Writing to Get Even?

I freely admit, I started writing fiction in part to vent. I was one of those teenagers who would have worn nothing but black if my parents had let me, and who composed odes to dying trees, wolves in the distance, and dreamed of the day when I’d tell my peers and tormentors (there was a great deal of overlap in the categories) to go jump in a lake and have the super powers or Mecha-style armor to make it happen.

I still do that, the writing bit, just more subtly now.

While in grad-school I vented with a story that later got circulated to a small, trustworthy group of fellow sufferers. I managed to nail every quirk and irritating habit rolled into one character. No, the character didn’t come to a bad end, but it was fun to see just how annoying the rest of the universe would find those behaviors. Short answer: very.

The way to do this without getting sued, or cornered in a dark alley by the individual you are irritated with, is to focus on the behavior. As Sarah, Amanda, and others have repeated frequently, you should not include real people as real people UNLESS you have very explicit permission and approval from them, preferably in writing. There is no way I’d list [professor] or [former supervisor] in a book by name, although I still have plans for a certain co-worker, later supervisor, unless that individual has gone to prison by now. Even then, no names, no using his/her/its physical description, nothing that would allow someone else to say, “Oh my gosh, that’s [name!]” and be correct.

There are behaviors, however, that drive me up the proverbial tree. I was at an academic event and found myself sequestered away from the students, as were all the other teachers. I had not brought ear-plugs. This proved to be an error, because two of the other teachers bloviated for seven hours straight, not including lunch. Even tactful suggestions that these people quit loudly airing their district’s dirty laundry and families’ gossip didn’t register. That behavior will appear in a short story and will lead to an unfortunate encounter with wildlife.

Federal administrators who impose random roadblocks on researchers? Skewered. Obnoxious supervisors? Dispatched into dimensions unknown by nasty eldrich creatures. But always focus on the behavior, not the individual. We’ve all known someone who held onto information because they thought it gave them power and made them a vital part of the corporate food chain, untouchable and near god-like. Actually, what it made them was a nuisance for the rest of us trying to get work done. We’ve all collided with rude clerks, crude customers, teachers who thought they walked on water, children with parents who just knew they were raising a Perfect Child™ who did no wrong…

Use the behavior, not the person. Someone who knows all, and keeps talking when other people are backing away at ever faster speeds, the guy who refuses to look behind him because he knows more than the local guide does about the local wildlife and customs… That he’s based on the receptionist at your daughter’s dentist’s office is your little secret.


  1. I’ve found over the years that it’s not a person’s physical aspects that ever get on my nerves; after all, those are things they cannot help short of plastic surgery.

    But personality, personal habits… now. And those are the things that really bring a character to the mind of a reader. The physical description of a character really only brings about a sketch* image, but the characterization, and the reaction of other characters around them… ah, now there’s the meat for the imagination.

    Something a lot of people don’t seem to understand.

    *Hayao Miyazaki once explained why his heroes tended to look similar – kind of an excuse for his ‘only six faces’ thing. He considered them actors in his own mind, and their differences were in their characterization and personality.

  2. like the person i went to college with who says he’s a libertarian but spends a lot of time talking in favor of government intervention, to the point where it is annoying? and supports some individual rights over others?

    1. Absolutely, because everyone knows someone like that, although the party or philosophical (or religious, or yes) affiliation may differ.

  3. “the guy who refuses to look behind him because he knows more than the local guide does about the local wildlife and customs…”

    You’ve been listening to Lawdog’s and my African stories, haven’t you?


    1. I’m afraid tourists get on the plane and turn off their brain, no matter where in the world they land. Ask me about Alaskan tourists and “Do NOT try to pet the baby bear cub!”

        1. My parents once saw tourists having their children pose under a tree where there was a bear cub. . . .

          They didn’t hear any stories of massacre after, to be sure.

      1. Ultimately, the only way to fix THAT is to take the attitude of the zoo involving some woman climbing into the jaguar cage and getting clawed: “We have barriers that we told you not to climb over. You decided to ignore them, and we’re not going to kill our jaguar because you’re an idiot.”

        1. I’m utterly flabbergasted that they even had to make that announcement. The only reason we kill bears that have killed people is because they’re usually very old or very sick, and thus once they stoop to going after humans, they’ll keep doing it. In a cage in a zoo? Not unless they become an active threat to keepers!

    2. And watching several people get arrested at US national parks for pestering/teasing/harassing/warting/vexing the wildlife. “But if it’s not tame and safe, why is it here?”

        1. From what I’ve heard, there isn’t many things in this world that is meaner than an annoyed buffalo. There was a ranch not far from where I grew up that kept a small buffalo heard. The truck they used to take hay out to the pasture looked like it had been used in a crash-up derby.

          1. Don’t have to be mean or annoyed– they just don’t notice stuff like cows do.

            I’ve heard of them just wandering through fences because they don’t NOTICE the barbed wire; then again, even the cows are built like a bull, so they can probably “play” much like an angus bull. (For whom “the baby bull [only weighs most of a ton] was tossed over the top of the 6ft gate” is a not unusual problem.)

  4. This hits me the other way. Some years ago I met someone, through reading her blog, and the stories she told me fired my imagination. However I wouldn’t let myself think about them originally. Finally I wrote to her and said that I had a story in mind based on her work and how did she feel about that. She wrote back that I could use anything I liked and sometimes when she writes her blog I’ll swear she’s thinking of me. I even wrote once and asked her how to steal a sheep and she wrote back and told me. I thought I’d better edit that little nugget carefully!

