Pursued By A Bear: “Is it a bad idea to write about my awesome friends?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.   

“I’m friends with some really interesting people. Should I base my characters on them?”

First of all, we all think our friends are interesting. Isn’t that why we’re friends with them?

You have a pre-existing emotional investment in your friends; you already care about them, their actions influence you, their lives bleed into your own. If you were total strangers, forced to sit next to each other at a dinner party, would you find them as interesting?

Do they have interesting personalities? Have they done interesting things? Do they have an interesting job? Or all of the above?

I’m not in any way answering this question for you or judging your friends, it’s entirely for you to decide.

What you need to do is brutally assess what you find so interesting about your friends, and then have a careful think about whether that will be interesting to other people.

Because we’ve all been in the situation where a close friend introduces us to another friend of theirs and that friend turns out to be ultra-boring. I’m talking super-mega-boring. Like the most boring person on earth, or possibly even in all of human history. A guy so boring you want to puncture your own eardrums with the erect penis of an African Elephant, rather than endure another five minutes of conversation with him.

I’m talking about the kind of person who inspires suicide pacts. The ones where everyone actually goes through with it.

And yet, your friend, whose opinion in most things you’ve trusted and even valued up until now, enjoys spending time with this non-entity of a person.

This is the situation I recently found myself in, when a very good friend of mine, who I‘ve always found to be great fun and of impeccable taste, introduced me to his new girlfriend. Obviously I don’t want to upset my friend, so I’ll refer to him as Raphael for the duration of this rant. Now, Raphael had been seeing this girl for about three months, but I only recently met her at another friend’s birthday celebration. I don’t want to give anything away here so I’ll use a tactful fake name for her too, let’s call her Meh.

Raphael had been telling me how fun his new girlfriend was for the past three months. He was all like “She’s so funny,” and “She’s totally crazy,” and “You’re gonna love her.” Based on his accounts I was basically imagining a cross between Grace Jones and Michael McIntyre. I’m talking solely about personality here, looks are irrelevant in this instance. And I really don’t want to even imagine what a hybrid of those two people would look like.

Anyway, getting to the point (if I can remember what that was), when I finally met Meh her personality was somewhere between a blank sheet of paper and an overcooked chicken breast. Listening to her speak was like sitting through a four hour audio book about the formation of stalactites, narrated by Michael Gove.

By the time she was done lecturing me about some new government regulation (or company policy or blah) that affected her job doing stuff in HR (or whatever it was – I zoned out), I was wondering how many handfuls of my own hair it would take to choke me to death.

I had two questions:

  1. What was the point of this woman?
  2. Why had my good friend so vindictively inflicted her company on me?

Once I got over the anger, frustration and strong suicidal urges I examined the situation and realised that Raphael and Meh had many common interests I personally do not share; they both had excruciatingly boring office jobs, they both worked in the same office, and they both loved the TV show The Office. They also both enjoyed having unashamedly loud, indiscreet sex at friends’ birthday parties; an interest I do actually share, but never personally with either of them.

Fortunately, Meh somehow used her extensive charms to seduce another similarly hapless fool from the office she shared with Raphael, and thus their relationship abruptly ended. And I never have to see her again. Since they broke up, Raphael has grudgingly admitted that Meh wasn’t really that interesting or fun after all; “She was actually pretty dull when it came down to it, plus she had an extremely unhealthy obsession with Ricky Gervais.”

The lesson we can take away from this lengthy and largely irrelevant anecdote (aside from the fact that some people are easily blinded by sex) is that friendship is highly subjective. Your friends might not be as interesting as you think, but that’s for you to figure out. Try writing down all the concrete facts that you feel make your friends interesting. Then write down their quirky personality traits. Then decide whether they’d make an interesting character.

So, you’ve decided your friends are indeed deeply and undeniably fascinating, is it okay to write about them? Should you ask their permission? Is it better to go for it and apologise later? Or do you just brazenly rip off their entire personality and never invite them to the show?

