Avoiding Lawsuits   10 comments

September 23, 2019

What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?

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Legal Issues

Whether we mean to or not, we authors all write characters based on people we know or admire. It’s inevitable. My husband recently pointed out that Chief Joe Kelly reminds him of someone we knew 30 years ago. We haven’t seen this guy in all that time and I wasn’t consciously basing the character on this old friend, but yeah, there are some elements that appear in Joe Kelly’s character that are reminiscent of that long ago friend. I didn’t wholesale base Joe on that young man, but I borrowed a few turns of phrase and I did it without meaning to.

By and large, basing characters on real people is problematic. You can find articles on writer sites saying “Don’t do it!” There’s the hurt feelings, the defamation suits, the cease-and-desist orders. It can be a problem. I don’t recommend it … but I’ve done it – carefully.


When a long-time friend died during the rewrite of “Objects in View” I decided to pay homage to him and introduced the character of Dick Vance. That led to another character homage in Calla Thomas. They are minor characters and both died soon after their introduction because homages limit my literary license, because when you write a character based on a real person, you owe something to the person you’re basing the character on.

Everything the character Dick Vance does in Transformation Project is something my friend would have done in the circumstances Dick finds himself in. I took great care in considering his dialogue to assure that everything the character said would be something my friend would have said. That additional work at rendering the character faithfully is why I don’t usually base whole characters on real people, though I do borrow elements from real people. It’s a lot of work to be that faithful, especially when the character doesn’t talk to you. My fictional characters tell me their stories. That’s not how it worked with my homage to my friend. Instead, I had to do all the work and that was exhausting.

Now, clearly, my friend is not going to show up and call me to task for getting something wrong, but I can imagine how I would feel if he did and so, I owe him faithfulness to who he really was. That’s how I pay homage to him, by showing how I think a real person would have reacted in an apocalyptic situation. To continue to write him as a character would have been to create a caricature and that would have been extremely dishonoring to my friend. I’m glad I included him in the book, but after I wrote about him, I just sort didn’t feel inspired to write about him any further. So I gave him a hero’s send-off exactly how I think my friend would have liked to go out and I walked away knowing I had treated my use of my friend’s personality with respect and care — like I would have treated him in real life.


So, I guess the overall answer is we writers, when we use real people as characters in our books, owe those people respect for their personhood … which is why I have never based a character on someone I don’t like. If I’m having trouble respecting them when we’re face-to-face, I think I’d have trouble treating them with respect as I write them — and that, my friends, is what causes hurt feelings, defamation suits and cease-and-desist orders. Best to avoid those if at all possible.

Posted September 23, 2019 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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10 responses to “Avoiding Lawsuits

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  1. A most interesting question this week. I thought your response was very sensible and your advice sound.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Don’t forget to add a disclaimer in the front matter too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, in the United States, that’s probably not going to protect you from litigation. The only real defense here — and it’ll cost you a lot of money to argue it in court — is that what you said was the truth. We take defamation of character seriously here. That’s why — unless you’re casting someone in a saintly light, it’s better not to use a real person. A cease and desist order would mean having to unpublish your book.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I did, however, say I was homaging my friend. His family has not sued me yet. One of his sons said he thought I nailed his dad pretty well.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Anything I hear is fair game! If it’s friends or family I’ll disguise it a bit. If I don’t know the person, I can use it raw.


    • Exactly. I’ve done some listening in Lower 48 venues, but I love Alaskans because we are a culturally open society – we say what’s on our minds and we mean what we say. So it’s fun to grab those snippets overheard in the restaurant booth or the movie theater or whatever. I recently just used a line my son said when he was about 10.

      KID – “Dad, what’s that thing where you’re really smart, but you’re really mentally ill?”

      DAD – “I don’t know, son, can you remember the start of the word.” My husband thinks he means “autistic” but he wants the kid to use his brain, so he’s not helping.

      KID – “Uh, oh, yeah, that’s it – optimism.”

      ME (to my husband, the optimist) – “Yeah, definitely not a reality-based viewpoint.”

      DAD/HUSBAND (who is under no illusion the realists he lives with are going to let that pass) – “Hey, I may be delusional, but it’s a happy delusional.”

      FINALLY found a way to work that into Transformation Project.


  4. Respect is a biggie, isn’t it? I try to give my characters the same respect I’d pay them in real life.


    • Yes. I even try to treat characters I wouldn’t agree with in real life with respect because that’s how I would treat them in real life – I don’t agree with some people’s ideas, but I think all people have a right to dignity and respect and that if we approach ideas as separate from them, then we don’t have to hate one another. There’s hope for change, but only if we shed the idea that someone is evil/stupid/insane for disagreeing with us. No, maybe they’re misinformed or lack wisdom. Those are fixable problems — if we don’t devolve into going after each other’s character.


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