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I'm curious about the ethical dilemmas that we all struggle with as we craft our stories.

A few years back, a friend told me a really funny story involving herself and her husband. There was a misbehaving child in a store and my friend's husband did something to stop the child's behavior. I thought it was so humorous that I wrote it into my draft. However, I eventually removed the scene because it wasn't my tale to tell.

About the same time that I was writing that book, I was having severe issues with my supervisor. I wrote her into the book, changing her name but using her physical description and mannerisms. It was therapeutic to hammer out the scene but, in the end, I removed it, too.

What is acceptable and what is not acceptable?
 

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When I decided to get into romance and NA I got writers block before I ever got started. It's not my usual genre. I started watching reruns of an entire series I used to love on Netflix. I started making notes, what if the characters did this instead of that. I started writing, inspired by that series, but by the time I got 10k in you'd never recognize that show in my writing. The characters had changed so much they'd become my own. We all get inspired by something, but in the end we should create something new born out of the inspiration.
 

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It's complicated territory, but certainly the second tale is fair material for anything you write - after all, it happened to you, it was part of your life, it's part of the story of your life.

Probably the first story is, too - your friend told it to you, didn't say to please keep in confidence, etc.  But since it is a self-contained story, told to you as a story, and not something you directly experienced, I suppose an argument could be made that it would be wrong for you to use it without some kind of attribution.
 

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I started a (short) thread about a similar thing a few days ago as a couple of characters I'm writing about are very closely based on some people I used to know. The general general consensus was that if that person would be able to recognise themselves, then you shouldn't really do it. One person pointed out that usually people NEVER recognise themselves, as their perception of themselves is always different to your perception of them.

I struggle with this a lot as a lot of my characters and situations are based in varying degree on real life. My hope is that I hide this as elegantly and cunningly as possible, but I do suffer from nagging doubt!

Anyway it's here incase you're interested.

http://www.kboards.com/index.php/topic,211460.msg2948065.html#msg2948065
 

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Liz French said:
I started a (short) thread about a similar thing a few days ago as a couple of characters I'm writing about are very closely based on some people I used to know. The general general consensus was that if that person would be able to recognise themselves, then you shouldn't really do it. One person pointed out that usually people NEVER recognise themselves, as their perception of themselves is always different to your perception of them.

I struggle with this a lot as a lot of my characters and situations are based in varying degree on real life. My hope is that I hide this as elegantly and cunningly as possible, but I do suffer from nagging doubt!

Anyway it's here incase you're interested.

http://www.kboards.com/index.php/topic,211460.msg2948065.html#msg2948065
That also brings up the fact that there is a likeness law. I asked an attorney who taught a class I took in college. He said a person should never be able to say others recognize him as a character if the character is presented in a bad light, which the op's supervisor would have been.
 

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That's good to know, thank you.

They usually end up changing considerably anyway, as the story develops. So even if they start with a recognisable likeness, they naturally develop into characters in their own right.

But it is something I'm paranoid about, because I know where the kernel of the idea came from.
 

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I use tons of family and work stories in my books. Some are good stories. Some are bad stories. A lot are just funny. My grandfather is dead, but he would't care about the stories of his I used. He was proud of them all, including being thrown in jail because he refused to show up for jury duty. My cousin keeps feeding me stories that make her look bad because she finds it funny and she loves that I based a character on her. I based the office tool in one of my books on a real person, but I exaggerated some of the things he's done (and even played down others). He doesn't see himself as a tool, and he would never read one of my books anyway. My mother thinks she's every mother I've ever written. She's most insulted by the names I give the mothers because she thinks they sound like "old lady" names.
 
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This: That also brings up the fact that there is a likeness law. I asked an attorney who taught a class I took in college. He said a person should never be able to say others recognize him as a character if the character is presented in a bad light, which the op's supervisor would have been.


I found a book (from someone i know very peripherally) had a lot written about someone who's a friend. And it was 100% terrible stuff - character assassination. It's not a good idea to do public disclosure of someone's secrets and flaws.