All of the above are acceptable ways of going about this. But how do you decide which course of action is right for you?

I think it depends on the friend and your relationship.

If it’s someone you don’t see that often and aren’t really that bothered about (despite them being so intensely interesting) feel free to go ahead and write directly about them, safe in the knowledge they’ll probably never find out, and if they do, you won’t really care.

If it’s a friend you value highly, you need to consider whether it’s worth potentially damaging that friendship for the sake of a play.

Bear in mind that this person is your friend, so hopefully you don’t hold too much deep-seated resentment towards them which might subconsciously slip into your writing. However, it is sometimes difficult to predict what offends or hurts people, no matter how well you know them.

The safest thing is to discuss the idea with your friend. I don’t think you need to necessarily ask for permission; perhaps just say you’re thinking of writing something about them and wanted to run it past them first. This way you’re leaving them a bit of leeway to tell you what they would and wouldn’t feel comfortable with, without giving them carte blanche to veto the entire project.

One of the most difficult things I’ve found as a writer is that no matter what my intentions are, my friends will often interpret certain characters as being based on them. It’s probably something to do with the sheer volume of experiences we’ve shared, combined with the natural human tendency to put ourselves at the centre of everything.

I can’t deny they’re probably right in some small way; it’s impossible for us to completely divorce our experiences from what we write, so I’m sure details of their lives and personalities leech into my work occasionally, however subconscious it may be.

When I have deliberately based a character on a close friend, no matter how clever I think I’m being in disguising them, they normally see it instantly. It’s never been a problem so far, they’re my friends so I like them and tend to portray them favourably. If I made one of them look like an utter bastard they might have an issue with it. Although, having said that, people are generally quite oblivious to their own flaws and so it’s possible they won’t identify negative aspects of a character as being based on themselves.

If you’re dealing with the facts of someone’s life it becomes more difficult. Obviously if Raphael’s reading this he’ll immediately recognise the above story and presumably feel some kind of embarrassment at it being immortalised on the web for anyone to read.

In this case, I’m fine with that because he subjected me to the outrageously tedious conversation of Meh and consequently thoroughly deserves to be publicly shamed.

Don’t worry Gary, no one else will know it’s you.

In the end, I guess it all comes down to how strong your friendship is. If in doubt, play it safe and write about acquaintances, colleagues, old teachers and friends of friends instead. People you meet but don’t have a lasting connection with are ideal fodder because the likelihood of them seeing your play is minimal, and even if they do, they don’t know you well enough to ask “Is that supposed to be me?”

Of course, there can also be legal implications to writing about someone. The safest course of action here is to change names and give yourself some plausible deniability. It’s often possible to change a few details and render a character completely unrecognisable; change your blonde, blue-eyed accountant friend Kevin into a brunette, brown-eyed risk analyst named Chantelle.

If you absolutely have to write someone’s true story always try to steer clear of defamatory statements, unless you can prove that what you’re saying is the truth. What constitutes proof in this situation is a whole new issue which I don’t have the legal knowledge to go into, so I’ll just say do your research before you write anything questionable about a real person.

Your question concerned writing about your friends, but I think it’s worth mentioning that the previous paragraph is doubly true if you’re writing about a celebrity or public figure. The rich and famous have a lot more disposable cash to blow on lawyers than any of my friends do, even after allowing for fancy designer clothes, supercars and cocaine habits. I’d be a lot more wary about insulting them on stage or in print. And even if you think you’re okay with the possibility of being sued, most theatres won’t be, so you likely won’t find a home for your work.

Most people will take it as a compliment if you write about them, as long as the character isn’t a hideous and detestable piece of shit. I based the villain in one play on a really close mate and he found it absolutely hilarious. If you are going to write about a friend, be fair about it and make sure it comes from a place of love, or make sure it’s a friend with a sturdy sense of humour.

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