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Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief

All kill their inspiration

And sing about their grief
U2, "The Fly"

"You just don't know writers. They'll use anything, anybody. They'll eat their own young."
Philip Marlowe, The Singing Detective

Muse Abuse occurs when artists exploit their real life and the people in it for the sake of their art, often to the serious detriment of the people around them and their relationships to other people in general. Related to The Muse, but more general - it's not just how the artist treats a particular other or others, but can spread through their entire life. Also, if really unlucky, they get alienated from themselves and their own experiences this way (see the example from Neil Gaiman, below).

May or may not involve serious breaking of confidences and trust, and always involves being at some emotional distance from Real Life, consciously or obliviously.

Generally Muse Abuse works as an inversion of the Pygmalion Plot in relation to people around the artist: Real Life gets turned into art, not the other way round, and it does not end happily, primarily because the artist, in the Muse Abuse case, relates better to the statue than the live version of the Galatea, whom they may neglect or actively ill-treat. (Not that the Pygmalion Plot always ends happily either, of course.)

The artist does not have to be any good at their art for this trope to apply, mind you: Muse Abuse is compatible with a lack of talent on the part of the person who sacrifices their real life and the people in it, as well as (potentially) their personal growth, for the sake of their art. (Obviously, people tend not to be any more mollified at discovering they've been exploited by the merely Giftedly Bad, or for the sake of a work So Bad Its Horrible.

The trope accordingly tends to come in two main types:

A) The (wannabe) artist is resorting to Muse Abuse due to lack of imagination and actual talent. For bonus points, the artist will also get frustrated and stuck if the Real Life people and situations they are exploiting fail to develop as hoped or take different directions than they had hoped.

B) The artist is genuinely talented, but just for that reason, compelled to treat everything and everyone, often themselves included, as raw material for their art. Quite often, there will be some suggestion that this comes with the territory, and is necessary for the person to pursue their art, so there may be a side of Blessed with Suck or Cursed with Awesome.

Of course, artists in category A often imagine they belong in Category B, and Muse Abuse as Take That to The Muse can occur in either of these categories - great artist are not above holding grudges.

This trope is not uncommon as a self-critical claim on the part of Real Life artists (writers, filmmakers, songwriters, etc. - Seen It a Million Times), though it often tends to have a ring of ~It's All About Me~ and Wangst. By extension, it is also very common, especially on the part of the Author Avatar, in fictions, often by the same authors.

Often (for extra irony) a source of True Art Is Angsty. May lead the artist (if self-aware) to Shoo the Dog, or Break His Heart to Save Him, at least if they want them to have a chance of a good life. Sometimes, of course, the would-be love object is Genre Savvy enough to spot them coming, put off by the potential for Muse Abuse, or just plain not interested. Or the artist, if unlucky in love, may turn to Muse Abuse of the unresponsive loved one, often with more or less subtle TakeThats and, not least, the implication that the "art" version of the loved one will be what people remember.

For obvious reasons, this trope in general has potential to overlap with Writers Suck. And, of course, some genres (blogging, confessional literature, the Roman à Clef, satire, and, of course, Real Person Slash) have this basically built in.

Compare Her Codename Was Mary Sue, and The Svengali for a mentor version.

Has nothing to do with the band.

Examples of Muse Abuse include:

Anime and Manga

  • Majin Tantei Nougami Neuro: Inverted. Singer Aya Asia killed off her best friends because her being happy prevented her from connecting to the loneliness that allowed her to sing so well. Unlike most of the other killers in the series, her killing intent never "possessed her" turning her into a monster. She was a human being who calmly chose to kill the people who loved her and that she loved back.
  • Otomen: Juta Tachibana uses genderflipped versions of his friends Asuka and Ryo as characters in his manga, and tends to fret over how the real Asuka and Ryo's relationship isn't progressing, which is holding back his manga characters' relationship. To his credit, with time he grows to feel very guilty about it.
  • Paranoia Agent: In the episode "Gossip", a woman finds herself unable to keep up with the local crowd of Gossipy Hens and their stories of Shonen Bat/Lil' Slugger. She comes home at the end of the episode to find Shonen Bat has attacked her husband. Rather than get help, she interrogates him for details.


