Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Perils of Writing Who You Know

Kathryn Page Camp

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.
Still, many of us do write who we know. Are you working on a memoir? Or writing one of those personal experience articles that keep Reader's Digest and Guideposts in business?
That's fine as long as you keep it truthful. But telling the literal truth isn't good enough. "Uncle Charlie sleeps around" may be true if he travels a lot, but that won't be how readers interpret the statement. So unless you are looking for a defamation lawsuit or an excuse to avoid family gatherings, watch your words.
Even fiction writers tend to 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.
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, that 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 with many of the same characteristics as Andrew's older brother, Daniel. But the fictional parts portrayed the older brother as a cold-hearted traitor. So Daniel sued for defamation, and the entire family took sides.
A federal appeals court held that Daniel had the right to try the case. The similarities were strong enough to let a jury decide whether readers would identify the fictional brother with the real one.*
I don't know how the story ended. Jury verdicts and settled cases rarely result in written decisions, and I couldn't find any newspaper articles about the outcome. 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.
So if you want to write about real people and situations in your fiction, 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.
* Fetler v. Houghton Mifflin Co., 364 F.2d 650 (2nd Cir. 1966).

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