    But I have always assumed that she must go on this work as co author or something of the sort. I’m not using her words or even her stories but still I know almost nothing of sheep herding except what I get from her. I did go read some other sheep blogs just to try to understand what might be unique. Some advice would be lovely.

    1. I think – it depends on how much you take. For example, if you lifted a story wholesale, word for word, then you’d better give credit right up front under “reprinted with permission by Person, copyright Person 2019” in the front matter.

      If your book consists of many stories lifted, with commentary or frame story by you, then yeah, co-authoring and talk to her about a royalty split.

      However, once you get into fiction, things get fuzzier. If your teenaged rebels steal a sheep in exactly the manner described? If the heroine is a beast-mage engaged in breeding parasite-resistant sheep whose wool is better at catching magic when carded, spun, and woven, while fighting off dire wolves with her border collie familiar? Then she’s become you subject matter expert, that you used for writing this correctly. I strongly recommend crediting her in the acknowledgements. 🙂

    2. That seems to be something that would go in the foreword:
      “this story would not be possible without So and So’s stories; they lit a creative fire under my feet that I just couldn’t avoid, and was gracious in allowing me to chase the story. Any mistakes are my own, any awesome is straight from her– I just had to get the story out!”

      1. Very helpful! Thank you all. If/when I finish I will ask her also what she would like.

  5. “I even wrote once and asked her how to steal a sheep …..”

    Ok, you opened Pandora’s box.

    How _do_ you steal a sheep.

    After all, you never know when some nugget of information will come in handy.

      1. Well I like the funny comment but suspect that mine won’t show up in the right place. The surprising part was that you can use a goat to keep the sheep calm. The rest is up to you…

          1. There is something weird about the fact that goats keep sheep calm, since Biblical references are usually very physically correct.

            The blog mistress said that goats are used at auctions and shows, for example, to keep the sheep happy, and she would take one along if she were trying to steal. My story heroine buys a llama to guard the sheep after the kidnapping because they will not allow this sort of thing (stealing) without making a huge fuss and kicking and spitting and bugling. I know you all wanted to know…

            1. ??? They pastured the sheep with the goats– so sorting them was both needful, a pain, and something everybody was familiar with.

            2. It’s a well documented fact that the best cure for a coyote problem is to station a mule in the pasture. I’ve seen actual photos (not staged) of one using hooves and teeth to kill a coyote.

          2. Get rid of the goats. You WANT your sheep to be out of sorts and MAD AS HELL AND NOT GONNA TAKE NO MORE OF THIS!!!1111!!!!

    1. First you have to define your context. I think it would be different from a sheep-market, a barn, a pasture, and a shambles. Among other things.

      1. And knowing you, at least from reading this blog, I went and looked up shambles just to see if there was an extra meaning…. ; )

        Stealing from a slaughterhouse would indeed be different and unlikely to involve goats, except the scape-ing kind.

  6. Barbara Hambly did base two of her characters on people she knew.

    The fun part was that she switched the appearances of the characters.

    IE Character A had the appearance of Person B with the mannerisms of Person A. And Character B had the appearance of Person A with the mannerisms of Person B.

    Apparently, one of the real person realized that one of the characters had the appearance of the other real person but didn’t realize that the character had her own mannerisms.

    Oh, apparently the two real people were feuding. 😉

  7. Writing to get even? Absolutely.

    I’m getting even with every Faceless Minion and mindless bureaucrat in the world who was Just Following Orders. Faceless Minion 4276053 meets pissed-off robot scorpion the size of a refrigerator, who does not have to do what he says because she’s made of guns. Hilarity ensues as scorpion-girl mocks his authority and makes idiotic jokes at his expense while he splutters.

    I’ve found that actually writing all that out is not only vastly satisfying, it also brings out the humanity of the minion being written about. They can’t hid behind the badge anymore, they have to fully engage with the crazy scorpion on a personal level.

    Its also a fun way to separate the wheat from the chaff, as the “just in it for the paycheck” drones will obviously run away. Only the bravest or the dumbest will try to enforce regulations on the giant bug.

  8. I’m reminded of J.K. Rowling’s comments about how she based Gilderoy Lockhart on a real person:

    “You might think it was mean of me to depict him as Gilderoy, but you can rest assured he will never, ever guess. He’s probably out there now telling everybody that he inspired the character of Albus Dumbledore. Or that he wrote the books and lets me take the credit out of kindness.”

    1. Elmer Kelton did just that, and walked on eggs worrying if the individual he based a character on would realize it. They guy read the book and swore that he was the inspiration for the hero, not the bad guy, and bragged about it. Kelton smiled and stayed quiet, but mentioned the event in one of his literary essays much, much later.

  9. Hasn’t David Drake always made sure that there was a character named Pratt that was always a butt-monkey or killed because of one reviewer that missed the entire point of one of his first stories?

    I notice that I’m doing the same thing, but a lot of my “getting even” characters are stew-based, not single items.

    1. “Platt” and yes, he’s been “killed” more times than Joe Buckley.

  10. I’ve been sorely tempted more than once. And should I ever get around to it, a certain narcissistic sociopath (and probable sexual predator) is absolutely going to meet a suitability slow and painful end in one of my stories.

  11. I wrote an alternate history where Woodrow Wilson died from an assassination and made sure it wasn’t in a sympathetic way, but that’s not the same thing you’re talking about.

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