  • Animal Man: In the final arc of Grant Morrison's run on the series, Morrison talks about a pet cat who recently died, and how even in mourning, he realized how well it would illustrate his point for the series.
  • The Eternal Smile: In Gran'pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile, the eponymous character learns that he is actual the star of a reality-TV show (a thinly-veiled DuckTales parody), and was once a simple frog who, like all the other 'characters,' was enhanced with a personality chip. The creator of the chip and show, Elias McFadden, explains that Greenbax's personality is based on his own, and we see that at least three others, Greenbax's twin granddaughters and put-upon assistant Filbert, were likely based on people working on the show (McFadden's (adult) twin nieces and a put-upon employee named Norbert).
  • Lucifer:
    • Ibriel is either an oblivious version or a very, very deluded one.
    • Meleos deals rather better with his Magnum Opus, the Basanos, as art than as the living, plotting, power-seeking creature it becomes. Lampshaded by the title character.
  • Preacher (Comic Book): Amy tells Tulip about her failed relationship with an author who mined their pillow talk for information to use in creating his female characters. (His book also sucked, according to her, but that did not prevent it becoming a bestseller.)

  "Never date writers, honey. Writers Suck."

  • The Sandman: Both the artists in "Calliope", though this is more literal as they imprisoned and (sexually) abused the eponymous Greek muse. Muse Abuse is also a theme in some of Gaiman's non-graphic fiction works, and he has also spoken about the Real Life version of this. Specifically (from The Sandman Companion):

  "As for my take on Shakespeare, I'm basing a lot of it on what I personally find scary about being a storyteller. When something terrible is happening, 99 percent of you is feeling terrible, but 1 percent is standing off to the side - like a little cartoon devil on our shoulder - and saying, "I can use this. Let's see, I'm so upset that I'm actually crying. Are my eyes just tearing, or are they stinging? Yes, they're stinging, and I can feel the tears rolling down my cheeks. How do they feel? Hot. Good, what else?" That's the kind of disconnectedness I wanted to explore."



  • Deconstructing Harry: One character is a writer who has ruined countless relationships by doing this. Notably, he fictionalized his cheating on his wife with her sister; the film begins with the fictional recreation of the incident, then the real woman coming to his apartment to shoot him for publishing it.
  • Her Alibi: The author main character writes books about an embellished version of himself, and repeatedly narrates events as they happen at the same time, but embellishes everything about himself. Also, when his wife left him for a book critic, he wrote a book called Death of a Critic.
  • How To Murder Your Wife: The main character is a comic strip artist who "never has a character do anything he wouldn't do himself." When he marries, his character marries, and his comic strip shifts from a superspy adventure to a situation comedy drawn from his own life. Sick of the drivel he's writing, he decides the comic strip character will murder his comic strip wife — and, of course, he has to at least simulate doing the same himself. His wife is less than pleased when she regains consciousness and realizes what he's done.
  • Moulin Rouge: Christian's Muse Abuse almost leads to the destruction of his and Satine's relationship. Because the musical he is writing is so obviously based on current events, it leads the Duke to realize that they are having an affair and intervene.
  • Music and Lyrics: Sophie is a victim of a particularly cruel version of this, courtesy of the English Lit professor who had an affair with her without telling her he was engaged and then, when it went sour, proceeded to write a novel painting her as a talentless gold-digging whore who seduced an innocent writer not a million miles away from himself, ruining his life in the process. The book itself would be bad enough, but the fact that it became a New York Times bestseller and catapulted him to fame and wealth as a literary genius completely destroyed Sophie's confidence in herself and her ability to write. And then, to make matters worse, she learns they're making a movie of it as well. Laser-Guided Karma gets him in the end when the movie — which he wrote — bombs, ruining his reputation while she goes on to success as a songwriter.


