A writer’s words are her sword. And, as Spiderman found out in his blockbuster movie, With great power comes great responsibility. Whether you are writing a non-fiction account, a novel in which you base your characters on real people or incidents, or a critical review, sooner or later you might have to make a choice between the truth and a subject’s feelings. But what if the information is critical to your account? What if Uncle Ned’s embarrassing quirk adds the perfect touch to a character you’ve been struggling with? What if you absolutely hated that book and you’d like to forewarn other readers? Do you forge ahead at the expense of people’s feelings? Talk to the subject before publishing to soften the blow?
Double Edged Sword
by G.B. Pool
In this litigious society, it isn’t worth the time, money, or headache to use a real person when writing fiction, unless the character is used as a harmless extra, or the person has given their permission. I won’t write a review of a book or play that I don’t like. Silence speaks volumes. When I worked as a newspaper reporter on the Whitehaven Star in Memphis, I told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Facts backed up what I wrote. I never worried about being sued.
That said, the bottom line is that I wouldn’t go out of my way to run somebody down, no matter how idiotic I think they are. I wouldn’t shame anybody or point out their flaws. It doesn’t do anybody any good. If I don’t like them, I ignore them. If I like them, I would rather protect them and their quirk. Of course, if you are talking politics…all bets are off.
My name (or a close facsimile) is turning up in a book, Tommy Gun Tango, written by a friend, Bruce Cook, who wanted to use my hyphenated name for a character. The girl is wild as they come, not necessarily based on my personality, but hey, maybe Bruce knows something I don’t. And he did ask permission. I told him I’d be happy to be a potted plant in one of his books.
Now, I might start a character based on somebody in a news story, but then I’d flesh out the character and make them my own. My story would take a totally different path, too. After all, after we have been inundated with the wall-to-wall coverage of high profile cases in the news, who would want to rehash it?
Since I wouldn’t be privy to the motives of the people involved in real stories, I would be making it all up anyway. It is the inner feelings and my own interpretation that makes the character memorable.
Real people are a jumping off place, even if their characteristics are totally off the wall. I would rather create my own people with motives I think fits the part they are playing. And anyway, when the character takes over the writing, they can fill in the blanks themselves.
In my Ginger Caulfield novels (Media Justice, Hedge Bet), I definitely use my husband, Richard, as the character Fred, and Gin Caulfield is mostly me. My agent asked if I would deepen Gin’s character. In “agent-ese” that means give her a flaw, something gritty. So, I had to add some backstory to make Ginger a slightly darker character. It does make her more interesting and I will be able to add sub-plots using this flaw, so it works. But the creativity is mine. I’ll take the arrows if it doesn’t work.
Sometimes they like it
by Jacqueline Vick
My dad is the youngest of thirteen kids. Most of my uncles and aunts have spouses, and some of them have grown children. And that’s just one side of the family. Then there are my in-laws. It would be difficult for me to create a character and not hit on some of their quirks and personalities.
My Mother is convinced that the Deanna Wilder character in my mystery manuscript, “Family Matters”, is based on her. Well…she’s right to a certain extent. Fortunately, she’s also pleased. I do have a sister, but she is much nicer than the Vanessa character. As I wrote the manuscript, I hoped that my sister wouldn’t think that I saw her as Vanessa. My only other option was to never write a sister character unless she was a saint.
I find that if I take a trait and exaggerate it (which I can do, since I write comedy), it takes on a new life. I also rely on advice I received from another writer: “No one ever recognizes themselves in your book, especially if they’re the villain.”
Having said that, I agree with Gayle. I would never want to harm someone just for a few laughs. If Uncle Marvin liked to dust with women’s panties, that would be too recognizable and could only cause embarrassment and pain. If I had an Uncle Marvin, he might think I was making fun of him.
As for reviews, I think that it’s more how you word it. Some reviewers take the opportunity to show off their own caustic wit. This is not reviewing. It’s performing. When I’ve done script reviews, I always remember that the person who wrote it has feelings, and that this is currently his best effort. It’s my job to be constructive and helpful.
If I wrote a non-fiction book…. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about that one.