• Write Who You Know?

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Strategies     Comments 19 comments

    Recent events, which I’m not allowed to address directly (ooh, what a tease), have gotten me to thinking about the line between fact and fiction, and specifically between fictional characters and real people.

    I believe that all fictional characters (even science-fiction monsters) are based on a person or people the author knows, or at the very least, are based on the author’s perceptions of those people he or she has interacted with in his/her life. Seems like a rather obvious statement, perhaps. After all, how many of us have been asked “This character is based on me, isn’t it?”

    But if you flip it, it means that many people out there have had fictional characters based on them—the vast majority of them, I’m sure, without their knowledge. Hell, maybe you’re one of them. There is a chance that the Best American Short Stories, 2009 sitting on your shelf contains a protagonist or antagonist based on you; and if so, there’s an even better chance that you don’t even know it.

    ***Anecdote alert***

    Awhile ago I started sending to literary mags a short story based heavily on two high school friends with whom I played on the baseball team for years. Two very talented players. When we were juniors in high school, one of them—we’ll call him Bojangles—was driving the other (Mister) home after a party when he drove the car into a ditch. Mister was smoking when the car went off the road, and had his hand hanging out the open window. Both Mister and Bojangles walked away from the accident, but Mister lost the pinkie finger and half of the ring finger on his throwing hand. He kept playing ball, but was never really the same.

    Although there was an insurance lawsuit involved, Mister and Bojangles remained friends.

    A few years later, Mister was tarring a roof with some co-workers when, according to witness reports, he hit his hand with a hammer. There was some cold water near the roof’s edge, but as Mister was pouring it over his hand he somehow lost his balance, fell over the side, dropped five stories, cracked his head on the sidewalk below, and lived just long enough to hear the sirens from the ambulance.

    ***Anecdote ends***

    ***Story synopsis alert***

    My fictionalized take has Bojangles as an aspiring astronaut and Mister as an aspiring baseball player headed for the minor leagues, and due for a swift ascent to the majors. Alcohol is involved in the car accident, but there is room to suspect that Bojangles has some agency in driving the car off the road—a totally fictionalized aspect. Years pass, the two drift apart, and one night Mister, having fallen into a deep and friendless depression, downs a bottle of pills. Bojangles, for reasons he doesn’t quite understand, feels compelled to visit Mister’s apartment for the first time in years, finds Mister on the floor, and, depending on which version of the story I’m digging at the time, either kills Mister or passively lets him die.

    ***Story synopsis ends***

    Okay. I do have a point in laying out this storyline. The real-life Bojangles should in no way feel guilty for the real-life death of Mister. If there is a connection between the two incidents–the accident and the roof–the line is too blurry and twisting to see; far from A to B, far, far from cause-and-effect. And if Bojangles does feel any guilt, he’s never told me so.

    But we are still friends. And my story, as far as those in-the-know (and now, I guess, you folks) are concerned, is a rather obvious fictionalization of these two real characters. The story, however, draws a much clearer connection between the accident and Mister’s death five years later.

    Can’t Walk A Mile

    Although I try, I am unable to put myself in Bojangles’s place. Why don’t you all give it a shot? What if you, as the real-life Bojangles, opened some literary magazine, saw that your friend had a story in it, read the piece, and discovered that your friend had written a story which obliquely blames you for the real-life death/maybe suicide of a mutual friend?

    (Whether or not that’s what I’m actually—and subconsciously—doing with this story is a mystery even to myself.)

    What feelings? Pain? Anger? Confusion? Would you feel violated?

    Now, what if you as Bojangles discovered, prior to publication, that I had written this story and had a signed agreement to have it run in a magazine? Would you try to talk me out of it? Would you support me in my right—if it is a right—to portray you as a character in literature?

    Or would you hire a lawyer and file a complaint?

    (I feel the need to note here, for the record, that the real-life situation I allude to in the first line of this post has nothing at all to do with Bojangles. I’m using this situation as a substitute for one I’m not, at this point, willing/able to discuss in a public forum)


    I’m sure many of you are aware of the recent legal flap over a character in Kathryn Stockett’s wildly popular novel The Help. If not, you can read up on it at NPR and NYT. My favorite word-bite comes from the NPR piece:

    “Everyone writes from personal experience to some degree. You write people … partly based on your experiences with those things. You can’t promise not to reflect anything you’ve picked up from observing other human beings living in the world. If everyone who recognized an echo of her personal life in someone else’s fiction filed suit, there would be no time for courts to adjudicate anything else.”

    David L. Hudson, who is quoted in the Times piece, has an insightful article on the matter.

    And here’s some more case law; it’s older, but our many Texas readers may find it interesting.

    It’s a tough issue. My gut reaction is to (almost) always side automatically with a writer, but that’s just instinct. And when I think about how I’d feel were I Bojangles (who I’m sure does not read this blog) … I dunno. I’d be upset, I know that. Probably quite pissed. I’d like to think I wouldn’t hire a law firm, but I can’t say that for sure. We never know how we’ll react to a given situation until we’re actually in it.

    Legally, a writer can be held liable in cases such as these. But legality and ethics aren’t always (or often?) the same turkey, so the question is, from an ethical standpoint, should we as writers not borrow heavily from people we know in real life when our depictions of them could prove hurtful? Where does the larger share of our responsibility lie: in art, or in life? Or, a bit less grandiose; in art or in our interpersonal relationships?

    I realize here that I’m basically mimicking the NPR piece, in which the writer is likewise unable to state a definitive opinion or conclusion. But these are questions I’m working through slowly.

    I know one thing; my Bojangles short story is currently in a few slush piles, and I haven’t taken steps to withdraw it. Maybe therein lies my answer?

    So what do you guys think? Leave your take in the comments below. Those of you who don’t want to comment publicly, you know where to reach me.

