How Real is Too Real?

Creative non-fiction seems to have no real definition. What’s true (and how true it is) is left up to the discretion of the author, with some choosing to prioritize factuality while others are willing to cut corners with regards to veracity if that means the reader gets a better story. A struggle that I have been encountering is how real I am making my characters. The narrative I’m writing is, at least on the surface, fiction. However, it is based off of real events that I have either partaken in, witnessed, or heard of. And the characters, while again not entirely real, are based off of people I know. The trouble I’m dealing with comes from the fact that I cannot, in good conscience, write a capstone project that involves the hundreds of people I went to high school with who are all involved (in some way) with my perception of Los Angeles and the characters I’ve created. It’s simply not possible. So I need to create characters that portray the things I don’t like about LA while also making them human enough such that the reader won’t be disturbed that the narrator (me) is friends with them. It’s a fine line to walk. And that’s without dealing with the issue of realism.

Something that I’ve returned to in trying to rectify this problem is the story I wrote sophomore year about my brother coming out. I was worried about turning my father into an unlikable villain, but in the end I chose to characterize him as honestly as possible. To my surprise, the response to his character was rather positive. Sugarcoating things in an attempt to be nice doesn’t make anyone happy. You’re left with a fake, less satisfying story filled with characters who are either unrelatable or, worse, forgettable (or both). I’m going to make this story as honestly as I can. If people like the characters, that’s great. If they don’t, I’ll get over it. What matters is writing something that I’m proud of and that makes me happy. And that’s what I’m going to try to do.

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