There’s a story about a novelist whose characters borrowed heavily from life. He wrote a moving account of a family dominated by an overbearing matriarch.

He was most concerned about his mother’s reaction. Would she forgive him? Would it split the family, and make him an outcast?

Shortly after it appeared, his mother summoned him. Sweaty palmed, he appeared to receive her judgment.

“Excellent book, darling,” she said. “Your sister is absolutely true to life. And a brilliant portrayal of Uncle William. Utterly searing.

“But do tell me, darling … Who on earth did you base that awful mother on?”

I have a somewhat different experience. People constantly see themselves or their acquaintances in my books – mostly erroneously. When my first book, The Innocence of Roast Chicken, appeared, my mother took the failings of my mother-character very personally.

“It wasn’t meant to be you,” I said, which mollified her only slightly.

When the mother in my next book appeared only at the end of a telephone, it made things even worse. She thought I was expunging her from my life, if only in fantasy.

Just recently, I was forwarded an anguished email from someone I’d known slightly at university, asking whether she was the “boring and judgmental teacher” in my second book.

Readers often get voyeuristic kicks from an assumed glimpse into the author’s life. In our reality-show world, whether “it’s real” gives more of a thrill than whether a piece of fiction speaks to us.

A case in point is the soap opera created by Yasmin Kureishi’s very public scrap with her brother, Hanif, over his fictional depiction of their family.

The “revenge memoir” by Michel Houellebecq’s mother, Lucie Ceccaldi, who termed her son “an untalented social climber” probably did more to sell books than all the critical accounts of his works as a “cruel illumination of a troubled era”.

Novelists do draw from life. Pat Conroy is said to have no contact with his family as a result. Iris Murdoch apparently felt herself less of writer for not being able to create her characters purely from imagination.

And I suppose I do too – to an extent. When I first began writing, I found it comforting to imagine someone I knew, or perhaps an amalgam of two or three.

But the narrative process is different from life. Characters provide conflict and drama. We place them in situations the real people may never have faced.

Before two pages are written, my characters have developed their own personalities; become their own people. They even look different in my head.

In my first book, I borrowed from my own life the relationship between a young girl and her two older brothers. The elder is protective yet remote. The younger is gentler and more sensitive, but struggles with those qualities in a society that prizes “manly” traits.

The events that overtook these characters never happened to my family. The situations I placed them in drew strengths and outlined weaknesses that were never apparent in our lives.

In four books, most of my protagonists have been women. There’s no feminist agenda behind that. I’m a woman and I find it easier to think myself into the head of another woman – even one that is different from me.

I’m not a campaigning writer. I have no ulterior purpose. I don’t build in subliminal signposts to pop up between the lines. I believe that, if you begin writing with a “message”, your characters will become cardboard symbols of your intention.

I have no special dispensation, no answers more valid than anyone else’s. I have no desire to grab my readers by the throat and force them to understand what I think I know.

My intention is to explore the actions and motivations of imperfect people. I am simply not interested in characters that represent some desired or perceived attribute.

I was once criticised for showing a black character as a “victim” of apartheid, rather than strong, brave and in charge of his own destiny.

What the critic failed to mention was that all my characters are flawed, and many are damaged. This is as true of my white characters as it is of black, my women and men.

I write about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, which is how I see South Africa. It has formed – and sometimes damaged – us in fascinating ways.

My writing is a seeking to understand. I rummage among the mistakes and quirks of, hopefully, “real” people.

I couldn’t bear to depict the bad guys without vindication and the good guys without flaw. I have no interest in writing people as they “should be”.

It’s not my job as a novelist to build a nation by depicting all women as powerful and brave, nor to imbue all black characters with the dignity and strength we long for in our society.

It would be disingenuous of me to deny having a world view or that this comes through in my writing. If anything, it is this. I don’t believe in good and evil, and certainly not as embodied in people.

I am fascinated by people’s weaknesses, as much as their strengths. Every person is capable of actions that either harm or help others, depending on the pressure of circumstance.

In my third book, Sad at the Edges, I became obsessed with why a man might become a spy and, having become one, how he would view himself in our new society.

I once knew an activist who was later exposed as a spy, and became an interrogator. But since I had known him only as an activist, I knew only a fragment of him.

I tried to climb inside someone like him, to explore his motivations. To feel what he felt, I had to suspend my personal judgments, or he would have emerged a stereotype.

