Nothing scares me more than lawsuits involving authors. I haven’t been able to read the best-selling novel The Help yet (on my to-read list) but the lawsuit that was dismissed recently has caught my attention. Ablene Cooper filed a lawsuit against the author, Kathryn Stockett, claiming the character Aibileen was based on her without her permission. The case was dismissed due to the one-year statute of limitations expiring since the author gave Cooper a copy of the book along with a letter stating that the even though the maid’s name was similar it was not based on her.
This brought up a lot of concerns for me. I hate thinking that if I ever made it big with a novel that someone from my past or present would try to lay claim that I defamed them or portrayed them without permission. I definitely use inspiration from people in my life in order to make my characters seem real, but they are not closely based on these people and I’m careful to use little touches of these traits on top of a completely imaginary characters.
At first I felt like Cooper was probably stretching a claim for money until I read that she sited that the character not only shares a very similar name, job, gold tooth, but also lost a son. Something personal like losing a son as well as having those shared traits is a little inconsiderate in my opinion. Even if the author wasn’t intending to use her for character basis she should have been more aware of the similarities and chose another name. Again I haven’t read the book, so she might have shown this person in a fantastic light but when something so personal is involved like the death of a child I think she could have been more careful.
This lawsuit only reminds me that as writers, we must be careful with character inspiration and mindful that someone close to us might feel exposed. Some may think (especially when self-publishing) that your novel most likely won’t hit the bestseller lists but you really never know. Once something’s written and released you don’t have much control over it and it could get attention. If you based a fictional character too close to a real life person it could come back to bite you.
Writers of historical fiction/fantasy must be just as careful when they are writing about real people from the past. Since it’s fiction/fantasy we have some leeway with the facts and no one can file a lawsuit if they are dead, but you still must remember that these were real people and their descendants and legacy can still be effected by what you write. Be gentle.
So just in case you hit it big and someone wants a piece of your pie, you should follow these rules when writing fiction:
~Never use real names or similar names to characters you might use for inspiration.
~Be considerate when using a character for inspiration. Don’t write about obvious identifying traits or detailed personal experiences someone’s trusted you with.
~Don’t ever tell anyone you based a character on someone you know.
~I try to combine different inspirations for my characters, sometimes merging real traits of many different people. Don’t allow one character to be too similar to a known person.
~Always think of the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Think about what you’d want someone to write about you to the public and remember this, even when your tempted with a truly terrific real-life character.
~If you can’t resist closely basing a character on a real person, get their permission in writing first or be sure to send a copy of your book to them at least a year before your movie’s released :)
Happy Labor Day everyone and I’m just happy I’m not in actual labor today! I hope it’s a beautiful day of beach/pool/picnics/bbqs or whatever you choose to close up the summer.