Friday, February 22, 2013
How to Disguise Characters and Avoid a Law Suit
Have you ever thought of using a real person in a story? I’ve been tempted, but I’ve stopped short of actually making such an important decision. Think twice or three times before you make a character out of your Aunt Nellie. If you go ahead and do it there can be social and legal consequences.
First, ask yourself these questions:
Is What I’m Writing Libelous?
Is Aunt Nellie a public figure?
Is Aunt Nellie dead?
If I’m sued, who will bear the legal expenses?
Whose feelings will be hurt by this book, and how much?
But if the success of your story demands you borrow Aunt Nellie’s character, then be very CAREFUL! And beware of those potential pitfalls.
Unfortunately there aren’t definitive rules concerning exactly how much you need to disguise Aunt Nellie to protect yourself.
Just because she’s your aunt she won’t automatically protect you. Her hotshot lawyer husband or son might rub his hands in anticipation of a juicy lawsuit. Because you’re an author he might assume you’re rich! I can hear laughter erupting from Seekers and Seeker Villagers.
All warnings considered, what if you want to disregard conventional wisdom and write about someone you know anyway? You take your chances. But if you insist, there are a few tips I’m going to follow myself when I transform an old friend into a newly minted fictional character.
Really, I’ve planned to do this for a long time although I hadn’t found the right place for her until recently. I’ll risk it because she’s such a vivid character she’s worth the gamble. But I admit I haven’t seen my friend in years since we live thousands of miles apart. She’s not a fiction reader. So I think I’m quite safe if I change enough about her to keep people from guessing who she is.
Assuming you’re still in close contact with your friend/acquaintance turned story character, make sure you disguise her extra well. But be careful not to obliterate her personality or you’ll lose her essence which is the very thing that makes her so interesting.
Consider changing her sex, locale, profession, appearance and specific quirks. Ask yourself if these alterations are enough to hide Aunt Nellie’s true identity from her, her friends and relatives. Don’t just give her a superficial disguise. Change her!
Here’s a sketch of my friend who I’ll call Jo because she reminds me of Jo March in Little Women. She’s tall, athletic, forceful, determined, talented, extroverted, out spoken, a leader, but in her own opinion, a misfit. Jo is a Christian who witnesses to anyone who’ll listen whenever she gets the opportunity. She’s so earnest and winsome no one takes offense. But Jo never manages to find the perfect church home because (I think) she expects too much from frail and fallible human beings. No church can measure up to her ideal.
Jo is also a wife and mother, sheep farmer who delivers the lambs by herself each March, a spinner of yarn, a knitter, a skier, an organic gardener and the head of the local farmer’s market. If I use these jobs and hobbies in my story people would recognize her without a doubt.
When you model your character after a real person remember to respect your friend and her feelings.
Don’t give your story person terrible flaws, don’t make her the villain. You might be tempted to turn someone you dislike into the villain, but my advice is to be kind and generous. Any disagreements about this???
I’m going to move my country girl Jo into town, keep her friendly personality and interest in crafts. She now owns and operates a quilt shop and teaches quilting classes. Her appearance and background have changed. I’ll add a feminine side and maybe downplay her tomboyish athleticism except for her ice skating hobby. She’s more interested in clothes and shoes and wouldn’t feel at home mucking around the barn anymore.
To circumvent the real Jo’s obvious personality traits I’m going to keep her essence and put her in new situations that my real friend hasn’t faced.
For example, I’ll take Jo’s leadership abilities and out spoken opinions and pit her against the dictatorial pastor who hates for anyone to question his ideas or management style. She wants to withdraw and go her own way, but the storyline requires she stay involved for the sake of her friends.
I could’ve placed her in a schoolroom or in an office instead of a church and her determination to stand up for her beliefs and friends would still prevail. Jo won’t fight unless she feels it’s necessary.
Loyalty is important to her. Her insecurity and instinct to keep out of this conflict clashes with her allegiance to her friends. So poor Jo has to struggle with herself and her pastor. These are the personality traits that make her Jo.
Of course my real friend has lots of other traits and some of these contradict each other too. If I include all of them, or even a few too many of them, the characterization and the plot will become too complicated and unfocused.
Downplay or subtract some of your model’s personality elements because story characters are simplified versions of the real people.
Add personality traits that will strengthen the story’s meaning. Twist her traits to fit the plot. You’re creating a fictional Jo, you’re not writing a biography of your friend.
Another way to disguise characters is to combine two or more real-life people. Incorporate characteristics of each and come up with someone entirely new and different from the models.
Remember that basing fictional people on real people can be a great starting point, but it’s only a starting point. You’re not merely disguising a real person, you’re creating a new fictional character who’ll live on the printed page.
As a writer or as a reader how would you build a fictional Jo with the traits from the real model?
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