This made INTERN scratch her head. Is it really illegal to use a real person as a character? What if you show them as being charming and intelligent and irresistibly attractive? What if you do the old gender switcheroo, or dress them up as a Deaf-Mute Bong Salesman or a Costa Rican coffee farmer? Who decides what degree of character-snatching is OK and what degree is punishable with a $75,000 fine?
In her quest for answers, INTERN stumbled across this blog about Writing and the Law, wherein she found the following quote by first amendment expert R. Smolla:
When an author wants to draw from a real person as the basis for a fictional character, there are two relatively "safe" courses of action from a legal perspective: First, the author may make little or no attempt to disguise the character, but refrain from any defamatory and false embellishments on the character's conduct or personality; second, the author may engage in creative embellishments that reflect negatively on the character's reputation, but make substantial efforts to disguise the character . . . to avoid identification. When an author takes a middle ground, however, neither adhering perfectly to the person's attributes and behavior nor engaging in elaborate disguise, there is a threat of defamation liability.
Humph. Deaf-Mute Bong Salesman it is.
Beyond the legal issues surrounding character-snatching, INTERN has long been fascinated by the emotions that suspected character-snatching evokes in the character-snatchee. One of INTERN’s earliest writer-memories is her big sister warning her, on pain of extremely prolonged and excrutiating Indian Burns, that she must NEVER, EVER, EVER write about her in a fiction, non-fiction, diaristic, poetic or journalistic context (INTERN realizes that by writing this sentence she is coming dangerously close to breaking this ban—but then again, INTERN’s big sister didn’t specificallty forbid blogging.)
On the other end of the spectrum, there's the endless parade of tiresome strangers in bars and subways who upon finding out you are a Writer, flatter themselves to think that surely you will want to use their story in a book.
INTERN can’t help but wonder if people fall into two camps: there are those who have a primitive fear of being Novelized the way the proverbial Lost Tribe fears the soul-snatching camera, and those who would consider Novelization—even in a negative light—the ultimate victory.
There are all sorts of arguments both for and against using real people in novels and stories. For example: "Truman Capote did it!" versus "Truman Capote's friends never talked to him again!" Using real people as characters can be disastrous in all sorts of ways, but if writers weren't allowed to do it at all, we'd lose out on a lot of good literature.
So, writerlings, INTERN is curious to know: Have you ever based a fictional character on a real person? Did that person go on to kill, maim, sue, or date you? What's your policy on character-snatching? Has anyone ever falsely suspected you of snatching them? Have you ever suspected another writer of snatching you?