Monday, March 14, 2011

Writer, Confess! Have you ever used a real person as a character?

A little while ago, INTERN read about the lawsuit simmering over Kathryn Stockett’s novel “The Help,” in which a sixty-year old woman named Ablene Cooper is accusing Stockett of using her as a character in her book. Even though the character allegedly created in Ms. Cooper's likeness is depicted in a very flattering way, the experience of seeing herself (or what looks like herself) in a novel has her hot and bothered to the tune of $75,000.

This made INTERN scratch her head. Is it really illegal to use a real person as a character? What if you show them as being charming and intelligent and irresistibly attractive? What if you do the old gender switcheroo, or dress them up as a Deaf-Mute Bong Salesman or a Costa Rican coffee farmer? Who decides what degree of character-snatching is OK and what degree is punishable with a $75,000 fine?

In her quest for answers, INTERN stumbled across this blog about Writing and the Law, wherein she found the following quote by first amendment expert R. Smolla:

When an author wants to draw from a real person as the basis for a fictional character, there are two relatively "safe" courses of action from a legal perspective: First, the author may make little or no attempt to disguise the character, but refrain from any defamatory and false embellishments on the character's conduct or personality; second, the author may engage in creative embellishments that reflect negatively on the character's reputation, but make substantial efforts to disguise the character . . . to avoid identification. When an author takes a middle ground, however, neither adhering perfectly to the person's attributes and behavior nor engaging in elaborate disguise, there is a threat of defamation liability.

Humph. Deaf-Mute Bong Salesman it is.


Beyond the legal issues surrounding character-snatching, INTERN has long been fascinated by the emotions that suspected character-snatching evokes in the character-snatchee. One of INTERN’s earliest writer-memories is her big sister warning her, on pain of extremely prolonged and excrutiating Indian Burns, that she must NEVER, EVER, EVER write about her in a fiction, non-fiction, diaristic, poetic or journalistic context (INTERN realizes that by writing this sentence she is coming dangerously close to breaking this ban—but then again, INTERN’s big sister didn’t specificallty forbid blogging.)

On the other end of the spectrum, there's the endless parade of tiresome strangers in bars and subways who upon finding out you are a Writer, flatter themselves to think that surely you will want to use their story in a book.

INTERN can’t help but wonder if people fall into two camps: there are those who have a primitive fear of being Novelized the way the proverbial Lost Tribe fears the soul-snatching camera, and those who would consider Novelization—even in a negative light—the ultimate victory.

There are all sorts of arguments both for and against using real people in novels and stories. For example: "Truman Capote did it!" versus "Truman Capote's friends never talked to him again!" Using real people as characters can be disastrous in all sorts of ways, but if writers weren't allowed to do it at all, we'd lose out on a lot of good literature.

So, writerlings, INTERN is curious to know: Have you ever based a fictional character on a real person? Did that person go on to kill, maim, sue, or date you? What's your policy on character-snatching? Has anyone ever falsely suspected you of snatching them? Have you ever suspected another writer of snatching you?


  1. I couldn't base a character on a real person if I wanted to! Characters emerge from the plot and the events surrounding them, and usually bear little or no resemblance to my first character sketches.

  2. This happened here not too long ago:

    So, yeah, yikes on the thinly veiled characters. Mine are usually composites of people I know, more because I don't want to hurt any feelings than I'm afraid of lawsuits. I mean, really. I have to get published or something before anything like that can happen.

  3. "Plaintiff's attorney Joann Brown Williams had brandished a clean, white piece of fabric before the jury in her closing argument and written the word “slut” on it with a permanent black marker."


  4. A plot element might be influenced by a story heard on the news – yesterday or three years ago – or a character with two different colored eyes could find its way into a story because a friend’s cousin might have this and the writer brain has filed it away. Obviously narrative is influenced by context.

    But consciously basing a character on someone I know? Nah. I haven’t and wouldn’t, and not only because it’s totally not worth the hassle (the hassle as you've set out, and more). Maybe if I ran in more, um, glittery circles, I'd be tempted.

    As it is, I have one pubbed novel out in the world, and multiple people have espied themselves therein (always in the least sympathetic characters – is this projection? low self-esteem?), despite the fact that they aren’t there. I try to let them down easy. Here’s a follow-up question I’d like to see answered: Anyone run across this – I hesitate to call it anything so dire as a “problem” – once that book’s out in the world?

  5. I suppose I'd better shelve my WIP about the zany exploits of a heroine known only as THE TEMP.

  6. Make a mockery of me. I don't mind the idea of my idiotic ways, flaws, or good looks being blasted in a novel. All for it!

    My characters sometime take on attributes of others I know. Are they the spitting image? Of course not! I take the initial idea and expand or contract based on the story. I have had requests from others to base a character off of them (image, name or personality), but the final result is never a spitting image.

  7. Absolutely, use real people! Take the eyes from one, limp from another, twitching is always good to add to someone with style. A pinch of salt from the airhead goes really well with the mentor and give the villain a great sidekick.

    Since I've written memoir I can say yes, I've used real people, massaging their names a bit and treating them with respect for their role in the story is important. However, fictional characters whose names and facial features or backstory have been changed from the original inspirational muse can become a perfect mirror for someone that's living, breathing, and happy to recognize themselves. Even if the author has never met them.

    This is the minefield of publicity and legalese.

    Life is short. Don't stress.

  8. years ago, before INTERN was even an imagined twinkling in her parents's collective eyes, a friend of mine and i were exchanging (hand-written!) letters that included the Shaken Not Stirred Adventures of a superhero-like character my friend created based on my improbably day job of substitute teaching. i was extremely flattered when his first letter with the character arrived.

    in my books i use the last names of friends for the names of streets, buildings, parks, etc. it's just a nice tip o' the hat to them that the average reader won't likely notice. one such friend is also a beta reader and was honored to see his name given to the local prison.

    if your friends want to see themselves in your books, they will. if they don't, they'll probably still be offended.

    -- Tom

  9. My husband's first comment after reading the first chapter of my book was "You killed me!" It doesn't matter how many times I tell him differently, I can't convince him that the murdered guy was NOT based on him. He sees something of himself in that character.

    Luckily, he thinks it's funny that I killed him in my book. Even though I didn't.

  10. I may use real life settings and situations -- but with the exception of the progatonist, which is usually a facet of myself, I build the characters from scratch. Real life experiences are often interesting, but people in general, in terms of rich complex characters that you might want to read about . . . not so much.

  11. I think using the basic personality traits of a person is ok, but it seems like eventually the character evolves into something different and more than the person they were based on, so the character isn't really the same person as they started out to be.

  12. In my first book, my heroine confronts a mean girl and says everything I ever wanted, but never had the guts, to say to the evil queen bee from my high school. It was cathartic. That said, my mean girl was nothing like the evil queen bee - aside from being evil.

  13. I get inspiration from people from my childhood. This gets dangerous if I let my parents read my stuff. They always think the parents are them and the boy down the street is the boy who lived down our street. Circumstances and occupations might be borrowed from real life, but the characters are their own people.

  14. No, but my mother is convinced that every single "mother" character in my novels is taken from her. And then she gets upset, because all of my fictional moms tend to be rather evil...

  15. Yes, but they were a comedic caricatures so off-base that it was mostly just the names. And then I killed them hilariously.