Fiction is Fiction, Right?

by Gina Burgess

Well apparently it isn’t. In a newspaper story, echoed by a Vanity Fair story, a few years ago

We are often told we need to think of a real person while we are developing characters so that our fictional characters will be authentic. This suit brings it home and makes it clear that it might be possible to develop a character too close to the truth. So close that we could be sued.

17 thoughts on “Fiction is Fiction, Right?”

  1. Good job. Tough question. I think everyone has a mix of traits in their personality. As a writer, I don’t think I could totally capture someone’s personality and make them a character in my book. We do have to be mindful of privacy and make changes to our characters so that they aren’t automatically recognizable.

    1. Good point, Jann. I don’t know that I could capture someone’s exact personality — but I really could capture their speech patterns and mannerisms. But even with those, it might be possible to recognize a person. I don’t think a creator should be worried about lawsuits because we’ve got comedians who copy all kinds of people without that fear.

    2. I am glad the judge threw out the lawsuit, but citing the statute of limitations was not a helpful precedent. People have sued authors over biographical (nonfiction) depictions and lost. Since no one makes up a character out of whole cloth (virtually all novels have biographical elements), to even entertain such a lawsuit could have a chilling effect on fiction publishing.

  2. This might not be helpful but I observed long ago that some people seem to kick up a fuss in order to get some reflected limelight. Maybe they are jealous that someone they know became so famous. It was some of the comments on the Grapes of Wrath that caused me to come to that opinion. Personally, I wouldn’t mind a bit of that problem. Then at least I would know my books were being read!

  3. Yes, my fictional characters are my imaginary mergings and extensions of people of my own experience, often they are reflections of me. My hope is that they express our common humanity with enough realism to be recognizable by readers in people they know and still so divergent in details no one would or could say, “he put me in that story.” General truism of writing, “we write what we know,” so in that sense I do know my characters but as composites of my observation of humanity through the people who have crossed my path over the years.

  4. The most interesting person in my life – could never compare to one of my characters – simply because real people, like all of us, can be very dull at times. But this is certainly a fascinating development and worthy of a writer’s full attention. Thanks for bringing the issue to the forefront.

  5. There will always be characters in our writings once scrutinized long and hard enough, could be recognizable in almost anyone. This doesn’t mean he or she is the person in the story, just that they have the same traits and mannerisms. If the character is someone to be admired, there will be thousands claiming that it has to surely be them, and tell everyone they know about it. However, if the character is a lowdown so-an-so, that’s a different story. Once identifying with the character they will either become silent about it, or decide to take it to court, demanding that they receive compensations. Only proving one thing to the world, that they are as lowdown as what is in the book.

  6. I borrow from everyone I meet. All the little quirks and mannerisms find their way into what I write, whether I intend it consciously or not. I’ve been told I create some truly memorable characters. Maybe that’s why.

  7. I think it would be hard to specifically identify yourself just based on the personality. For example, in my most recent novel, I drew on several inspirations of several people. In my head, I know who they are, but there’s nothing so broadly defined that they are easily recognizable, even the a-holes. I mean, no one is going to look at it and say “Hey, I’m an a-hole! And that character sounds like me!” There are plenty of people with the same personality traits that it’s hard to be able to say “that only applies to me and no one else.”

  8. Interesting turnaround for the article…In only one instance, while reading thousands of books, have I identified a character…and it was a television character, created and used by the author with the knowledge of that character… In fact, the author had explained that she grew up watching a television program and those characters had become her hero…I just guessed the correct TV program. My point is, characters rarely are remembered based upon recognizing the character from real life…mostly we work to “know” the character that has been created and whether we like or hate that individual…LOL I think it is ironic that someone would sue, based upon acknowledging that the character was them…given the subject matter and knowing how most of us feel about racial prejudice… It could be fun going into court just so that the public would learn that a woman saw herself as one of the, no matter how you could say it, slave owners (even though paid)…or am I being too flip in making fun of the person suing…? If so, sorry…

  9. I read the book and watched the movie. I spent part of a summer in the late 1950s in Mississippi at my aunt’s. She was not a junior leaguer. I am now aware that there were some in the area that could have been. The book and the movie did bring out the harsh treatment of the monied class toward those who were employed by them. My question to the group is this: Is not ALL fiction based on a true fact or event that affected someone? Except for fantasy, and those stories set in the future, isn’t there a thread of actuality woven into these tales we read?

  10. I was told a horror story about a former newspaper editor. She published an informative piece about child abuse in the classroom, citing “Mrs. Smith’s” mistreatment of “Johnny” as an example. Problem is, she left out the disclaimer that the characters did not portray real people. In that small city, there was a real “Mrs. Smith” with a real “Johnny” in her class, and the story was read as news!

  11. I read the book, “Help.” It saddened me – but on the other hand, it was the way it was. It is important to tell those stories so that the next generation knows and, maybe learns from it. Just think of the famous “Scarlet” character in “Gone with the Wind” – how she loved and trusted her “black mommy” more than her own mother. If we write a memoir, a racial story, a political story or write about abuse, we are supposed to use “political correctness” – forget what really happened, forget history, forget the truth as it happened. Gloss over what happened? It makes me sick. Create characters that just “fit in” but are totally imaginative? Not recognizable by anyone? Many people wrote to me after my memoir came out, telling me similar stories. It proves the point of this ongoing conversation: Many people lived the same stories, many recognize themselves or can place themselves in the heroines’ shoes.

    1. Too often TV and movies portray the South as riddled with prejudice, and in certain minds, I guess it was. But the normal interactions were without racial tensions. In the news as well as in current history books–If it bleeds, it leads, is the norm. Truly, there was more prejudice between the well-to-do and the poorer people than between whites and blacks in the South. The horror stories (just like with the wicked plantation owners beating their slaves) got much more attention and made it seem like it was the norm, but it was truly out of context. In the state of Alabama, there were more Negro slave owners than white slave owners!

      Maybe I’m getting off track here, but it is one reason why I hesitate to read historical fiction. Too often the author gets the history part wrong, or takes great license with dates or with famous, historical people by putting words in their mouths that they’d never say having no regard to their character or what they did just for the sake of the story. And then they ask forgiveness at the end of the book. I guess, I’m too much of a realist to forgive that kind of license.

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