Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Perils of Writing Who You Know

We've all heard the old adage: Write what you know. But have you ever had someone tell you to write who you know? Probably not.

Even so, fiction writers do write who they know. Fortunately (or unfortunately if you are a defamation lawyer), most of us create characters who are amalgams of different people rather than one recognizable person. But that isn't always the case.

(Before we get any farther, don't bother starting an argument over who vs. whom. I chose my word and I'm sticking with it.)

Imagine yourself living in the glow that follows your first published book. Then the sheriff knocks on the door and hands you a summons. Your brother has sued you for defamation.

Oh, you say, it won't happen to me. I only write fiction, and everybody knows fiction isn't true. Besides, I'll have a disclaimer at the beginning of my book saying that any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental.

That may have been what Andrew Fetler thought when he published The Travelers. If so, he soon discovered that he was wrong.

The novel revolved around a family very much like Andrew's family and an older brother very much like Andrew's older brother, Daniel. But the fictional parts portrayed the older brother taking actions that Daniel found repugnant. So Daniel sued, and the entire family took sides.

The trial judge did not think readers would connect the character in the book with Daniel, so the judge dismissed the case without a trial. But the federal appeals court said the similarities were strong enough to let a jury decide whether readers would identify the real brother as the fictional one.

I don't know how the story ended. The dispute might have gone to trial or, more likely, it may have settled. But even if Andrew ultimately won the case, he had to bear the expense and stress of a lawsuit and live with the knowledge that his novel had divided the family.

Avoiding unnecessary conflict is especially important for Christians. Proverbs 12:18 tells us to be careful what we say (or write) so that we don't harm others. Because even true words can be hurtful.

So if you want to write about real people and situations in your fiction, make sure you change enough facts to disguise the characters. This requires time and creativity, but it could avoid hard feelings and a lawsuit. And your writing will be better for the effort.

Kathryn Page Camp

NOTE: The case discussed in this entry is Fetler v. Houghton Mifflin Company, 364 F.2d 650 (2d Cir. 1966).


  1. Great post. And this very issue has stunted my stories more than once! The last time I was innocently writing and had a character all mapped out (Sabrina and Cara pat my littl' haid) and it came true in real life...alas. Sort of. But close enough to give me trouble.

    It's become such a problem, I'm evaluating genre now. I have my finger on the pulse of real life (and have a life full of too true to be fiction! I did not make this up!ha)

    So, how do you write through your REAL life? (But I'm fabulous at giving other writers scenarios...anonymously.)

  2. VERY INTERESTING post -- especially for me since my China novels are not only inpired by, but factually based on four generations of my China family. So far, I've been very careful not to defame anyone, and I think that's extremely important for avoiding being sued. I've made sure that everyone in my family that I have contact with who wants to read what I've written is welcome to (yikes, what an awkward sentence, oh well). I've given away heaps of manuscripts in progress, as well as copies of my self-published novels. And when my agent (Hartline Literary) gets me a great traditional publisher, I sure won't agree to that "coincidental character" disclaimer. Just for the record, there are many successful and bestselling novels out there like that. So the actual defamation caution can't be over-stressed. BTW, I'm also a WHOM "killer," joining with most journalists these days -- good for you, Stephanie! GREAT POST -- congrats!

  3. OOPS -- I got the post's author wrong -- should have said Kathryn instead of Stephanie. . . my bad, sorry!

  4. I never thought of that. Kind of sobering. However, since I am writing historical stuff, wonder if anyone will say "Hey! You can't talk about our ancestors like that!"

  5. This reminder couldn't have come at a better time as I'm writing about four characters who form the sisterhood of my life and I wouldn't want to lose a single one of them. I'll need to rework their personalities and mesh and blend them with others so they're unrecognizable. Thanks for this needed reminder!

  6. Ann, I wouldn't worry about it with a historical novel since the law says you can't defame the dead.