Don’t Call the Cops by G.B. Pool

Police CopIn 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 colorful extra, or the person has given their permission. I won’t even write a review of a book or play that I don’t like just because I really don’t want the hassle of somebody’s nose getting out of joint. And remember: 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 being said, the bottom line is that I wouldn’t go out of my way to run somebody down in print, no matter how idiotic I think they are. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that they know they’re a moron, so why waste the ink. I also won’t shame anybody or point out his or her flaws in public. It doesn’t do anybody any good. If I don’t like them, I ignore them. If I like them and they are a tad odd, I would rather protect them and their quirks.

Of course, if you are talking politics…all bets are off. But I don’t go too far out on that political limb in my stories, either. I use historical fact and let that tell the story. If a reader has a different view of history, that’s their problem.

My name (or a close facsimile) turned 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 others don’t know. (You can wait for my memoirs.) But seriously, he did ask permission to use a variation of my name. I told him I’d be happy to be a potted plant in one of his books, so go ahead.

Newspaper 2Next to never have I started a character based on somebody in a current news story, but if I chanced to take a fraction of somebody’s tale, I would invariably flesh out the character and make him or her into my own creation. My story would take a totally different path, too. After all, we have been inundated with the wall-to-wall coverage of high profile cases in the news for decades, who would want to read yesterday’s news?

Since I wouldn’t be privy to the motives of the people involved in real stories, I would be making it all up anyway. So I prefer to create the entire character on my own. It’s the character’s inner feelings that I want to capture and then craft my own story about who they are and what they do. That makes the character real to me and hopefully to the reader.

Actual people might be a starting place, even if their characteristics are totally off the wall. But I would rather create my own people with motives I think fit the part they are playing in my story. And anyway, when the character takes over the writing, which they do, they can fill in the blanks themselves.

In my Ginger Caulfield novels (Media Justice, Hedge Bet, and Damning Evidence), I definitely use my husband, Richard, as the character Fred; and Gin Caulfield is mostly me, personality-wise. My agent at the time asked if I would deepen Gin’s character. In “agent-speak” 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 have added sub-plots using this flaw, so it works. But the creativity is mine. I’ll take the arrows if it doesn’t fly.

So lawyers and the police and the Feds can move on. Nothing to see here. I write fiction. If I do use a real person, more chances than not they are no longer living and you can’t libel the dead. (There are a lot of lawyers in my family and I know the drill.)

How about you, my fellow writers? Do you use real people – family, friends, or someone in the news in your writing? Do you have a good lawyer?Lawyer

Author: gbpool

A former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool (writing as G.B. Pool) writes two detective series: the Gin Caulfield P.I. series (Media Justice, Hedge Bet & Damning Evidence) and The Johnny Casino Casebook Series. She also penned a series of spy novels, The SPYGAME Trilogy: The Odd Man, Dry Bones, and Star Power. She has a collection of short stories in From Light To DARK, as well as novels: Eddie Buick’s Last Case, Enchanted: The Ring, The Rose, and The Rapier, The Santa Claus Singer, and three delightful holiday storied, Bearnard’s Christmas, The Santa Claus Machine, and Every Castle Needs a Dragon. Also published: CAVERNS and Second Chance. She is the former Speakers Bureau Director for Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles and also a member of Mystery Writers of America and The Woman’s Club of Hollywood. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story,” (The Anatomy of a Short Story Workbook is available.) “How To Write Convincing Dialogue” and “Writing a Killer Opening Line” in sunny Southern California. Website: www.gbpool.com.

18 thoughts on “Don’t Call the Cops by G.B. Pool”

  1. Some of my characters are based on real people or composites of several people, including myself. So maybe I have to sue myself if I don’t like the way the character is portrayed. But seriously, Gayle, you make a lot of good points. We have to be careful and why look for trouble?

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Paul. The more I thought about this post, the more I realized I really wanted total control of the world I was creating in any of my stories. I used my dad as a character in my spy novels, but that was because he was that character and many of the things I wrote were based on his life and the life we had as a military family. And he liked what I wrote about him, even though he had to send me 12 pages of notes telling me where I got some of the facts wrong. I rewrote those parts. But I want the people in the worlds I create to be how I see them, not what is on TV about a celebrity or in the newspapers. So sue me… Thanks for creating those characters you put on your pages. And the you I see in some of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I often base my characters on real people, including myself. And experiences that they or I have had are also fodder, although I put in ingredients and take out a few too. My Missionary Kids series stem from the kids on mission fields (both ex-pat and native) that I have known, but not on any one in particular. Like you intimated, it’s probably better to be safe than sorry. And… no, while I know several contract attorneys, I don’t have one who specializes in crime.

