This past week, we had quite an interesting discussion in the cfwriterz admin house. A number of team members had written short stories containing real persons from all over the world. Some felt this could be a good strategy to get the audience engaged, others thought it could come up as grounds for major lawsuits. We were not too far from the truth.
In Meg Rosoff’s opinion (Tackling real-life characters in fiction is fine as long as you do it well), a little trouble could do no real damage; “Where would Shakespeare’s history plays be without the freedom to reinterpret historical figures? Though even the great man himself may have pulled a few punches with Henry VIII, written a mere 75 years after the king’s death. More recently, Alan Bennett did it in The Uncommon Reader, in which (the real, current) Queen Elizabeth discovers a mobile library parked outside the kitchens of Windsor castle. The Queen and I by Sue Townsend imagines a post-republican queen living in a council flat in the Midlands, while Townsend’s Queen Camilla posits … well, the title gives a lot away. Philip Roth rerouted the second world war in The Plot Against America, George Eliot brought Piero di Cosimo to life in Romola. Susan Sontag reinvented Lady Hamilton’s affair with Lord Nelson in The Volcano Lover, and Jeanette Winterson gave Napoleon a cook in The Passion.”
Chill! Don’t be in a hurry to Pen that Story.
As much as it’s always an exciting idea to introduce real people into your imaginary world, caution must be applied. There are a lot of people out their who don’t find your jokes amusing. The popular Nigerian relationship coach Toke Makinwa almost got dragged to court after writing “Unbecoming.” Hers was nonfiction and her ex-husband didn’t find his role in the stories fun.
Kathryn Goldman in “A Fiction Writer’s Guide to Using Real People in a Story” provides strong warnings against libel lawsuits and defamation. The article gives you an overview of all the trouble that could come from dabbling in writing that involves real people. Asides that self-publishers may struggle to rise from such lawsuits, you don’t want to struggle with all that emotional turmoil. It’s only advisable to follow this path if you have considered the cost or you have the express permissions of the people involved.
Finally, we must realize that stories may have real-life consequences on the lives of the characters used. In the movie “Bye Christopher Robin,” a Father writes a storybook starring his son as part of the book. This decision scarred the relationship between father and son as the unprecedented popularity exposed Christopher Robin to a lot of strange circumstances. Caution is adviced whichever choice you make.