I think you have to be careful because

1) Regardless of how a person is, by writing their flaws into a book, you sort of crucify them.

2) If they find out, they'll not be happy with you. A few might even consider it public humiliation and become your enemies.

3) Everyone else you know will become very wary around you. Because they never know if you'll make a character out of them.

All that being said

a) If your friends are OK, perhaps even flattered, to be in your book, then go for it. you can ask them beforehand.

b) This: He said a person should never be able to say others recognize him as a character if the character is presented in a bad light, which the op's supervisor would have been.

Saying bad things about a supervisor publicly, or writing it into a book, becomes a problem in future. Sometimes a big problem.
 

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Moist_Tissue said:
I'm curious about the ethical dilemmas that we all struggle with as we craft our stories.

A few years back, a friend told me a really funny story involving herself and her husband. There was a misbehaving child in a store and my friend's husband did something to stop the child's behavior. I thought it was so humorous that I wrote it into my draft. However, I eventually removed the scene because it wasn't my tale to tell.
I'd just ask the friend. Most likely, they'd be perfectly happy to have you use their story in your novel. I had exactly the same thing happen - a friend told a story about herself that I thought would fit perfectly for an already-existing character in my last book, and she was happy to allow me to use it.
 

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dianapersaud said:
Why wasn't she protected under the libel law? Truth is an absolute defense - unless she made them identifiable and then wrote things about them that were not true. Even if someone is identifiable in an author's work, I would think that, ethics and outrage aside, an author can legally say whatever he/she wants about another person as long as it is provably true, and if it is not completely true, if my memory of libel class serves me, a writer has poetic license with writing about an identifiable person as long as it doesn't shed them in a bad light in the eyes of a reasonable person.
 

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MySky said:
Why wasn't she protected under the libel law? Truth is an absolute defense - unless she made them identifiable and then wrote things about them that were not true. Even if someone is identifiable in an author's work, I would think that, ethics and outrage aside, an author can legally say whatever he/she wants about another person as long as it is provably true, and if it is not completely true, if my memory of libel class serves me, a writer has poetic license with writing about an identifiable person as long as it doesn't shed them in a bad light in the eyes of a reasonable person.
Exactly.
 

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MySky said:
Why wasn't she protected under the libel law? Truth is an absolute defense - unless she made them identifiable and then wrote things about them that were not true. Even if someone is identifiable in an author's work, I would think that, ethics and outrage aside, an author can legally say whatever he/she wants about another person as long as it is provably true, and if it is not completely true, if my memory of libel class serves me, a writer has poetic license with writing about an identifiable person as long as it doesn't shed them in a bad light in the eyes of a reasonable person.
The author in question is Portuguese and the laws are probably different there. In a lot of European countries, privacy rights sadly trump artistic freedom.

We've had two famous cases of this kind in Germany, both involving trad-pubbed authors. One involved Klaus Mann, son of Thomas, writing a novel about the Third Reich which prominently featured a recognisable version of famous German director Gustav Gründgens as a Nazi collaborator (which he was, sort of). Gründgens' adopted son was not amused, sued and got the book banned. This case is particularly tasteless, because a victim of Nazi persecution lost out against a guy who had worked with the Nazis. Thankfully, the book was subsequently published by another publisher approx. 15 years later.

The second, more recent case involves Maxim Biller's autobiographical novel "Esra", in which he included thinly veiled versions of his ex-girlfriend and her mother. Girlfriend and mother sued, publisher and author offered to make changes, girlfriend and mother declined and won. The book is still legally unavailable in Germany. Now Biller is something of a jerk and the changes he offered to make were probably a good thing. However, part of the reasoning of the mother of the girlfriend was that the character in Biller's book was not like the mother viewed herself in real life, i.e. she complained he fictionalised her.

Both very chilling cases and IMO massively wrong decisions.

