A woman was awarded $100,000 because a character in a novel closely resembled her.
My first thought on reading the headline was, “Oh, goodness no–” because it would seem to open the doors to just about any kind of person walking in to a court and saying, “This person resembles me. Where’s my check?”
Having read the article, I’m not so sure. It appears that this person had a case, that her life really was the template for the author as she designed the character in the novel, and if that’s the case, I’m not sure.
Last year I posted about the t-shirt that said “Be careful or you’ll end up in my novel.” The truth is, I can’t do that. I find myself compelled to change characters if I find they’re coming too close to reality. When I did try to write a character who was someone I knew in real life, it poisoned the book because I didn’t like that person, and why would I want to spend time in fiction with someone I wouldn’t even want to spend time with over lunch?
While I’ll steal real incidents for my stories, I change them significantly enough that you couldn’t say anyone’s character got defamed. In Honest And For True, a lot of the auto repair stories are my own experiences (and when I needed a new one, you’ll recall, God gave it to me). I’m defaming my car. It’s not going to sue.
As writers, we’re tight-roping all the time. Readers need to feel they can identify with our characters, and so we simulate reality for the characters. Real people are real, so we use the gestalt reality for information. When I’m writing about a woman losing her best friend, the circumstances aren’t the same, and she isn’t me, but I’m drawing on the experience of losing my daughter, and that gives the character the backbone of reality.
Some situations are universals. E. A. Miller told me in a creative writing workshop, “The only four things worth writing about are love, sex, God and death.” And yet when you effectively paint one of your childhood friend’s sins across the sky, you’re responsible for her humiliation. We’d all like to think we made someone else’s life better when they read our story and find inspiration to improve their lives. $100,000 for their pain is the other side.