How to use real life in your stories


22 April 2022
Real life is only the starting point when it comes to writing fiction, says novelist Rachel Hancox

When I was a doctor, people I met at parties would often find a way to work a worrying symptom or a recent medical anecdote into the conversation – sometimes brazenly upfront, as though I could want nothing more than a little light diagnosis in my time off, and sometimes more hesitantly, after asking a few polite questions about my job.
Novelists, I’ve discovered, get a different kind of kneejerk response when they admit what they do. There’s a smile and a lift of the eyebrow, and then: Ooh, I’d better be careful what I say or I’ll end up in your next book! (Mostly, I’ve noticed, it’s men who say this. Do men think they’re intrinsically more interesting than women? I couldn’t possibly comment…)
Funnily enough, real people don’t tend to end up in my books. I can’t speak for other novelists, but on the whole (and I’m sorry to disappoint anyone I’ve met over the years who’s been secretly hoping to recognise their literary alter ego on the page one day) real people just don’t work in fiction – and the more you know about them, the less suitable they are. The trouble is that they have their own lives already, their own characteristics and problems and families and failings, and part of the essence of writing novels is creating all those things for your characters. Novelists need the freedom to follow their characters where they need to go as the story takes shape: to put it bluntly, it would feel horribly limiting to have a real person stalking through a novel-in-progress, imposing their actual opinions on the action and dragging their actual life histories behind them. (There are exceptions to this rule, of course, most notably in historical fiction – but people who are long dead, like Hilary Mantel’s beloved Thomas Cromwell, leave almost as much to the imagination as invented characters.)
Does that mean I don’t write about real life, then? Of course it doesn’t. Real life gets into novels in all sorts of ways. You can’t avoid it, really, unless you’re writing science fiction or fantasy and you’re going to invent a whole new world for your novel to exist in. Besides, much of what makes fiction valuable has to do with the way it reflects real life back to us in a way that entertains, questions and challenges. Even SFF does that. But the relationship between real life and writing fiction is more complicated than people often imagine.
So if I do use elements of everyday life in my writing, how does it work?
Well, for a start, although people I meet are pretty much off the cards, people I see – in the checkout queue, walking along the street, sitting in a restaurant – often trigger something in my mind: a train of thought, a flit of the imagination, that might lead somewhere or might not. Why does that businessman sitting opposite me on the Tube look so worried? Whose funeral are that elderly couple coming home from? Where is that woman with the bobble hat and the brand new suitcase going – and who and what is she leaving behind? I can’t resist the stories that hover in the air in that instant when you notice someone in a crowd: the little glimmer of what if? and then suppose and perhaps … Any of them might inadvertently offer a way in to a new character, and possibly a new novel.
Then there are places. Houses, landscapes, shopping streets, hospitals. They’re all as evocative, in their way, as the human beings who fill them, and I often write about settings I’ve known in real life. Houses are more accommodating than people, for the novelist: it’s easier to co-opt real houses and use them for your own purpose, although they tend to mutate as things unfold. I’m often surprised to find that they have rooms I don’t remember, or views I don’t recognise from their windows. They become the stuff of fiction, however solidly they started out.
Incidents from real life are useful too, sometimes. Novels are full of little episodes that add verisimilitude, as the saying goes, and reveal something about the characters: a DIY mishap, a dramatic argument overheard in a restaurant, a walk that ends up in a bog. And things that have really happened – albeit in different circumstances, to different people – often slip very easily into a fictional narrative. I sometimes use small events I’ve read about somewhere, but I like working in scenes from my own life, too. It feels a bit like being a medieval stonemason, carving my personal symbol high up on a pillar where it will hardly be noticed. Sometimes, though, real anecdotes come out so far-fetched on the page that they have to be cut. That certainly tells you something about truth and fiction.
But the most important way that real life feeds into fiction is in the realm of emotion and psychology. Characters in novels may not be real people, but they have to think and feel like real people; they have to face the kinds of dilemmas and challenges that real people do. They have to have relationships the reader recognises, and make mistakes the reader can sympathise with. And often, usually, they have to suffer setbacks and crises. Their lives are upended by accident or betrayal or misfortune, just as ours are.
And the models for all this are all around us: you never have to look far for examples of tragedy or heartbreak or terrible moral dilemma. In fact, if you try inventing a whole new scenario of human suffering from scratch, you can bet something very like it has already played out somewhere, and someone will tell you all about it and be astonished that you didn’t know.
So what happens, then, if you find yourself writing about something that has really happened to someone? Writing about the loss of a parent or a child, say; about divorce or cancer, an affair or a car crash, a family feud or a fire or even a murder?
Actually, I’d say the question isn’t so much what happens if you find yourself writing about something that has touched the lives of some of your readers. I’d say it’s a question of when. And the answer is entirely in your hands. If you can write about it truthfully and sensitively, you’re doing what novelists are supposed to do. You’re illuminating aspects of human existence in a way that makes people think deeply about life, and perhaps – perhaps – allows them to live better as a result. To get in touch with someone they’ve left behind, perhaps; to understand another person’s perspective better. Or even to forgive themselves for something that has haunted them.
So next time you meet someone who says perhaps I’ll end up in your next book, look them in the eye and say yes, perhaps you’ll find yourself there. Perhaps you will. If you’re lucky.

Rachel Hancox is the author of The Shadow Child, published by Century


Content continues after advertisements

Read what author Lori Ann Stephens says about turning terrifying real-life events into fiction here.