Another famous case in Britain involved Ian Fleming of James Bond fame. Fleming often named characters after people he knew in real life (probably for the better, because when he didn't, we got Pussy Galore). He named villain Auric Goldfinger after modernist architect Ernö Goldfinger, whom Fleming couldn't stand. Goldfinger threw a fit and threatened to sue. Fleming promptly offered to change the name of the character - to Goldprick. Goldfinger relented.

BTW, if you've ever seen the buildings of the real Goldfinger, you're inclined to believe he really was a Bond villain.
 

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I discussed this when I started my second non-fiction book. I thought there was plenty of latitude for making stories from your past more interesting. But a lot of people screamed bloody murder about this idea. They felt that there was no latitude for change.

I only changed two things in the book.

This is the first:

  • A few years ago, I needed advice on setting up payroll for my small company, and drove down to my accountant's office to speak with his assistant. It was an informal operation-the kind with overstuffed chairs, worn rugs, and an office dog. A few weeks after this meeting, I called and said "Hi, I have some questions about the payroll system, could I please speak to Sadie?" Unfortunately, I hadn't really paid attention to the names, and it turned out that "Sadie" was the name of the office dog. So now, whenever I go there, I expect them to whistle for Sadie, in case I want to ask her about stock options or retirement plans.

That actually happened to my wife, not me. I changed it to be about me so as not to embarrass her. Also, it would sound mean if I told it about her.

The other change: I rearranged my childhood home since the kitchen was on the second floor. I put it on the first floor so I wouldn't need to explain.

But I'm so glad to be writing fiction now so that I don't have to worry about those things.
 

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TromboneAl said:
But I'm so glad to be writing fiction now so that I don't have to worry about those things.
When you are writing fiction based on or inspired by true events is when it gets dicey.
 

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MySky said:
Why wasn't she protected under the libel law? Truth is an absolute defense - unless she made them identifiable and then wrote things about them that were not true. Even if someone is identifiable in an author's work, I would think that, ethics and outrage aside, an author can legally say whatever he/she wants about another person as long as it is provably true, and if it is not completely true, if my memory of libel class serves me, a writer has poetic license with writing about an identifiable person as long as it doesn't shed them in a bad light in the eyes of a reasonable person.
Apparently some of the characters in her book had affairs etc. The in-laws claimed the book was about them (they could identify themselves) and the author's story had them doing things they considered an insult and damaging to their reputations. Affairs, I think a murder too.

It sounded like a very interesting book. She should have made more changes and turned it into a sequel. She probably would have made a mint if not for the obvious likeness to her in-laws and the law suit.
 

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My first story was inspired by something that happened to a very distant acquaintance. Mutual friends told me her husband had gone missing while hiking in a rural forest. They'd searched for weeks but hadn't found him. That sparked the start of a story in me - what if her husband had come back, but had come back different?

I struggled with it for months. It was a story I really wanted to write, but I wasn't 100% comfortable with using someone else's suffering and grief to fuel my work. I eventually did write it when I realised, if authors shied away from everything that causes distress to real people, we'd never have another murder mystery, recovery-from-abuse, legal thriller or natural disaster survival story again. I still wrote it carefully, though, and only used the most basic theme - husband goes missing while hiking - to start the story. Everything else, including the characters, were completely fictional.
 

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ireaderreview said:
3) Everyone else you know will become very wary around you. Because they never know if you'll make a character out of them.
This. Thank the stars every writer I know works in erotica, and I am not usable in that genre. :p "You're all just grist for my mill" isn't a particularly respectful thing to say to a close friend. If it's someone further out in your circle, I can see it, OK. But I'd keep shields at 100% around a friend like that for as long as I knew them.

I don't base characters on anyone I know for this reason. I got burned when I used to blog; what I saw as blowing off steam about my life actually hurt people close to me. I learned from that debacle. I believe that the people in my life (whether I like them or not) have a right not to be hurt just for the sake of my "art." If I can't make it up myself and just have to copy everything I write from someone else, I would not feel too proud about that.

It doesn't always help; a few months after my first book came out, a loved one hesitantly asked me whether one of the characters was based off of them. And... no. Not a bit. I don't even think they have that much in common. But at least I tried.
 
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