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Help! I’ve insulted my mother-in-law…

Ask Shelley

Another literary dilemma lands on my desk! And, as the Peirene Press problem solver and masterclass deliverer, I’m duty bound to give my considered response. Here goes:

Dear Shelley,

I’ve just typed ‘THE END’ to my first novel – hooray! But now I suddenly see that one of my main characters, not a nice one, is almost entirely based on my mother-in-law. I’m worried that she’ll recognise herself and, putting it mildly, won’t be flattered. What do I do now? – Angie.

Hold the angst, Ange. The bottom line here isn’t whether the mother-in-law in your book is a not-nice character, but whether or not she is a fully realised one – conceived in three dimensions and with all the complexity of a real human being. In which case, even though she may have some superficial similarities with poor mum-in-law, she is your invention, your creation. She’s a rounded fictional character with whom we, as readers, will love or hate or, at least, care about, because we recognise her. The character, I mean – not your mother-in-law, who might (brace yourself!) not like certain attributes she might see as familiar: Her size. A certain blemish at the end of her nose. An uncertain dress sense. Bad cooking. In order to maintain family harmony, you can easily change these superficial attributes without altering the essential nature of your character.

Or, as I’ve done, brave it out, see what happens. You might find, as I have, that the people in your life are mostly rather flattered by the notion that they’re interesting enough to creep into your novel.