4

There are times I meet someone for a brief time, maybe a couple hours, and their personality impresses me enough to create a fictional character about them. Obviously I am adding my own attributes to the fictional character, and I don't know them well enough to write about many of the real person's attributes, but the original impression on me will be central to their character. Is it illegal to create a character this way, where the character development is loosely based on a real person this way?

When I am writing I make sure the connection is loose enough that the person could not be identified. I guess my main concern is if someone would read my book (which is a work in progress) and be like "oh I remember seeing this author for a couple of hours and this fictional person has a similar personality to me" Could they sue me?

  • 4
    I'm not a lawyer, so I can't back myself up, but I'm 95% sure that the answer is no. Author's draw characters from real people all the time. What you are describing seems like a very normal process to me. Even if you styled a character 90% off of a real person, I doubt they could sue you. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron May 15 '17 at 14:25
  • 1
    The title asks "is it legal to...?" and the question body asks "could they sue me?". This makes the meaning of a "yes" or "no" different depending on which variant someone is responding to. (Case in point, I was very confused by Thomas Myron's comment before I noticed the difference between the two.) Consider rephrasing either such that a "yes" or a "no" means the same thing irrespective of which variant is being referred to. – a CVn May 15 '17 at 20:56
  • If it's illegal then every author on God' green earth is headed to prison. – EvilSnack May 29 '17 at 3:39
4

Since most characters in every story draws from a conglomeration of different people the author met/ saw/ heard, the answer is likely 'no' (I'm no attorney). Make sure the character is not exactly the same as the person (which you already identified as something you did).

I sat down at the door of a Wal-Mart one day and imagine short stories about every person that walked out the door every 5 minutes. I took some quotes, looks, mannerisms, all from examining people. This is a trick a writing teacher taught us to do.

The key is making the characters different "enough"

5

To "imagine"? Sure. I do it all the time. No thought-crimes (yet).

The catch is that you would never be able to guess whom I used for visualization, not even if you knew me personally.

I do not write fantasy or sci-fi. Since my characters have real behavior and emotions, and do realistic things, how could I possibly avoid visualizing real people? I know what "Jane" would say or do in a certain situation; "Jane" is not unusual among people; so I will write my character to perform like the real "Jane" would do.

I do not need to describe "Jane." But if her cell phone rings, I know how long it will take for her to pull it out of her bag. I know whether she will look for caller ID. I know what she will say. When the call is done, I know what she will say to a bystander who could not avoid overhearing her.

"Jane" would not recognize the fictional character as being modeled after herself.

All that is very generic. But then, most people are very generic.

Not necessarily applicable to fantasy.

1

You seem to be worried about "defamation" which consists of publishing statements that are 1) false 2) reasonably (and wrongly) believed to be true) and 3) are "highly offensive" to a reasonable third party.

First, truth is a defense against "defamation" (although you can get into trouble on other grounds if you publish private facts like someone's social security number).

Second, labeling something as fiction is a defense, although an imperfect one, against people believing that it is, in fact, true. Basically, you have to avoid being so factual with part of your story that people believe that the rest is also factual.

The third, and perhaps most important issue, is that the target has to be defamed in the eyes of reasonable third parties. So something like Mr. X thinking, "I met with Virginia for two hours and I think she's describing me" doesn't constitute defamation. What would constitute defamation is someone going up to Mr. X and saying, "I'm not going to hire/do business/associate with you because of what I read about you in Virginia's book" (which happened to be untrue). No reasonable person would do this unless your book described Mr. X to a degree of "granularity" that it would make it practically impossible to believe that your character is anyone else.

And even the "defamation" has to pass the reasonable person test. A suit by a former beauty queen was thrown out because the book accused her of having sex while levitating in mid-air, a physical impossibility. In the late 1970s, a judge threw out a suit by someone being called a "bastard" by noting 1) the term was in common use and 2) one of out of every four Americans was then being born out of wedlock, meaning that someone could not reasonably be defamed by a term that accurately described that many people.

I am not a lawyer and am answering as a writer, and prospective juror.

1

I sure hope not... all my characters are 'inspired' by very real people I know. Even my stories contain real situations that I have been in or someone I know has been in.

And I am sure, no it is not illegal. If you have copied each and every bit of their personality, you can always give them credit and let them know. If they would have any objections, they would let you know. However, since you say you have met people for a couple of hours and they have inspired some characters in your story - then, dear friend, you cant know a person completely in a short time span. You may have reflected on the traits that you could capture but not all. So, I believe even if they read your work, they wont be able to identify that it is based on them.

Of course, there are so many characters that are based on real people. Even the same person can be an inspiration for multiple characters. It all depends on how the author pens down.

-1

The short answer is no, they cannot sue you. Unless you identify and libel that person.

Public figures have even less protection. Y'all know that Biff from Back to the Future is based on Donald Trump, right?

Corporations, registered trademarks, and fictional characters are the best protected. e.g. You couldn't use Superman or Kojak as a character. Nor can you portray a corporation is a negative light. e.g. "2026: Half the world's population had been wiped out due to decades of eating McDonalds" - That'd land you in deep s**t.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.