and I'm curious for every one's thoughts. How would you address adding real people into fictional stories?

Maybe this is timely given the inauguration. Say you want to put, oh maybe, Barack Obama in your fictional story. How do you do it? But how much of a real person can you incorporate into fiction without harm or offense (assuming your intent is not to harm or offend)? Where on the character spectrum can a real, well known person fall? More integral than a reference, name dropping, vague appreciation that he is out there in the world somewhere, and yet less important (less manipulated) than any of your main characters.

Wait ... let me back up.

Context: I have written a short story that goes up for workshop tonight that features a certain real life violinist. The facts pertaining to the violinist's actions are all true, if interpreted through the lens of a less than enthusiastic narrator. The violinist appears, physically, in the story, but doesn't have any sort of a character role.

Is this heinously wrong of me to do?

My intent was to have the violinist frames the story (both in sense of time frame and inducing the protagonist's state of mind), as well as acting as a foil for another, more directly involved character. And as a tool, I think the violinist's presence in the story functions really well. Take him out and the story falls apart.

But, should I have even gone there? Does it matter that I've created all these technical story-telling justifications for using him?

So, other than reading the 5,000 word draft of the story I'm referring to in order to understand my babbling, I'll create a short example: Say you wanted to write an inauguration day story. Say you wanted to put it from the point of view of someone managing one of the events, the oath swearing, or one of the balls or the parade or something. One of the women with clipboards and headsets who tells the elected people and their escorts where to go once they get in the building, who gets to hear their conversations or something like that. Would you do it? Would you write the story about the people organizing the event and their lives and use the arrival/departure of the Obamas as the tipping point? Is that too real? Or is it just detached enough that it could work?

I'd love to hear what you think. How would you deal with this? Would you not even think of writing a story that does more than refer abstractly to "real" people? Would you attempt this if you had your facts straight? Would you read such a thing if you knew it was fiction? Goodness, is no editor going to touch this Frankenstein-baby I've created?

I'm certain the point will be addressed tonight in workshop -- I'm kind of dreading it, actually -- but I need to have the point addressed because all this has been running through my head for the past year and a half as I've slowly been working on this story.

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