Readers have told me they had empathy for this character, but felt guilty for it, since he was “evil”.

But surely this is the only way we will ever understand ourselves – as individuals or as a nation. That’s the beauty of fiction. It allows us the latitude to look unflinchingly at people’s thoughts and behaviour, without the tyranny of “what really happened”.

There’s no longer a struggle to be fought. Surely we needn’t lump people into boxes to prove how “right on” we are, or that we’re “for or against” the right people.

I like people. I have empathy for their weaknesses, and a belief in human courage when the chips are down. But it’s the job of the novelist to rummage around in people’s less savoury aspects as much as their good sides.

As I grow in writing experience, I draw as much from imagination as from life. The protagonists in my latest book, My Brother’s Book, are drawn purely from the imagination.

Oh sure, Lily probably has some aspects of me. But in other respects, she’s very different. I like Lily. She’s a colourful, attractive personality – but she is very far from perfect.

Her brother Tom is nothing like me, nor anyone I know. Tom is a person of great strength, but his strength becomes his great flaw, in not permitting the slightest acknowledgment of human weakness. He tries to be good, yet he is harder to like and get to know than Lily.

I climb inside my characters. I daydream them and intuit what they will say and how they will respond. They become real to me. My plots grow largely out of the actions of my characters and these actions can sometimes take me by surprise.

In order to make them real, I research them to death – and then forget it. I swallow my research, digest it and then write from my gut.

I hope that my research is invisible – that it becomes as much a part of a character as one’s own history does. I want my characters’ reactions to spring naturally from the people they are.

My greatest challenge, in the second half of My Brother’s Book, was writing from Tom’s point of view. I had to become a man – and a man who was as unlike me as anyone could be.

All I can say is that I sucked people dry of the experiences that mirrored Tom’s. I read the books Tom would have read, and immersed myself in his spiritual life.

I must admit though, I’ve been around men enough to have a little fun with him. I thoroughly enjoyed writing the passage in which his girlfriend tells him, in the middle of a rugby game nogal, that he needn’t accompany her … (I won’t say where. It gives too much away.)

Tom absently thanks her, which causes her to dissolve into tears that are totally bewildering to Tom. “But if you wanted me to come, why didn’t you just say so?”

Just because I’m not a campaigning writer, doesn’t mean issues won’t emerge through my characters. But I hope they emerge intuitively, without fanfare.

If you remain true to yourself and your characters, issues that ordinary people grapple with will naturally appear. In my first book, the child Kate is too full of hope, while her adult self feels herself incapable of it. I am probably more like the child Kate, but I suppose both embody our bi-polar South African experience. We never plod along like other societies. We’re always in euphoria or despair.

My Brother’s Book deals with different truths. We are a society obsessed with truth-telling, yet we seem incapable of accepting that everyone needs a different truth to make sense of their lives.

Lily and Tom clash over the “truth” of their upbringing. Tom longs for a universal truth to aspire to, but both cling to the individual histories that make it possible to face the very different people they’ve become.

Different writers treat characters differently. Writer James Wood says people tend to judge characters on whether they are flat, unlikeable, or “real”.

Yet many post-modern creations are “not real”.  And writers like Houellebecq routinely produce thoroughly unpleasant characters that show us things about ourselves and society.

EM Forster said of Charles Dickens: “Dickens’ people are nearly all flat … Probably the immense vitality of Dickens causes his characters to vibrate a little, so that they borrow his life and appear to lead one of their own.”

I believe it’s an effect of perspective. If a character is shown to us from the outside, as a fly on the wall would see them, their inner life is implied. We are intrigued. We imagine it for ourselves.

Through the roughly sketched strokes of a person’s aphorisms, or through small telling details, we assume an inner life that need not be spelt out.

Three of my four books were written in the first person, which allowed me to display a depth of inner life. I am comfortable in the first person, since I enjoy exploring uncomfortable aspects of my characters’ inner lives. That’s just my style.

We often treat characters like the people we meet. We like them if we identify with them, or respond emotionally to them.

But books are different. Instead of worrying about how much is “true”, or whether they represent traits that are good for nation-building, we can choose to judge them on how compellingly they draw us into their world. Do they ring true? Do they move us?

After all, fiction isn’t falsehood, any more than history is the truth. And as My Brother’s Book shows, there is no one truth anyway. Fiction allows us a view into many worlds, and many truths, in a way that transcends fact.