Fact or Fiction: Is it OK to write about friends and family?

If I had one share of Amazon stock for every time I’ve been on the receiving end of some juicy news and thought to myself, “Now that would make for a good story,” I could write for free. I suppose it is the nature of fiction writers; we see situations–no matter what they may be–in terms of a good story. We’re always thinking: “what if.” Now this is not to say that we can’t be trusted with your most intimate secrets and such because we are not gossipers (at least not by the nature of the craft) but writing it out, helps us to figure it out. It is a necessary therapeutic action for dealing with and figuring out our world. But when does that cross the line? When do we have to pull back because the lives of our friends and relatives are being written in ink for the world to see…forever?

Several years ago I’d written a story which I loved and thought would be great material to be published. It was one of the first full-length novels I’d ever written. I gave it to a close friend of mine to read. She was in fact, my beta reader.  Sometime afterwards, she choked back tears and slowly handed it back to me. She stood silent. I couldn’t for the life understand it. She finally asked, “Why didn’t you tell me you were going to write about me? Not cool at all.” You?…huh…what? Was she kidding me? How full of yourself could you possibly…It was a character birthed through my imagination!

But at second glance I could see that subconsciously her life was an open book (pun intended) in my hands. Yikes. And it wasn’t pretty—provocative–but not pretty. I played around with it hoping for a neater, sanitized version, but it just didn’t work. The first draft came from a pure place. The second and third drafts were bedtime stories. And by this time the story had lost some of its chutzpa with the subject matter breathing down my throat in hopes of a more appealing character. It didn’t matter. I was done. I knew that I wasn’t willing to risk a friendship for a best-seller (one can hope). I wrestled with it and finally ended up storing it in the back of my closet. It may have eventually become scrap paper. As I said, we were and still are very close.

“It has to be permissible to draw on your real-life experiences. Otherwise, you can’t write fiction.” Martin Garbus, lawyer for Penguin USA.

A former lover of author Terry Mcmillan sued her for defamation in the 90’s, claiming he was the basis for the character Franklin Swift from her novel, Disappearing Acts. His $4.75 million dollar suit rang with bitter resentment over the “hostile, angry, lazy” way the character was portrayed. The suit was eventually dismissed. And considering the “chilling effect” it could have posed on writers, this was good thing. Chilling effect simply means that other writers may be dissuaded from using their rights to draw on personal experiences from which to write because of fear of legal sanctions. In other words, a verdict in favor of the “victim” could be very bad for free speech.

Thankfully the First Amendment gives us great leeway when it comes to expressing ourselves (lots of it). According to the law’s definition:  Libel requires a false and defamatory statement of fact “of and concerning” an identifiable living person (or business entity). Not only does it have to be about that person, it has to be false and defamatory.

The problem for writers often isn’t so much the law as it is a moral obligation. Who wants to loose friendships or create bad vibes with the people they love for the purpose of writing a killer novel? Often drawing on personal experiences make for the best stories but there are ways to get around it without it resulting in being shunned from family picnics and reunions or having friends bad mouth us on the sly on Facebook. Here are some tips:

  • Disguise the character beyond recognition. Keep the essence of the character. But change the ethnicity or location. If the real-life person is a college grad with a plethora of degrees, make your character a college drop-out who absolutely hates schools. Make it difficult for the person to say, “that’s me.”
  • Write a disclaimer. O.K. most of the time we do this anyway. But it does say to anyone who may be suspicious, “Hey, dude, not about you.”
  • Don’t defame. In other words, don’t paint the person in a bad light. Defamation is a necessary element in a libel suit. Brighten them up a bit and save the unsavory stuff for the other characters

We can never get away from writing about real life people—and who would want to? But simply keep in mind that we must tread lightly.

What are your thoughts? I love hearing from you.