Writing a memoir can be a fun, exciting endeavor, and cathartic for the author to get their version of real life onto the page. It also has the capacity to piss off a lot of people.
I ran into a few complex ethical questions while writing my second book, South of Normal, a nonfiction account of the year I lived down in Tamarindo, Costa Rica. As I navigated the tangled jungle of ethics within that book, I decided to document and share a few points that might help other authors, as well:
Get their feedback – If characters will be recognizable and you actually care what they think, be respectful. Send an email letting them know that you are publishing this project and offer to have a conversation with them if they have any issues or concerns. Be open to listening to their point of view and making any non-essential changes
Never compromise someone’s safety - As I wrote “South of Normal” I reached out for a friend, unfortunately a main character in the book who is locked up in a Third World prison. He requested that I excluded certain details about his case for security reasons, and of course I complied.
Chose your words carefully – Even changing one word can alter the whole context of a paragraph. Showing actions or documenting a character’s dialogue straight from their mouth is a great way to show “the dirt” because the writer’s not telling you what to think, they make up an opinion for themselves.
Be fair with each character – Show the good and bad in your characters to balance them out. Great people often have great flaws and people who do bad things are usually just misguided or hurt, not evil. Making the bad guys likable and vice versa will also add depth and humanize your characters.
Don’t write angry – Ranting against someone and settling scores in your writing is a horrible thing to do. But it’s also fun, and better than blowing up their car in real life, so I recommend doing it through the lens of humor, and show some sort of redemption or coming to peace with them afterwards. Angry does not write well, and usually reflects more poorly on the writer than it does the subject.
Hold yourself to the same standard – Bash yourself. I mean really rip into your flaws, misdeeds, and moral struggles. The readers will see themselves in you and love you for it. Again, humor is a great way to expose your foibles.
Want vs. Need - Make sure private and revealing details about characters are necessary – as a rule of thumb anything that’s written should either develop characters or move the story along with action.
Change names – the easiest way to insulate yourself against the backlash from characters in your book is to alter their names, and even relevant details. Once that is done you’ll sleep easier telling your truth without softening the blows.
Get it in writing - Document Facebook messages, texts, and emails with information with the characters and situations in your book. Having written documentation is your bulletproof vest against libel suits or flat out denials.
The dark alley test – Ultimately who’s right and wrong becomes irrelevant at a certain point. If you still have to work or interact with these people on a daily basis then ask yourself if what you’re writing is worth it if you happened to meet them in a dark alley.
Sometimes real life is just more important than your art. I have a dear friend in Tamarindo whose friendship I value above all else. She is a pivotal character in the book and goes through a difficult, emotional journey, though her growth is one of the main victories by the end. It was important for me to get her blessing, so I asked her to read certain parts of the manuscript before it went over to the publishers. I was pleasantly surprised that she suggested only one small change, but other than that really liked it and thought I did a good job. You never know how people will respond emotionally to their private lives being documented, so just ask.
Some people will love their portrayals in South of Normal, some will be less than thrilled. But I’m confident I found that small patch of terra firma where I treated everyone fairly but also didn’t set out to assassinate anyone’s character, while still staying true to the heart of the story. Wish me luck, and I’ll see you in a dark alley soon.
-South of Normal is due out March 1. Follow me on Twitter @NormSchriever for updates.