  • Audrey, Wait!: The story is about a girl whose ex-boyfriend becomes famous for writing a song about her dumping him.
  • The Favourite Game: Invoked, complete with an in-universe Creator Breakdown when the lead character realizes what he's done to his muse.
  • Haunted 2005, by Chuck Palahniuk: The story is about a creative writing retreat wherein, instead of trying to come up with story ideas, the participants opt to torture each other so they can write a book... about their harrowing experience on the writers' retreat.
  • High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby: The lead character and his record store colleagues crush on a woman singer-songwriter, discussing the hope that maybe if one of them got together with her, she'd write a song based on it.
  • The Jane Austen Book Club: Allegra dumps Corinne after learning that not only did Corinne use the secrets Allegra told her during intimate moments as the basis for her latest stories, but she didn't even write them well enough to get published.
  • Juliet Naked, by Nick Hornby: The idea of The Muse is subverted, with the character getting really sick of the fanboys that hang around her house wanting to see the woman that inspired their favourite album of break-up songs.
  • My Name Is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok: "Asher Lev paints good pictures and hurts the people he loves. Then be a great painter, Asher Lev; that will be the only justification for all the pain you will cause. But as a great painter I will cause pain again if I must. Then become a greater painter. But I will cause pain again. Then become a still greater painter. Master of the Universe, will I live this way all the rest of my life?"
  • The Oval Portrait, by Edgar Allan Poe: An artist becomes obsessed with painting a perfect portrait of his new wife and fails to notice that her health is failing while she models for him. When he finishes the painting, he ecstatically declares it to be "life itself" then turns to look at his wife eager to share his triumph only to see that she died while he was finishing the portrait.
  • Portraits Of His Children, by George R. R. Martin: The main character takes this to its absolute worst level, as explained in The Reveal. His daughter was brutally raped, and the rapist was never caught. When the main character found her, the phrase he used to comfort her was "Show me where it hurts," referring both to her physical and psychological trauma. A few months later, he published, and made a significant amount of money off of, a thriller called Show Me Where It Hurts, a fictional version of the rape story in which that line was reassigned to the rapist. His daughter now refers to him as a rapist, since he "raped" her story for profit.
  • The Sacrifice, by Julie Steven: An author believes his wife's health is connected to his work: as her health fails, he is more inspired and becomes ever more popular. Though he grapples with guilt over her suffering, the narrator notes that he wouldn't change anything if given the chance, ulimately too addicted to being critically acclaimed to give it up. Said narrator is actually his wife's muse, plotting to punish him for neglecting his wife despite how fully she devoted herself to him.
  • Small World, by David Lodge: Discussed when two writers sleep together only after promising each other they wouldn't use the encounter as material in their writing.
  • The Chimney-Sweeper's Boy, by Ruth Rendell: Novelist Gerald Candless, a Posthumous Character for most of the book, has spent his career plundering his private life for his fiction, much to the detriment of his marriage. As it turns out, his official biography is not what you would call accurate.

