THE RISKS OF WRITING ABOUT REAL PEOPLE
A writers' group had an excellent meeting this week.
-Listening to others’ readings always triggers new ideas for me
- We discussed how to avoid causing offence to persons living or dead. We misanthropes, doing exactly this. Unfortunately, there are sound reasons for curbing our malevolent desires.
One contributor shared that ‘Writers have no friends.’ This is due to them describing real people and experiences, whether in novels or nonfiction.
Group members shared that:
- The living might sue. One person suggested that hitmen might avoid libelling the living. At least we hope he was joking.
- In some countries, even the families of the dead might litigate for damages to the family reputation. In Costa Rica, for example a defense that works elsewhere, veritas, (truth), is irrelevant. Even if true and already published in the media, damaging a person’s or company’s reputation can result in a criminal libel conviction and jail. Legal costs are normally substantial and defending oneself can be a lengthy distraction.
- Relatives of the dead might be mortally offended or upset. That might be jolly too, but if they are family members the writer might be shunned.
Ways of avoiding these problems were shared:
- The usual disclaimer that any resemblance of the characters to persons living or dead is just coincidence.
- Changing names, locations and other details (Difficult for non-fiction).
- Adding an unpalatable characteristic, so that no one would want to claim it was them. An example might be that the character had an amazingly tiny penis.
Consulting those you are writing about was considered a bad idea. They would be alerted to what you intend to publish and attack. They are likely to want to alter what is being said. One person was kind enough to point out that as so few read many of our books we need not worry.
My novels are based on real people and events. Genders and locations are changed. I also blend characters together.