WRITERS’ GUILT: a True Story

by Nancy Means Wright

     In the late eighties I published a memoir in which I mentioned, by name, more than a dozen people who had been part of my life. I unabashedly used their real names–in many cases without prior consent or written permission.  Was I daft–or just naive, stupid, thoughtless? Just because I treated them “lovingly” as I wrote in the forward, did that make it all right?  As it happened, no one sued me, and the book, brought out by small press Down East Books, was a local bestseller because everyone in town,  it seemed, hoped s/he might be in it.

     And true, there are people who love to be mentioned in a book, and who enter contests to have their name used. This has happened to me–it was fun! Although it has now and then backfired, I understand, by an author who, for example, planted the name on a prostitute or serial killer.

     Perhaps the innocence of my memoir encouraged me to use real people off and on in my mysteries, which I began writing in the nineties. My farmer sleuth had three children, so of course I modelled them on my own four, adding myself, memory, and a bit of exaggeration. Don’t we all do this to some extent? Perhaps not. I’ve met writers who insist that their work is pure fiction, and truly, as we announce in our disclaimers, it is “only coincidence” if the character replicates a real person. 

     For myself though, I can’t quite buy that. I’m amazed at how many novelists–if not writing a roman a clef, have at least based some of the characters on living persons. Rowling, for example, patterned Severus Snape on a former teacher.  Joyce’s wife Nora became the infamous Molly Bloom, and Kerouac wrote several friends into On the Road.  How otherwise would a character be well rounded, true to life, if not based on human quirks and foibles?

     All this has been haunting me recently because of a new work of mystery fiction in which I used the name and appearance of one person only–and this with permission. The man, proprietor of a coffeeshop in which I set a scene, was pleased. Then to my surprise, an acquaintance of mine, whom I respect, read the book and was “surprised,” even shocked to find people she ‘knew” in it. The coffeehouse owner, yes, but also a rather lovable character I called Stormy–named after a psychic my daughters had once consulted, by phone, for help with their love lives. My fictional “Stormy” was actually suggested by a psychic who spoke at a Virginia  Book ‘Em festival, and whose visions had helped the local police. And who wrote a book which I read–and then, alas, lost in a major house move.

     Yet “Stormy,” my friend insisted, was unmistakably modelled after a local Vermont woman, K, who before she (recently) died, wrote a horoscope column. Apparently I had captured her exactly: appearance, manner of speech, chocolate addiction, visions.

     Yet I had never met this woman! Had never heard her speak–had only read her columns now and again, and didn’t realize she was also a psychic!  Had I known, I’d never have described her exactly as she was. Moreover, my friend inferred, no one would believe me since I had already written another real person (the cafe owner) into the book. I was truly devastated.  

     I’ve since heard from other writers with similar experiences, and a non-writer friend suggested to me that K, poor woman, might be “channeling” through me.  Does that make me feel better? A little, although I’m a rationalist. And for some reason I still have a measure of “guilt.” The guilt I felt when I modelled characters on my own offspring (never mind they’ve written me into embarrassing stories!).  The guilt I felt for spending hours at my writing desk when I should have been mothering.  

     I felt a little better to read in a 6/30 Sunday Times Book Review essay that reporter-thriller writer Alex Berenson  uses the names of former Times colleagues in his novels. “People seem to enjoy being mentioned,” he allowed, “and nobody has complained yet.”

     Yet.  Well, copies of my book are in the local bookshop. And the publisher let hundreds of e-copies go free in a recent promo. There is the usual disclaimer, of course, in the front matter. Yet now I have the shakes whenever my phone rings. And I think of bestseller Neil Gaiman’s fears that “the first problem of …even limited success (for a writer) is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you.”

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18 Responses

  1. Hi, Nancy,

    I have never used the name of a real person in any work of fiction that I’ve written. I’m simply uneasy about it. I fear law suits. But it seems to be working out all right for you. I think as long as you get prior permission from that person there’s no problem.

    • Thanks, Jacquie. You’re wise not to use one. What’s unusual for me is to have a reader think that a fictional character I’ve created is a real person!

  2. Names concern me also. Likenesses to real people concern me. As a journalist I am very careful about permissions and accuracy. I write fiction and though some characters may “resemble” known people, they do not have the same names and they are composites. Thus, if someone complains (which they have) I can point out how we all have characteristics that resemble each other. It’s a little like sitting in church and knowing the sermon is directed at me – of course it isn’t; however, a talented speaker or writer has the knack for listener or reader to feel it was all about them or for them. I change the sex, add family, change the location and in Ghost Orchid, Neev, the Irish model was fashioned from the characteristics of two other invented characters so that she could be their daughter, That’s the fun part of writing – making people you know into people you wish they were! dkchristi.com author of Ghost Orchid and more…

    • I like your analogy of sitting in church, D.K.,thinking the sermon directed at you. How true. And that’s what the minister wants a listener to think! I make changes too, when I more or less model a character on a real person. This time I was stunned since I’d never known the person my friend was ‘sure” I’d portrayed . But as you say, “we all have characteristics that resemble each other.” I think of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution… where we all come from.