Live Action TV

  • Boy Meets World: Eric once dated a sweet folk singer girl, but soon broke up with her. Once he did so, she immediately went metal and wrote a song about how horrible he was which became a smash hit. She then set up a meeting with him, ostensibly to apologize (if I remember correctly), but he realized that she just wanted more angst to write songs about. He refused to play that game, - instead he got back together with her, prompting her to start writing Tastes Like Diabetes love songs about him and effectively ending her career.
  • Castle:
    • The eponymous mystery writer meets Kate Beckett, a sexy female police detective, and decides to write a series of novels about an eerily similar sexy female police detective. He even refers to Beckett, repeatedly, as his Muse. Unlike most examples of this trope, this is rarely considered to be a bad thing in-show, barring Beckett's frustration at the "slutty" nature of her fictional counterpart, Nikki Heat.
    • The 'Nikki Heat' novels, three of which have actually been published as real novels, play with this trope. Upon reading them with knowledge of the TV series, the characters are clearly drawn from and recognizably the people Castle interacts with (Nikki Heat is clearly drawn from Kate Beckett, Jameson Rook is Castle, etc), and many of the situations clearly drawn from the episodes of the series. However, while certain familiar references might pop up, the cases themselves are usually notably different or amalgams of the episodes rather than taken outright, and the characters also display several traits that distinguish them from the originals (Nikki Heat is more sexually active and promiscuous than Beckett, Rook is less perceptive and useful in solving the crimes than Castle, and so forth). Most notably, the steamy sex scene in the first novel between their counterparts has not (yet) occurred between Beckett and Castle.
  • ER: In one episode, someone leaves a manuscript of a steamy, melodramatic romance novel set in a hospital and featuring very thinly-veiled, exaggerated versions of Cook County General's staff, including a crippled female tyrant (Weaver), a badly-written Latina nurse (Chuny), a tall burly clerk (Jerry), and a charming Handsome Lech (Doug).
  • Home Improvement: In the Show Within a Show Tool Time, Tim Taylor occasionally jokes about his wife, which at least one time has gotten him into trouble with her (getting caught up in one-upping other guys about annoying habits of wives, while still on-air, will do that). But in another episode he says he's figured out a system; he saves all his wife jokes until she's already mad at him for something.
  • The L Word: Jenny's book fictionalises the events of season one of the show. Needless to say, a lot of her friends are not at all happy with their depictions. The movie ramps it up even further.
  • Malcolm in the Middle: In one episode, one of the characters takes the home drama that was unfolding around his mother buying a bigger bed and making his father flip out, and turns it into an opera.
  • NCIS: Timothy McGee writes a series of mystery novels transparently based on his co-workers, under the pseudonym Thom E. Gemcity; he very loosely bases minor characters on people at the coffee shop where he does his writing. This comes back to haunt him when a Loony Fan starts killing these muses in ways which follow the plot of the latest novel.
  • The Singing Detective
  • Slings and Arrows: Anna dates a playwright and is upset when he more or less transcribes her dinner conversation about her hometown into his play.
  • Star Trek Voyager: In one episode, the EMH makes a holonovel about a fictional ship stranded in the Delta Quadrant. It is best described as extreme Muse Abuse of Voyager's crew, so much so that the EMH has to rework the novel. The episode's main conflict is that the publisher won't allow the EMH to revise it, because holograms don't have rights. (The Federation decides that while he can't be classified as a person, he can be classified as an artist.)
    • Notably averted in an earlier episode. While searching through the holodeck's database, Paris finds what appears to be a holonovel casting the Maquis members of the crew as mutineers. Despite this portrayal, even the "villains" happily play along. Ultimately, it's revealed it wasn't even meant to be art, but a training simulation for security members when mutiny was considered a real danger. Then it turns out that one of their old enemies had rigged it to turn into a Death Trap for whoever used it.
  • An episode of Full House has Stephanie deliberately manipulating DJ and Steve's relationship in order to get material for a story she's writing; when they find out, they start acting in exactly the opposite way Stephanie expects in order to make her stop.
  • In a more recent episode of Wizards of Waverly Place, when Alex is too lazy and irresponsible to help out Harper stage a street-corner puppet show to raise funds to help pay the rent, when they are rooming together in an apartment post-graduation, the two have a falling out, and Harper's puppet show features a lazy, irresponsible character that even the little kids watching the show know is meant to be Alex. Alex also figures it out easily while watching, and starts her own show, magical shrinking Justin and Zeke to use as her "puppets".


  • The Beautiful South's "Song For Whoever" is written from the point of view of someone who does this for profit.
  • Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen both use this theme (in Cohen's case, also in novels)
  • Eminem's "Cleaning Out My Closet".

Newspaper Comics

  • The creator of For Better or For Worse based the Pattersons off her own family, and often used the medium passive-aggressively. For most of its run, she portrayed her husband as a idiotic, lecherous boor and the kids as selfish whiners who only existed to make their mother's life miserable. She frequently claimed events in the strip were based closely on real life... such as Michael and his pals peeking into a female classmate's bedroom while she undressed. The Inspirationally Disadvantaged Shannon was based off a relative. In the strip's final years, after divorcing her second husband, the strip took a turn for Wish Fulfillment, with the Pattersons almost all becoming Purity Sues and falling right into the careers and marriages Elly wanted for them... a none-too-subtle Take That at reality and her own children's refusal to do exactly what Mommy wanted.


Video Games

  • Gabriel Knight 2: The title character's Blake Backlash novels are "loosely" based on local events and people he knows: a manuscript page found in Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within spoils the ending of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers.
  • In Katawa Shoujo, this a big part of Rin's route. As she prepares for her art exhibit, she refuses to reply to Hisao's Love Confession, orders him not to visit, and shuts him out entirely. One of the biggest conflicts in this route is Hisao's struggle with Rin's incomprehensibility, and Rin's difficulties with expressing her feelings.

Web Comics

  • Dar a Super Girly Top Secret Comic Diary, by Erika Moen: This trope is covered in this comic.
  • Sluggy Freelance: Zoe lands a spot on a radio talk-show - starting out as a comic-relief side-character, she ends up basically taking it over, by regaling the listeners with the outrageous (and completely accurate) stories of her friend's misadventures. Which fails to amuse the rest of the main characters, who are somewhat annoyed that she openly mocks them on the air, with only the flimsiest cover-names in place, and ends up basically kicking her out of the house.

