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If your relatives are anything like mine, they both know you like to write and expect you to draw inspiration from the people around you (mostly, them) as you build stories. Reading through your work, they will not only look for embarrassing mistakes to notify you about – they will also check for themselves as heroes, villains, sidekicks, or strange growths in the background. This will, they believe, let them know how you really feel about your relationship.

If this is your chance to stick it to your demon-relatives, go in peace, but this kind of writing is not something I have experience with. I’ve never felt the need to lay any family member out like so many frog guts on the dissecting table, as those I see regularly are the people I love best in the world.

They do, however, make appearances in my stories because while my imagination is quite active and capable of many intriguing aerobatics, populating worlds is a trifle easier when working with a ready-made slate of, er – characters. You have to be careful with this, though, as there’s only so awkward you want Christmas dinner to be, and turning your grandmother into a terrible hag could definitely make for awkwardness.

So, a couple things to keep in mind:

1) Choose details carefully

You love your cousin Billy. He’d make a great character. But do you include that he knows how to make a fishing rod from a shoe-string and a paperclip, or that time you found him crying like a little kid over a breakup and you had no idea anyone’s nose could run so much?

Yeah. Some details are more appropriate to “borrow” than others. If you want Billy to continue to talk to you, choose those details that endear, enchant, or intrigue. Not the details that Billy only shared with you because he thought you could be trusted.

2) Think of yourself as a photographer

Like, a wedding photographer, not the man taking a mug shot. One makes magic with light and posing to show the best side of a person – one captures every pore of someone at his lowest. Remember, if you want to expose someone’s ugly deeds, past, or problems, you’ve got to make someone up or use a relative you never want to speak with civilly again. If you want the relatives who like you to continue to like you, you’ve got to paint, not untruthful, but flattering pictures. Bethany always wanted to be a professional singer but never got the chance? Show your readers her delightful voice – maybe even send her to college to study performance on a fancy scholarship. Jason loved making toy swords as a young lad? Make him a craftsman whose specialty is inventing new kinds of weapons. Carol talks so fast you can barely understand her? Let her quick tongue save the day.

If you care about a person, you’ll have some idea of who she thinks she is when she’s feeling confident – the person he wants to be seen as. Use your writing to show your family that you see them this way too.

3) Use volunteers before unknowing participants

If you’ve got a relative who specifically wants to be in your book, welcome this family member with open arms. Ask him questions, follow her around, find out whether he wants to be a hero, sidekick, villain, or strange growth in the background. Volunteers are usually good-natured and helpful, and will often serve as first readers who, if nothing else, can help you spot places where your characters are being inconsistent.

4) Be subtle

You don’t want your family to feel like so many fish in a tank – you being the drooling child with her nose against the glass, staring unapologetically at everyone’s personal business. Don’t bring your notebook to family get-togethers (or at least, hide it under a chair and then sneak it into the bathroom where you can jot down any useful observations in peace). Remember to blink at regular intervals or they’ll think you’re trying not to miss anything.

The Volunteers

The Volunteers

Of course, you don’t want to miss anything. But not because you’re a writer. Because you’re family. And they’re family. They’re funny and fascinating and they won’t be here forever. You want to enjoy every moment.

Also, maybe – just maybe – you’ll catch something for your writing. But that’s just an added bonus, NOT the reason you came to the cookout.