  3. Nancy, I agree with the other comments; however, friends who know me well always comment they can see me throughout the work. So, I believe that even though we may not mean to identify characters, they have a mind of their own and want to be identified. Our subconscious makes it happen!

    • Very interesting comment, Betty! Similar, perhaps, to the person who thought my psychic was channeling through me! Well, who’s to say she wasn’t?

  4. Amazing how people know what YOU are thinking when writing. Interesting blog and helpful.

    • The whole process of writing, Leigh, is a mystery to me. I guess we all tune into the “great unconscious”–whatever that may be!

  5. Thanks to being a member of DorothyL, my name, John Bohnert, is in eleven crime fiction books. I told the authors that I could be any kind of character they want. I’m an FBI agent, a mine owner, a killer, a chef, and other characters. I’m honored and flattered to be in their books.

    • Ah yes, I know you from Dorothy L, John! And thanks for the offer of your name. And such a variety of skills: killer and chef–interesting juxtaposition! Just so I don’t make you a congressman with a name similar to yours? Seriously, I appreciate your openness and sense of the absurd.

  6. A friend once offered me a clue to a mystery I was having trouble solving. He said I could use it if I also used his name. That was fine–until the character I named after him started having romantic interludes with a character partially modeled on a former co-worker. Totally too icky. So I renamed the character, gave the friend’s name to someone else, and redirected the romance. Whew!

    • In the nick of time, ha! The character, of course, has a mind of his own once you’ve created him –I think of Shelley’s volatile Frankenstein. Thanks for the great anecdote, Nikki.

  7. Nancy, in my first (unpublished) book, I based the murder victim on someone I knew from town. Not that his personality was similar, but I pictured the character looking very much like this man. Now this was not someone I ran into often, but one day after the book was completed, there he was walking toward me down the supermarket aisle. My first shocked thought was: Oh my god, he’s supposed to be dead! I’m not sure how this relates to your post, except to say that our characters can become more real to us than the people who inspire them.

    • Ye gods, Anita–what a story! There are personality types of course, and lookalikes–I’m amazed how many keep cropping up. And you’re so right about our characters becoming real to us. We never really finish a book–it just lingers on, and the ghostly characters return in our dreams.

  8. Nancy,
    While the disclaimer should protect the writer legally, it won’t prevent a disgruntled party from suing. As one writer recommended, “If your subject is slender and Caucasian, in the book make him fat and Chinese.” When cutting close to the bone in fictional situations where I’m modeling characters on real people, I’ve tried to do this. An aggrieved party would have to prove in court that your character really resembles the living person, despite the name change, and that you meant that person. As to Stormy, since she was dead and not suing, the complainer has no standing in court, since she can’t prove to have suffered any personal damage.

    I’m dealing with the inverse issue in my new biographical fiction work, Radio. It’s fiction, but it’s based on a true story and I’m trying to be as accurate about the deceased characters (my parents) as I can be, warts and all. Voltaire said, in “Premiere Lettre sur Œdipe,” 1719: “To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.” While my novel reveals traits and actions many would consider uncomplimentary, the characters ultimately redeem themselves..

    • Excellent advice, Peter. I made my psychic fat and jolly because I was thinking of the svelte, chic psychic I’d met in Virginia. But lo! it turns out I’d described the Vermont psychic to a T! You never know… And thanks for the Voltaire quote. For my 18th-century novels, filled with real but dead people, I do feel I owe them the truth. Yet who knows what the “truth” was? I’ll look forward to RADIO.

  9. Nancy: I had a similar experience with my Heinrich Guterman in EAGLEBAIT. A friend approached me and said, “I didn’t know you had met my old boss, Mr. Noname. He IS Heinrich Guterman, isn’t he? He looks like your character, has the same accent, acts like him and even got in trouble the same way.” Of course, I had never met her boss. Guterman was, if anything, based on one of my college profs. I think it’s a natural reaction for readers. Thanks for a thought-provoking blog!

    • Thanks for adding your great story, Susan. Exactly like my own experience! I expect this happens to more writers than we realize. I’ve discovered, too, that people don’t see themselves as others perceive them. Nor do any of us see a particular person in the same way. And of course, as writers who try to become our characters, we hope we see more deeply into human nature than the average person. Do we? I don’t know.

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