Western Animation

  • American Dad: When Steve wrote a series of children's books with a character based on Roger, Roger was flattered until he found out how the character acts.
  • Rocket Power: Sam makes a game that glorifies himself while adding his friends in the game, accentuating their negative traits and qualities. He does make his friends much less idiotic in the end though.
  • The Simpsons:
    • When Homer outed himself as muckraking blogger "Mr. X" his friends stopped talking to him since they figured it would all go on the blog.
    • Bart's "Angry Dad" character was based on Homer's frequent angry outbursts. When Homer decided he didn't want to be an Internet buffoon, he repressed his rage, leading Bart to set up an elaborate booby trap in the backyard for the sake of inspiration.

Real Life


 Details were carefully chosen, and the pace built gradually, punctuated by a series of well-timed pauses. "And then... and then...." She reached the inevitable conclusion, and, just as I started to laugh, she put her head against the steering wheel and fell apart. It wasn't the gentle flow of tears you might release when recalling an isolated action or event, but the violent explosion that comes when you realize that all such events are connected, forming an endless chain of guilt and suffering. I instinctively reached for the notebook I keep in my pocket, and she grabbed my hand to stop me. "If you ever," she said, "ever repeat that story, I will never talk to you again." [...] "Oh, come on," I said. "That story's really funny, and it's not like you're gonna do anything with it!" Your life; your privacy; your bottomless sorrow; it's not like you're gonna do anything with it. Is this the brother I always was, or the brother I have become?

  • Ibsen apparently explicitly invoked this in his Real Life as well as his plays.
  • See also the Neil Gaiman example, above. He also wrote a short story about his grandmother disappearing in supernatural circumstances that was apparently so close to the truth that people who knew the true version got confused as to what really happened.
  • Howard Stern, according to himself, ruined his first marriage and a large number of his long-time friendships due to his mockery of them on his show.
  • This woman named a doll after her daughter, Barbara. Then, she designed a boyfriend for said doll, naming him after Kenneth, Barbara's brother. Then, the kids grew up and she named some new dolls after her grandchildren: Stacy, Kelly, Tommy...If you haven't figured out yet, you've been living in a cave for the last 50 years.
  • AA Milne, in real life, had a difficult relationship with his son Christopher Robin, partly due to this.
    • Supposedly, Christopher Robin as a grownup said his happiest moment at boarding school was when some of the other boys bought him a copy of "Christopher Robin is saying his prayers" on vinyl so he could smash it with a hammer.
  • The real life Kitty Pryde now goes by a different name, as she got very tired of the Shadowcat fanboys.
  • The Documentary Marwencol is all about this trope. After suffering memory loss after an attack, Mark Hogancamp starts building a 1/6-scale World War II-era town in his yard and populating it with dolls representing himself, his friends, and even his attackers. He rehabilitates his physical wounds by manipulating the small dolls and props — and his mental ones by having the figures act out various battles and stories. When Mark begins documenting his miniature dramas with his camera, his photos are discovered and published by Esopus magazine and even shown in a New York art gallery.
  • Back in 2006 and 2007, Christian Weston Chandler wrote about his then-"gal pal" Megan, portraying her as a Sailor Soldier head over heels in love with him. Megan wasn't pleased at his assumption that they were in a relationship. Fast-forward to November 2007, when Chris posts a porn drawing of himself having sex with Megan on Encyclopedia Dramatica. Megan sees it and is horrified; Chris defends the art by explaining the sex act to her, while Completely Missing the Point that Megan was not horrified at the act depicted, but rather at the subject of the pic. She hasn't talked to him since.
  • Paul Reiser reports that when fighting with his wife, he would sometimes get a distracted expression on his face, and she would say, "You're thinking of how to use this in Mad About You, aren't you?!"
  • Heather Armstrong talks about how blogging got her fired, ruined her relationships, and pissed off her family in her About page (of course, then it made her rich and famous.).
  • Randy Milholland based the characters of Something Positive on his own family and friends, and nominal protagonist Davan is himself from several years ago. As time passed, the characters developed differently but when Faye, Davan's mother died, his mother wasn't happy that people seemed relieved that she was all right.
    • He also notes that one of the reasons he doesn't have Davan and Pee-Jee hook up is because "real Pee-Jee" doesn't like the idea. Conversely, the real versions of Jason and Aubrey aren't married, but they apparently didn't mind hooking up in the comic.
  • Matt Groening originally based The Simpsons off of his own family, even naming the toon family after them (replacing his own name with "Bart"). Of course, before being animated, the characters underwent a few major changes and exaggerations into their current form.