Reality is stranger than anything I could write. This is why I write fiction—I put reality into more palatable chunks so I can digest it better.
Drawing on the real world to help design the unreal is where good world building comes into play. However, we shouldn’t use the real names and exact situations of people we are acquainted with in our work. Don’t thinly disguise them with a different name—they can sue us.
Consider the late Betty MacDonald, whose first published book was picked up by J.B. Lippincott. The Egg and I is a fictionalized account of Betty’s life as a chicken farmer. It was set in Chimacum, a small community in rural Washington State. The book was a success, selling well over a million copies and spinning off several movie adaptations.
It also spun off several lawsuits for defamation of character. Although the book was a critical and popular success at publication, in the 1970s it fell into disfavor because of the clichéd treatment and lack of understanding of the culture of our local Native people. The book did give rise to a perception of Washington State as a place full of eccentrics.
We are different, but every part of the country has its oddballs.
Following the success of the book and film, lawsuits were filed by members of the Chimacum community. They claimed that characters in The Egg and I had been based on them, and that they had been identified in their community as the real-life versions of those characters, subjecting them to ridicule and humiliation. The family of Albert and Susanna Bishop claimed they had been negatively portrayed as the Kettles. Their oldest son Edward and his wife Ilah Bishop filed the first lawsuit, which was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
The second lawsuit was filed against MacDonald, publisher J. B. Lippincott Company, and The Bon Marché (a Seattle department store which had promoted and distributed the book) for total damages of $975,000, as sought by nine other members of the Bishop family ($100,000 each) and Raymond H. Johnson ($75,000), who claimed he had been portrayed as the Indian “Crowbar.” The case was heard before a jury in Judge William J. Willkins’ (who was also one of the presiding judges at the Nuremberg Trials) courtroom in King County Superior Court beginning February 6, 1951. MacDonald testified that the characters in her book were composite sketches of various people she had met. The defense produced evidence that the Bishop family had actually been trying to profit from the fame the book and movie had brought them, including testimony that son Walter Bishop had had his father Albert appear onstage at his Belfair, Washington, dance hall with chickens under his arm, introducing him as “Pa Kettle.” On February 10, 1951, the jury decided in favor of the defendants.
Some ideas will come to us from real life, but if we are writing fiction, we must never detail people too closely. If you become a success, some people may see that as their ticket to a little extra money at your expense. This, despite the disclaimer we put on the copyright page:
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or deceased, is entirely coincidental.
We can and will, however, draw impressions from them.
A common “coffee shop” game is a good way to develop characters for your stories and won’t get you sued. When you go to a coffee shop that you don’t normally frequent, sit and watch your fellow patrons. Observe their behavior, their speech habits and unconscious mannerisms. It’s easy to imagine who they might be and build a whole fantasy about them.
That character sketch is the kernel that can be the start of a short story or even a novel–and all of it is fiction.
You don’t actually know a thing about them other than they like a Double Tall Vanilla Soy Latte with cinnamon sprinkles. The idiosyncrasies you see in strangers will give rise to a character you can use without risking your financial security and your reputation.
Credits and Attributions:
Wikipedia contributors, “The Egg and I,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Egg_and_I&oldid=878829393 (accessed February 20, 2019).