Thursday, May 5, 2011

Any Resemblance to Real People is (Not So) Coincidental

I like watching crime dramas, especially the ones that are part of the Law and Order franchise. One thing I've noticed about these types of shows in particular are their "ripped from the headlines" storylines. That is, their episodes are often based on people in real life, like the White House gate crashers, the high school girls who made the so-called pregnancy pact, and even Madonna (it was an episode about her adoption of the child from Africa).

I think that these shows are able to get away (for the most part) with portraying real-life situations because of how they change the details. It makes me wonder if fiction writers can get away with doing the same thing. Sometimes writers will admit to basing their characters on real people, but others claim that their characters are completely fictional. I think it'd be harder to create a character who bears no resemblance to anyone you've ever met or heard of.

But on the other hand, what if you were to base one of your characters on someone you actually know? What if that person you know reads your story and doesn't like the way that he or she is portrayed? What if he or she were to sue you? What if he or she were to make a voodoo doll with a picture of you stapled to it and somehow make you write nothing but cliches for the rest of your life? What if that person were to walk up to you in public and slap you in the face with your book before challenging you to a duel?

There are a lot of people I've known who have made me want to write about them. For example, when I was in junior high I was bullied by a group of boys. They called me names, knocked my books out of my hands, threw volleyballs at my face in gym class, and ridiculed me every chance they got.

One day I couldn't take it anymore. I went up to the ringleader of the bullies when the teacher was out of the classroom. Somehow I managed to knock him down, and he didn't get back up for a moment. I've never done anything like that before. I definitely don't advocate school violence, because we all know what could happen. But on that day I was just so hurt and angry that I decided to fight back. I'd like to say that what I did made him and all the rest of those jerks leave me alone. It didn't.

If I were to write about him exactly as I remember him, he'd probably deny it. (Do you ever notice how the mean kids never seem to remember what they did? I think it's because their cruel treatment of other kids doesn't matter to them. But it matters to the kids who were bullied. It matters to me.) If I wanted to write about him without getting in trouble, I suppose there are ways.

I could write a fictional story about his troubled childhood, and I could write about the way that he was bullied by stronger kids; I'd describe the way he took out his anger on other kids rather than fight back against the ones who were mean to him. Or I could characterize him as someone who was so desperate for attention that he decided to single out kids and get laughs at their expense. I could create all these new details about him and make him (almost) unrecognizable.

There are other people I've considered writing about. Once I had a coughing fit during Mass, and a woman sitting behind me was kind enough to give me a cough drop. The second time I coughed during Mass, another woman refused to shake my hand when everyone exchanged the Sign of Peace. She just gave me this look as if to say, "Get thee away from me, HEATHEN!" I thought for a moment that she was going to start flinging gobs of hand sanitizer at me.

If I were to write about her, I could portray her as a germaphobe who spends more money on hand sanitizer than she does on food. Or I could describe her as being cold and unsympathetic, the type of person who would walk around someone who fell down rather than offer that person a helping hand to get back up. I could characterize her as someone who really is nice but often gets in trouble because she reacts before she thinks.

I'm not sure how people would describe me if any of them were to write about me. It's no secret that I'm a workaholic, but people have different views of what it means to be addicted to work. Would they describe me as someone who is so wrapped up in her work that she always disregards her personal relationships? Would they describe my life as empty because I spend most of my time working? (FYI: I don't disregard my personal relationships, but I admit that I sometimes stay in to complete my work rather than go out with my friends. That's not always by choice, though. And even though I do work a lot, I don't consider my life to be empty; it always bothers me when people try to make me feel bad for being a workaholic.) Or would they portray me as someone who finds joy and satisfaction in her work because it gives her a sense of purpose and allows her to help other people?

I don't know. It's one thing if I create a character that's based on myself, because I can control how that character is depicted in the story. I don't like the idea of someone taking details from my life and my personality and putting it into his or her fiction. It almost feels like it'd be plagiarism. I remember seeing something like that happen in the movie The Jane Austen Book Club; one of the characters found out that her girlfriend had written stories about the things that she'd told her in confidence. And as someone who knows what it's like to have her writing plagiarized by other people, I know I'd be even angrier if someone plagiarized my life.

I might even challenge that plagiarist to a duel. (Would throwing water balloons count?)

How would you feel if a writer you knew based one of his or her characters on you? If you base your characters on real people, how do you portray them so that the characters become different people with their own unique personalities?


  1. First of all, the line "What if that person were to walk up to you in public and slap you in the face with your book before challenging you to a duel?" made me laugh so hard I almost lost all the coffee I just drank.

    I'm sensing something set you off today? Lots of fire behind the writing. I, for one, wouldn't really mind if someone based a character off me. I we, as writers, pull from people we know almost subconsciously, bringing a feeling of authenticity to books, stories, etc.

    Then again, if the person writing happened to be the current girlfriend of my ex-boyfriend taking liberties with my personage for her own amusement, that would em...irksome..*growls like bear*..

    Have a good one!

  2. It's really, really hard to have a successful suit against a writer for writing about you. Like near impossible. Write on, my friend, write on!

  3. Hi Paige,
    Nothing set me off today, but I was just thinking of people like the one I described and how I could write about them without them being able to recognize themselves. (That's if I ever publish a story about them.) That would definitely be problematic if the current girlfriend of one of the guys I've dated wrote about me. I think any three people we knew from our lives might end up writing three different stories, depending on their connection to us.

    Hi mmarinnaa,
    I think it would be difficult to pursue a lawsuit against someone, but I suppose it would depend on what that person wrote. If that person wrote private things about me that no one else was supposed to know, I'd definitely have an issue with it.

  4. You can get away w/ a lot if it's fiction. Also, you'll have this handy dandy disclaimer: "This book is based on some true events, however, has been fictionalized and all persons appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real people, living or dead, is entirely coincidental."

    To be safe, you should change their name & be creative w/ their physical descriptions. If that germaphobe is tall, make her short, if she has dyed red hair make her a natural brunette, etc. Just be creative & it'll all work out fine!

  5. Hi notesfromnadir,
    Thanks for the advice! I'll keep that in mind. I have seen disclaimers in some people's novels, and it always made me wonder who the characters were based on.

  6. This is a really good post because you make an excellent point that how we portray ourselves and others is completely in our control. It's all about perspective. We're layered and there are shades of gray instead of good and evil.

    As far as getting sued, Anne Lamott said it best. If it's a guy, mention he has a really small penis. What man in his right mind would step forward? Harder to do with a woman though.

  7. Hi Theresa,
    I think that we are best equipped to portray ourselves in our fiction, because we all have secrets and thoughts that other people aren't privy to. Like you said, we're layered, and other people might not be able to see that in the same way.

  8. I did write a story about a girl who was very similar to one of my best friends, both for background and character, but I didn't even realize it. I noticed it after reading the story for the thousandth time :D So I decided to keep it for myself, since I'm not sure whether or not she'd be happy about it.

    For me, by the way, it's not about having legal problems. I just don't want to hurt someone I care about. If I have to write about someone I don't know, "copying" some peculiarity, but making up everything else, it wouldn't be a problem, I think.

  9. Hi Laurie,
    I think that it would be okay to use specific character traits and make up everything else, because then it wouldn't be the same as creating a character who is based entirely on someone. I think a lot of us "borrow" specific qualities, because everyone has interesting character traits that can inspire good stories.

  10. Writing about people you know is always a tricky issue. Not sure how I would feel about someone basing their character on me, or if I showed up in someone's memoir...

  11. Hi Talli,
    I kind of hope I don't show up in anyone's memoir, because people always seem to remember embarrassing things I did. :)