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  3. Great post! Made me think. All my characters are made up, and names are made up (except for a couple deceased relatives I’ve paid homage to). Everything is made up (including the locations), and the people aren’t based on anyone I can point to or name–I’m guessing they’re coming from my multitudinous multiple personalities? (smile) As Paul says, if anyone gets sued, it would be me suing myself.(smile again)

    And your points on reviews, soooo agree. If I like, I write a good review. Otherwise–there’s enough negativity in the world already, why add to it?

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  4. Real people often find a spot in my stories but more as inspiration.

    In my first novel, I based a character on a loathsome boss I once had. But I had a runaway word count and had to cut her scene to a couple of lines. Somehow in the editing process she turned into a nice person and became a recurring character in my series. Assuming my ex-boss ever read my work, she’d never in a million years see herself—at least not in that character!

    Writing is full of surprises. Thanks, Gayle, for another thoughtful post.

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    1. Very interesting the way that character turned out. You let the character define herself which is the best way. As writers, we might supply the clay, but sometimes they take on a life of their own. Thanks for the story, Maggie.

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  5. Characters are a factor that generally concerns me. I am a lawyer, though I’m currently inactive, and I don’t want to get involved with claims I can avoid. I rarely base a character on someone real, and if I do I don’t make it obvious. I make up a lot of names, though I sometimes use names that belong to a lot of people–like a John Doe or John Smith. Great post on the subject!

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    1. There is always that legal aspect that really should concern writers. But we have the imagination to create our own villains and heroes, so why not take control and make it all up? As for names, my Johnny Casino character was a name of a character in the movie Grease which I never saw, and also a tattoo shop here in California. It has since closed. But names are gonna be tough to remain unique, but the combination of name and character should be from the writer’s imagination just to keep the lawyers off your neck. Present company excluded, Linda.

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  6. Great post, GB. I love your comment about idiots know what they are, although I think you give ’em too much credit. Only once have I based a character very closely on a real person, and it was sooo cathartic for me. Otherwise I sometimes use traits of people I know, but never the whole package.

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    1. Bonnie, I do understand the cathartic nature of hoisting a pain in the derriere on their own petard, but when my characters take on a life of their own, I let them run with it. I had a character I was going to kill off, but he grew on me and became one of the three main characters in CAVERNS. You never know.

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  7. Your post reminded me of the old disclaimer: “The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” Today the innocent could be the author who gets scolded for inaccuracies or worse, sued. Since I write historical fiction, I must use some real facts to ground my stories in the period, like significant names, places, and events. However I fictionalize many non-critical details, such as the famous hotel in Berlin where my characters stay. Great post, GB

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    1. I have a ton of historical figures in my spy novels, and tried to be very accurate in a majority of the things I have attributed to them. Those who show up as guests and mingle with my fictional characters are no longer with us, so I can’t be sued in case somebody doesn’t like their appearance, but I did try to keep the faith with their characters, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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  8. As someone with limited experience writing fiction, I found this article valuable. After starting one of my novels with a character based on a real person, I asked for feedback from someone who knew the individual. What I got was a description of a faultless person, worthy of sainthood and beyond. I finally used my imagination to create a more realistic character. I do not feel guilty in doing so. After all, even the most prominent of saints in chuch history were three dimensional.

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    1. Frank, You probably created a more realistic character by crafting him out of your imagination. They say fact is stranger than fiction, but sometimes fiction is far more fun. Thanks for dropping by.

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  9. What a great post, Gayle. It really is a rocky path today, if we base our characters on real people. I recall Jackie Collins laughed about the Hollywood celebs fighting over who her outrageous characters were based on. The narcissists were each convinced it was them in print! But, as you say, in today’s litigious world, we have to be so careful. That’s one of the benefits of writing about 100 years or so ago. I sprinkle my Lottie tales with mentions of Rudolph Valentino or Charlie Chaplin or whomever. But even though they are no longer around, I am careful not to create anything salacious – in case they have litigious great, great grand-kids! Really great piece. Thanks

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    1. Rosemary, I always worry about somebody getting their nose out of joint if they think they have been slighted. Better to use 100% of your imagination to get the story you want. Not that you can’t use a real incident as a starting point, but taking that story into an entirely different realm is far more satisfying. And safer.

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