Ever been tempted to use a real person in your fiction, as ‘therapy’? That bullying boss (I’ve had a few of those), that interfering mother-in-law, that lover who dumped you for your best friend? I bet, like me, you’ve thought about ridiculing them or ‘righting wrongs’ through a story, poem or screenplay. And you’re not alone.
Writer Richard Curtis (of ‘Blackadder’ and ‘Love Actually’ fame), has been doing it for years. There’s almost always a dopey character called Bernard in one of his films or sitcoms because when he was a student, Curtis’ girlfriend left him for a man of that name (now MP for North Essex, Bernard Jenkin).
Novelist Jilly Cooper waited twenty years to take revenge on Anne Chisholm, a biographer and critic who wrote an unfavourable review of her book,’Rivals’ and – perhaps even more unforgiveable, this – gave away the ending! Jilly responded by naming a character after Anne Chisholm in her latest blockbuster, ‘Jump’ – and the character, ‘Chisolm’(sic), just happens to be a goat.
Curtis gets away with his Bernard figures-of-fun because he’s only using a first name and most people wouldn’t make the link with the MP. It hardly counts as defamation of character. The ‘real’ Bernard even said, “It’s a wonderful thing to have been such a seminal influence on one of our most talented comedy writers.” So he’s hardly complaining.
And the same goes for critic Anne Chisholm, now immortalised as a goat in Jilly’s latest novel. Interviewed last month, Ms Chisholm seems to be enjoying her new-found fame. “All publicity is good publicity,” she quipped. “To be teased by Jilly Cooper will lift my internet profile for years to come.”
So Cooper and Curtis did their ‘naming-and-shaming’ with a light touch and got away with it. But you or I might not be so lucky. Basing a character on someone ‘real’ could get you into big trouble.
You might think your neighbour-from-hell will never open a woman’s magazine (can he even read?) but put him in your published short story and someone, somewhere, is bound to see it – and show him. And if he takes exception to your character-assassination, it could be more than his leylandii that you’ve got to worry about.
If someone recognises themselves as your (unflattering) fictional character, you might, at best, just lose a ‘friend’ (and you might not mind never speaking to Great Aunt Mildred again, anyway) but go too far and you could, at worst, be sued for libel. So be careful!
Have fun with your characters; go ahead and use mannerisms, ‘catchphrases’ and real-life incidents in your writing. But, tempting though it is, make sure any ‘real’ people you base your characters on are well-disguised (change their sex, any relationship they have to you, their profession, age – the whole shebang) and most definitely change their names!
You can still enjoy giving them their come-uppance and you’ll have the quiet satisfaction of knowing who they really are, but at the same time, you’ll be making sure that you stay out of hot water – and live to write another day!