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    Shennandoah Diaz

    As writers we should still have our ethics and morals in line and our art should reflect that. Art imitates life–it doesn’t steal it. As artists we draw on our life experiences and are inspired by the people in our lives, but as artists we should be skilled and adept enough to generate something new and original–an alloy, solution, spliced compound that is uniquely its own and not a poor replication. When it comes to creativity I see many stories fall flat because people try and make stories too much like real life, which is full of boring tasks, humdrum… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Thanks, Shennandoah.

    I question, though, at what point we determine that art has crossed over from imitation to theft? Is the line static, or does it shift? Is there lots of gray area?

    You’ve written lots of stories, and hence lots of characters. Can you say that none of them are directly drawn from one specific person? Or that nobody you know would be able to identify him/herself in any of your characters (and be correct)?

    And I’m not doubting that–just asking. DD

    Richard Melo

    The way I understand it, a person cannot copyright himself, and as far as defamation goes, it would take going to great lengths to damage people by re-creating them in fiction. (It sounds like in Stockett’s case, she might have gone all the way.) Showing people as they are is the job of journalists and memoirists, and for them it involves craft. Being able to take a real person and create fiction is more of an art, as it’s not easy to do well, and when it’s done well, it’s a complete mystery how it was done. My own approach… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Nice pull on the Woody. As I recall it, he tells Keaton that his ex-wife (some sort of public figure) wrote a book about their breakup. Keaton says something like, “That must’ve been traumatizing,” and Woody says, “I think I handled it well … tried to run her over with my car.” So in essence you’re saying that as writers we’re as obligated to ourselves as we are to the people we portray? That if a fictionalized rendering of a real person might prove harmful to that person, we should still proceed out of a sense of duty to ourselves… Read more »

    Richard Melo

    I think there are some really subtle distinctions here, like if the real person is the only person who can identify himself in the book AND if the public at large can identify the person in the book. It’s pretty case by case when it comes to knowing what’s best in going forth with a story that might hurt someone. Now that I think about it, I wrote a story a few years ago with details from a prominent local murder, and I never pursued sharing it because I didn’t want the story ever to get back to the family.… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Calls to mind Heidi Durrow’s THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY. The inciting incident comes from a true story that Heidi read in a newspaper, and the main character is based on someone involved. I interviewed Heidi awhile back, and asked her if she’s ever tried to contact the girl. She said: “I haven’t sought out the real girl. And I’ve tried not to share too much information about the newspaper story because I feel very protective of her. I don’t want anyone else to find her. In all honesty, what would the point of that be? It seems… Read more »

    David Kassin Fried

    Using someone else’s name AND likeness is not only immoral and unethical, it’s likely to land you in the hot water Kathryn Stockett finds herself in. That’s why movies go through an Errors & Omissions process, where they’d see whether there’s someone named Mister in whatever town they’re in who’s lost his pinkie finger, and if so change the name to something else. In your situation, I would say that Bojangles will know, intellectually, that Mister’s death has nothing to do with him, and if he’s affected by it emotionally, then it’s up to him to deal with that, with… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Good thoughts, my friend. How do we define “likeness” when it comes to prose? Because Stockett only slightly changed the maid’s name, and because she gave the maid a gold tooth, does that constitute likeness? Feels like it should have to go deeper than that. But then we get into the question of how much deeper. Perhaps that’s up to a jury to decide. What if Stockett had given the maid a gold tooth and a deceased son, but named her Ella? I mean, if she hadn’t named the stinking character “Aiblene,” I don’t think we’d be talking about this.… Read more »

    Jennifer Spiegel

    My allegiance is to truth, and good art is about truth, even when it’s fiction. Right? (Did I write a blog on this?). The truth is in the meaning, not the details. A writer may take the details and render them factually and fictionally–the mixture may be indecipherable (pulling apart the fact from the fiction in the work is repugnant to me)–the meaning of the final work is the issue. Is the meaning true? So, yeah, it all depends on the age-old, all-important question: Is there Truth? To pull out one part or another, and question its basis in reality… Read more »

    […] at Write by Night, David Duhr has a thoughtful post about writing who we know and basing fictional characters on people we know in our real lives or […]

    […] Last week I wrote about my ethical struggles with fictionalizing real people. Jennifer Spiegel, a writer whose work I enjoy, wrote this response on her own blog. And I like […]


    The protagonist of my WIP is a historical person who died a few thousand years ago. So that’s fair game. The only other person I consciously lifted from real life is a sympathetic character with physical disability. The disability isn’t changed & is described warts & all pretty much as I observed it. The fictional character is a teacher & mentor, & so is the real person. With great strength and grit, in both cases. Any further character development is fictional, since I barely know this real-life person. I bet my unsympathetic people are also based on people I know,… Read more »

    […] for me. I’ve only tried to get one story pubbed (which I wrote about here); it’s out at a few places, it’s been snubbed by a few […]


    I am currently writing a fictional novel, but I seem to keep falling back to real people I know for my characters. The story is coming out great, but I feel as though the characters’ appearances, relationships, and actions are too similar to real life. I don’t want someone I know to pick up the book and become offended. Does anyone have any advise on what I can do so as to not make a mockery of someone’s life? What should I do in this situation?

    David Duhr

    Outside of changing names and making minor tweaks in setting, character, etc., there’s not a whole lot you can do. If it’s a story worth telling, you just have to tell it. Make the characters as unrecognizable as you can while staying true to the work.

    And don’t say to any of these people, “Hey, this character is based on you.”


    Thanks a lot. I’ll take your advise and continue writing

    […] some related reading, try “Write Who You Know,” a piece about liability when writing fiction based on real-life […]

    […] Write Who You Know? – WriteByNight Writers’ ServiceSummarize […]

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